Post by Rowena Moffatt, DPhil candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of Oxford. Her research examines procedural protection in migration law. She was called to the Bar of England and Wales in 2009 and maintains a practice in immigration and asylum law. Rowena is on Twitter @RowenaMoffatt.

Review of Traces of Terror: Counter-Terrorism Law, Policing and Race by Victoria Sentas (Oxford University Press, 2014).

That there has been a proliferation of counter-terrorism legislation since the epoch-shaping terrorist events of 2001 is well known. In tandem with legislative developments, counter-terrorism law and policing has formed the subject of intense media coverage and legal scholarship. However, the effect of counter-terrorism law and policy on race is less well explored. Victoria Sentas’ book Traces of Terror: Counter-Terrorism Law, Policing, and Race seeks to plug that gap.

Sentas’ book focuses on counter-terrorism law and policing practices in Australia. The book examines legislation, case law, and state and commonwealth policy between 2001-2009. In addition, Sentas’ fieldwork, spanning five years between 2005-2010, is based on interviews conducted in the state of Victoria (home to one quarter of Australia’s population).

The interviews were conducted with both Victoria police and community representatives, that is, individuals who had experienced counter-terrorism policing. The focus of Traces of Terror is expressly on law and policing. Sentas is astute to the limits of the law in the area of counter-terrorism and the book examines state power not just in regulating social relations but also as a social relation itself.

The book’s central thesis is that counter-terrorism law and policing reflect and create a ‘common sense’ both that Muslims and targeted ethnic minorities (those considered in the book are Turkish Kurds, Somalis and Tamils) are ‘its proper subjects and should be policed’ (p. 5) but also that they should be policed democratically and without discrimination. However, whilst disavowing biological racism based on ideas of racial inferiority, counter-terrorism law and policing regenerate structures and effects of race and racism anew.

The ‘common sense’ referred to by Sentas is based on Antonio’s Gramsci’s analysis of hegemonic social relations. As employed by Sentas, common sense describes the ‘taken-for-granted ideas’ and the everyday ways in which the conditions of society are lived’ (p. 24). It is not, therefore, political discourse but it sustains dominant social relations and the status quo.

The book’s central thesis is supported by an exposition of four processes whereby the ‘common sense’ that counter-terrorism is for Muslims and targeted ethnicities is entrenched. These are: (1) categorisation: the process by which counter-terrorism law and policing identify and categorise the subjects of policing by reference to religion and ethnicity; (2) normalisation: the creation of the ‘common sense’ that counter-terrorism should be for these groups through repetitious actions; (3) racelessness and non-discrimination: the dominance in the law and policing of counter-terrorism of discourses of race-neutrality and anti-discrimination; and (4) the dialectic effects of state power: the saturation of the law and policing of counter-terrorism with the inter-relations between consent and coercion and exclusion and inclusion.

Thus, Traces of Terror underlines the paradox that race is not ‘referenced’ by counter-terrorism law and policing in that explicitly racist practices (such as racial profiling) are repudiated yet, race remains central to them. In this respect Sentas aims to challenge the consensus that law is impervious to race or that ‘there are no operative racial categories in law’ (p. 6) and to animate a debate in criminological and socio-legal study of counter-terrorism about the conceptual downplaying of race.

The argument spans seven chapters. The first two provide an overview of the conceptual framework and set out Sentas’ methodology. The following chapters analyse the source material by reference to this framework. Chapter 3 considers the role of law in identifying belief, identity and being as indicative of criminality. This is primarily achieved through statutory definitions of terrorism and its application by courts. The chapter uses the case study of the prosecution of Faheem Lodhi (an Australian citizen of Pakistani origin accused of plotting to bomb the national electricity grid and/or Sydney defence sites, was convicted of terrorism offences by the Supreme Court of New South Wales) to demonstrate how a motive of violent jihad (rather than violent actions themselves) secures criminal responsibility.

In chapters 4 to 6, the focus shifts away from law to policing. Chapters 4 and 5 consider policing at the level of policy and chapter 6 examines informal questioning as a specific incident of policing. The subject matter of Chapter 4 is the police work of ‘counter-radicalization’ (rather than racial profiling which is seen as discriminatory). It describes the ‘soft’ processes of community engagement (know, understand, be trusted) through which police identify the Muslim extremist. This is continued in Chapter 5 which focuses on community policing and examines the role of social cohesion in counter-terrorism policing, in other words, requiring Muslims to participate in society by consenting to being policed. Chapter 6 then analyses the impacts of informal police questioning on those policed. It argues that being questioned ‘ by consent’ is the most prevalent strategy of counter terrorism policing.  With a focus on case studies from Sentas’ interviews, subjects of questioning ‘by consent’ talk about consensual policing as being in fact coercive in effect. This, in turn, creates ‘suspect communities’ as Islamic and ethnic minority communities are policed differently from the general populace.

The focus of Chapter 7 remains on policing but turns to the effects on diaspora communities of their designation as terrorist organisations. The case studies of Kurdish and Tamil diasporas is employed to argue that this policing practice excludes and further marginalises minority communities. The final chapter reflects more broadly on the relevance of the arguments made in Traces of Terror for the three inter-connected themes of criminalisation, suspect community and national belonging which preoccupy thinking about counter-terrorism in criminology and sociology.

Sentas is clear that it is not her aim to provide recommendations on how to make counter-terrorism law less racist. Rather, her work exposes paradoxes underlying counter-terrorism law and policing. The common sense that counter-terrorism is for Muslims and targeted ethnic communities is only viable because it is understood as democratic, race-neutral and consensual. Yet, if Sentas’s thesis is correct, race pervades counter-terrorism law and policing and communitarian strategies may be more coercive than the common sense is prepared to admit. Sentas recognises that the study is limited: it is geographically bounded, contains a limited sample of interviews, and does not consider transnational law and policing mechanisms, yet, her thesis is an important one for the nature of the claim it makes and Traces of Terror is a significant addition to an under-scrutinised aspect of counter-terrorism.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Moffatt, R. (2015) Book Review: Traces of Terror: Counter-Terrorism Law, Policing, and Race. Available at: (Accessed [date]).