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Law must keep pace with changing terrorist tactics

By Pan Xinrui | 2016-01-28 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A poster that calls for concerted efforts to combat terrorism


Urban terrorism is the basic modus operandi for attacks in China and other countries. The experiences and lessons of European countries and America could guide the development of China’s counterterrorism tactics.


Four principles
Counterterrorism policy develops and matures with every terrorist attack. Francis Taylor, the US coordinator for counterterrorism from 2001 to 2002, expounded upon the four principles of the American counterterrorism strategy in the press conference in New Delhi, India: The government does not negotiate with terrorists, terrorists must be brought to justice, states that sponsor terrorism must be isolated, and the United States must bolster the counterterrorism capabilities of its allies as well as any countries that require assistance fighting terrorism.

These principles have become the cornerstone of the country’s counterterrorism policy. After the Sept. 11 attacks, US counterterrorism policy changed through the implementation of such measures as the Patriot Act, which was signed into law only months later. The government still faces the dilemma of balancing human rights protection and counterterrorism efforts. The Patriot Act grants greater powers to law enforcement and the country’s judiciary at the expense of privacy, such as the authority to intercept communications.

While implementing its counterterrorism strategy, the US government started to realize that it was not enough to reform national-level bodies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security. Local police departments would also need to be reorganized to better support federal counterterrorism efforts. Therefore, in cities with dense populations, the police departments started to establish special counterterrorism departments and intelligence centers. For example, in 2006, the Los Angeles Police Department became the first municipal department in the United States to set up a Joint Regional Intelligence Center. As a major target for terrorists, New York city established the New York State Police Office of Counterterrorism on the basis of an urban policy that treats local law enforcement as the first line of defense against terrorism.


Weaknesses remain
Though great strides have been made, urban counterterrorism is not flawless in the United States. The shortcomings of counterterrorism work can be readily exploited by terrorists.

The fact that the bombing of the Boston Marathon occurred in such a big city exposes the deficiencies of its counterterrorism efforts. As the US government and counterterrorism specialists pointed out, the bombing revealed the flaws in the US counterterrorism, but these defects are hard to overcome. Terrorists usually disguise their identities so that the police are not able to identify them. Materials that are used to create improvised explosives are easily obtainable, and terrorist activities usually occur in unpredictable places where people congregate but security forces are dispersed.

The intelligence and judiciary departments of the US each year track thousands of leads pertaining to terrorism that reveal patterns. For example, terrorist attacks usually target major public activities, such as the presidential inauguration and sports championships.

As counterterrorism efforts become more sophisticated, terrorists adjust their tactics accordingly, such as choosing places that the police regard as unlikely targets. One example is “lone-wolf” terrorism in which individual violent acts are undertaken outside a command structure. Because this type of terrorism is quite covert and random, investigators and the police have a harder time preventing it. Therefore, the cooperation between each department—especially between information offices—is important. At the places that are potential major terrorism targets, the police need to work efficiently to get up-to-date information to follow how the events develop and tackle the problems that arise. By this means, the threat of terrorism can be eradicated in its infancy.

In addition to those in the international metropolises like Los Angeles, New York, Boson and Washington, the police departments in most cities provide counterterrorism and security information to the public, sometimes working together with the FBI. However, because of contradictions of the federal system, some American cities are reluctant to cooperate, out of consideration for the harmony of the local population.

In the US, a country of immigrants where multiracial communities coexist, the very appearance of bias in law enforcement might elicit a strong response from politicians, especially when locals show their opposition. The local government tends to respect the will of its own people rather than cooperate with the FBI. Another reason is that local police care more about other violent crimes than terrorism because other crimes occur more frequently, presenting a more visible and immediate danger to public safety. Over time, the police lose a sense of alertness to the threat of terrorism. Furthermore, local governments also pay more attention to public safety and therefore would not put much pressure on their police to be involved in counterterrorism. This lack of coordination between local and federal authorities tends to weaken counterterrorism in the US. The creation of an effective deterrent to terrorism requires the concerted efforts and effective collaboration from different departments and regions as well as the support from both ordinary people and leaders on all levels.


China’s counterterrorism law
China’s top legislature adopted the country’s first counterterrorism law on Dec. 27 last year and the law went into effect on the first day of the year. Today, there is an urgent need to promulgate counterterrorism laws.


First, the increasingly pressing issue of global terrorism needs more coordination across departments. The establishment of the National Security Commission of the Communist Party of China (CPC) provides an authoritative platform for Chinese counterterrorism. The commission is a uniform leadership body capable of guiding and coordinating among different aspects of counterterrorism, such as communication, transportation, public security and military. And the counterterrorism law is instrumental for integrating resources among different departments.

Second, the counterterrorism law serves as the bedrock of China’s counterterrorism strategy, which requires both a quick reaction from the national bodies to the violent events as well as a legal mechanism for regulating and normalizing counterterrorism. One of the key ways to make full use of national bodies is to empower the officials. In this light, the law is the basis on which the departments related to counterterrorism are authorized, which helps to more effectively remove the potential menace.

Third, the counterterrorism law helps further define counterterrorism activities. The way that terrorism comes into being and evolves decides the complexity of definitions. Therefore, it is crucial to distinguish terrorism from violent crimes and mass disturbances to fight against terror in a more precise way. The terms “terrorist,” “terrorist crime” and “terrorist organization” also need to be further defined and specified.

Fourth, China’s counterterrorism law will bring the nation more in line with the international community and help it counter the double standards adopted by international counterterrorism. For example, the Country Reports on Terrorism 2013 released by the US Department of State Publication Bureau of Counterterrorism on April 2014 refused to define the explosions on the ornamental bridge in Tiananmen Square as a terrorist attack. 

Generally, the counterterrorism law is comprehensive in terms of covering the emergency response to terrorist attacks, border check, information analysis, restriction on the civil rights of terrorists and other legal measures. In addition, the criminal code should be further enhanced apart from the exclusive counterterrorism law. The criminal code and penalty should be defined more concretely in terms of cross-border efforts to combat terrorism. For those terrorist crimes in public transportation hubs and other politically important regions, the penalty should be more severe. And for those actions that are meant to incite national resentment and sabotage national unity, the penalties should conform to the international penal code to facilitate cross-border cooperation.


Pan Xinrui is a professor from Michigan State University College of Law.