Collaboration in the fight against terrorism and crime can be improved

Krachtig lerende netwerken
Foto: John Towner en Unsplash

Tackling complex issues such as terrorism and crime requires strong learning networks. National policymakers, local practitioners in security, care, education and science are already working together - each from their own perspective. But their cooperation can be improved. Commissioned by WODC, at the request of the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV) and the Ministry of Justice and Security, Utrecht University carried out research into how organisations collaborate on the basis of the 'integral approach' to terrorism and crime. 

The researchers, led by Prof. Mirko Noordegraaf and Dr. Leonie Heres (Utrecht University School of Governance, USG), conclude that cooperation is not self-evident. In the research report Krachtig lerende netwerken (Powerful learning networks), they present ten concrete recommendations: 'There are obstacles and boundaries, there are tensions, but there is also room for improvement. This makes it necessary to focus on cooperation and learning in a well-considered and focused way. Interorganisational collaboration must be made more attractive'.

The researchers advocate, among other things, that the organisations involved pay more attention to what their professionals need in order to actually look beyond the borders and interests of their own organisations. In addition, a common language in which all organisations recognise their own interests could contribute to strengthening their involvement. And by continuing to reflect on how the collaboration is going, to learn lessons from it for participating organisations themselves, you can increase the learning capacity. The report Krachtig lerende netwerken (Powerful learning networks) presents a total of ten such recommendations for strengthening learning capacity and collaboration - which will benefit the powerful approach to terrorism and crime.

Effective action requires purpose, legitimacy and robustness

The ability to take effective action against terrorism and crime depends on cooperation across the boundaries of organisations, from organisations in education to police, from youth welfare to ideology experts, according to the researchers in the report. However: 'Collaboration is more than putting organisations together for consultation and trying to include partners in policy,' says Leonie Heres, executive project leader. ‘It's about finding ways to really bring together the different perspectives, goals and interests of the organisations involved in a shared idea about the approach. And that, as a professional, you really know how to link the knowledge and expertise of other partners to your own insights and way of working'.

Collaboration is more than putting organisations together for a discussion and trying to include partners in the policy.

Leonie Heres

Flexible interorganisational collaboration and learning are not self-evident, due to ambiguity in content, lack of purpose, varying priorities, differences in working methods and cultures, declining attention and limited time and capacity, for example. In addition, legal objectives, tasks, responsibilities and powers set limits to the concentration of power and information - including for the protection of citizens.

Effective action against crime and terrorism requires cooperation between organisations that has purpose, is legitimate and robust. Purposefulness of all partners involved in the collaboration to achieve the common objectives. Legitimacy in supporting the collaboration of all necessary and relevant partners. And robustness in having all partners ready with the required knowledge, contacts, capacity and manpower to intervene, even in dynamic circumstances - such as sudden changes in the threat.

This also requires continuous learning: about the problem and the approach, but also about cooperation and one's own organisation. But that is not easy, says Heres: 'Professionals sometimes see with sad eyes how their organisations, after a successfully built up collaboration, and after years of investment, fall back into old patterns and systems in the long run. For example, when after the murder of lawyer Wiersum, capacity was quite suddenly taken away from the police organisation in all sorts of directions because it was needed for the security of individuals. That's understandable, but it also leaves holes in the organisation's learning capacity because experience, expertise and networks leak out in this way'.

Working together: obstacles and tensions, boundaries and room for improvement

The researchers conclude that the effective and efficient fight against (the threat of) terrorism can be improved - by drawing lessons from the collaboration between the partner organisations. Collaboration is always tense and limited. Therefore, in addition to tackling crime and terrorism in terms of content, you should also regularly devote time and attention to cooperation and learning through and about that collaboration itself'.

Where police and security services talk about radicalisation, care partners may see it more in terms of worrying behaviour.

Leonie Heres

Heres explains: Collaboration goes well on a day to day basis, but there is also room for improvement. In language and jargon, for example, the security domain is sometimes quite dominant. But where the police and security services talk about radicalisation, care partners are more likely to see it in terms of worrying behaviour. Bridging the 'language differences' between the various partners, by making more of a connection in the language between all the different perspectives, really creates a more integrated approach in which all partners recognise themselves and feel connected to each other. In order to pay attention to these things, the professionals need space and skills, and you can support them in this'.

Ten concrete recommendations

On the basis of the findings and conclusions, the researchers come to ten recommendations: 

  1. Make the inevitable tensions and limits to collaboration between organisations a recurring topic of discussion. Pay explicit attention to these tensions and boundaries in policy. 
  2. Bringing organisations together does not automatically lead to an integrated approach. Invest more focused time, attention and resources in the mechanisms and preconditions that are necessary for real cooperation and securing lessons from that collaboration.
  3. A shared story helps to initiate and maintain collaboration between organisations. The broad, integral approach should also be reflected more visibly in the use of language and the choice of words.
  4. Ensure that there are sufficient opportunities and the right financial and organisational incentives for employees to actually look, network and learn beyond the boundaries of their own organisation.
  5. The career paths of criminal and terrorist groups sometimes overlap. In tackling crime, therefore, pay attention to possible risks of radicalisation and terrorism.
  6. Also create smaller scale and accessible, operational cooperation between professionals in the fight against crime and terrorism. In this way more can also be learned from each other outside their own domain. 
  7. Organise and facilitate sufficient spaces and moments where professionals from different organisations and backgrounds can come into contact with each other and build networks. 
  8. Link the approach to terrorism and crime through professionals for whom collaboration with other organisations is an explicit part of the task and of the professional identity.
  9. Learning to work together between organisations requires a specific type of professional. Select and train professionals on skills such as empathy and conceptual and operational thinking.
  10. Investigate and critically examine when collaboration should be more structural and organised, and when looser, more informal and more small-scale collaboration is sufficient or more effective.

Would you like to know more?

Read the full research report Krachtig lerende netwerken, the summary in English or view the infographic (including knowledge clip).

English summary
Read the full report (in Dutch)
Infographic & knowledge clip (in Dutch)

Research team

The research of Utrecht University in collaboration with Avans University of Applied Sciences is led by Prof. Mirko Noordegraaf and was carried out by Dr. Leonie Heres (executive project leader), Niels Terpstra MA, Dr. Aline Bos and Prof. Emile Kolthoff. The supervisory committee consisted of Prof. Gabriele Jacobs, Willemijn Aerdts, Heinrich Matthee, Joost van Rossum, Cees Wiebes and Leontien van der Knaap.


On behalf of the research team, project leader Prof. Mirko Noordegraaf ( and executive project leader Dr. Leonie Heres ( are available for further explanation and interviews. You can also contact press officer Gert den Toom.

Institutions for Open Societies

At Utrecht University, scholars from a wide array of fields join forces at Utrecht’s research area of expertise: Institutions for Open Societies (IOS). Scholars at IOS aim at using an interdisciplinary approach to tackle two vital societal questions: Why do societies develop so divergently? And how do institutions contribute to the formation of open and sustainable societies? To find answers to these questions, interdisciplinary research is conducted into the formal and informal rules of human interaction: institutions.

The IOS Hub Security for Open Societies (SOS) offers an independent, interdisciplinary platform to bring together academia, professional actors and society on topics of security, terrorism and the rule of law.