Operation Active Endeavour is NATO’s only Article 5 operation on anti-terrorism. It was initiated in support of the United States immediately after 9/11. It therefore aims to demonstrate NATO's solidarity and resolve in the fight against terrorism and to help deter and disrupt terrorist activity in the Mediterranean.
NATO forces have hailed over 115 000 merchant vessels and boarded some 162 suspect ships. By conducting these maritime operations against terrorist activity, NATO’s presence in these waters has benefited all shipping traveling through the Straits of Gibraltar by improving perceptions of security. NATO is helping to keep seas safe, protect shipping and control suspect vessels. Moreover, this operation is also enabling NATO to strengthen its relations with partner countries, especially those participating in the Alliance’s Mediterranean Dialogue.
Keeping seas safe and protecting shipping
Keeping the Mediterranean’s busy trade routes open and safe is critical to NATO’s security. In terms of energy alone, some 65 per cent of the oil and natural gas consumed in western Europe pass through the Mediterranean each year, with major pipelines connecting Libya to Italy and Morocco to Spain. For this reason, NATO ships are systematically carrying out preparatory route surveys in “choke” points as well as in important passages and harbours throughout the Mediterranean.
Tracking and controlling suspect vessels
Since April 2003, NATO has been systematically boarding suspect ships. These boardings take place with the compliance of the ships’ masters and flag states in accordance with international law.
What happens in practice is that merchant ships passing through the eastern Mediterranean are hailed by patrolling NATO naval units and asked to identify themselves and their activity. This information is then reported to NATO’s Maritime Commander in Northwood, the United Kingdom. If anything appears unusual or suspicious, teams of between 15 and 20 of the ships’ crew may board vessels to inspect documentation and cargo. Compliant boarding can only be conducted with the consent of the flag state and/or the ship’s master. NATO personnel may otherwise convey this information to the appropriate law enforcement agency at the vessel’s next port of call. The suspect vessel is then shadowed until action is taken by a responsible agency/authority, or until it enters a country’s territorial waters.
While the mandate of Active Endeavour is limited to deterring, defending, disrupting and protecting against terrorist-related activity, the operation has had a visible effect on security and stability in the Mediterranean that is beneficial to trade and economic activity.
NATO ships and helicopters have also intervened on several occasions to rescue civilians on stricken oil rigs and sinking ships. This includes helping 84 workers to evacuate an oil rig in high winds and heavy seas in December 2001 and winching women and children off a sinking ship carrying some 250 refugees in January 2002 as well as helping to repair the damaged hull.
Operation Active Endeavour provided the framework for the maritime component of NATO’s assistance to the Greek government to ensure the safe conduct of the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games in August and September 2004. Task Force Endeavour conducted surveillance, presence and compliant boarding operations in international waters around the Greek peninsula with Standing Naval Forces surface ships, supported by maritime patrol aircraft and submarines and in coordination with the Hellenic Navy and Coast Guard.
Closer cooperation with partners
The increased NATO presence in the Mediterranean has also enhanced the Alliance’s security cooperation programme with seven countries in the wider Mediterranean region – Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. This programme - the Mediterranean Dialogue - was set up in 1995 to contribute to regional security and stability and to achieve better mutual understanding between NATO and its Mediterranean Partners.
Mediterranean Dialogue countries are equally concerned by the threat of terrorism and have already been cooperating with NATO in Active Endeavour by providing intelligence about suspicious shipping operating in their waters.
Enhanced coordination and cooperation mechanisms are currently being developed.