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Combating terrorism in the Mediterranean

Vice Admiral Roberto Cesaretti examines how NATO has been combating terrorism in the Mediterranean since October 2001.

Ship ahoy: Every day, merchant ships sailing through the Mediterranean are "hailed" by patrolling NATO naval units and aircraft (© AFSOUTH)

In the course of the past four years, NATO’s first Article-5, collective-defence operation has evolved from a small-scale deployment providing a modest military presence in an important stretch of sea into a comprehensive, continuously adapting counter-terrorism operation throughout the Mediterranean. In the process, the Alliance has contributed to maintaining peace, stability and security in a strategic region, obtained invaluable experience of maritime interdiction operations and developed increasingly effective intelligence-gathering and information-sharing procedures relevant to the wider struggle against international terrorism.

NATO’s Standing Naval Force Mediterranean deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean on 6 October 2001 a day before the launch of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom to oust the Taliban and al Qaida from Afghanistan. This measure, taken at the request of the United States following the 11 September terrorist attacks and NATO’s invocation of Article 5 a day later, aimed to provide a deterrent presence and surveillance in strategic international waters at a key moment.

In the intervening years, the operation, subsequently named Active Endeavour, has become increasingly sophisticated as the Alliance has refined its counter-terrorism role and integrated lessons learned in the course of the operation. In this way, Active Endeavour’s mandate has been regularly reviewed and its mission and force composition adjusted to create an effective counter to terrorism throughout the Mediterranean.

In February 2003, the operation was expanded to include escorting merchant shipping from Allied states through the Straits of Gibraltar. This was a precautionary measure taken on the basis of intelligence indicating that ships passing through this extremely narrow passage were potential terrorist targets. The escorts were subsequently suspended in May 2004 as a result of a decline in the number of requests, but may be reactivated at any time.

In April 2003, NATO extended Active Endeavour’s scope to include compliant boarding operations, that is boarding with the consent of the ships’ masters and flag states in accordance with international law. Then in March 2004, NATO expanded Active Endeavour’s area of operations to include the entire Mediterranean. As of 15 September 2005, some 69 000 ships had been “hailed” and 95 boarded. In addition, 488 non-combatant escorts had been conducted through the Straits of Gibraltar.

New operational pattern

In October 2004, NATO put in place a new operational pattern. Since then, the focus has been on gathering and processing information and intelligence so as to target specific vessels of interest. In this way, it is now possible to deploy surface forces as reaction units to conduct specific tasks such as tracking and boarding of vessels. The new operational pattern maintains a proactive posture. Moreover, resources may be supplemented in periodic surge operations. At these times, augmentation forces, such as one of the Standing Maritime Groups of the NATO Response Force, join Task Force Endeavour to provide an enhanced presence and more intensive surveillance capability.

Specifically, Active Endeavour is now involved in the four following areas. It is helping deter and disrupt any action supporting terrorism at or from sea; controlling “choke” points, that is the most important passages and harbours of the Mediterranean, by deploying mine-hunters from one of the Standing NATO Mine Counter-Measures Groups to carry out preparatory route surveys; providing escorts for designated vessels through the Straits of Gibraltar when necessary; and enhancing the ongoing Mediterranean Dialogue programme and other NATO programmes to promote bilateral and multilateral relations.

At all times, NATO units dedicated to Active Endeavour are patrolling the Mediterranean basin, collecting information and assessing the situation in their vicinity. They provide the visible presence and potential reaction forces that may respond rapidly if required.

The experience that NATO has acquired in Active Endeavour and other maritime interdiction operations has given the Alliance unparalleled expertise in this field

Allied Forces Maritime Component Command HQ Naples (CC-MAR Naples) controls the operation through the Maritime Operations Centre, which works around the clock. This Operations Centre, which has close ties and exchanges information with national agencies of several NATO countries, is located close to the NATO Maritime Intelligence Coordination Centre. Another important source of information is the experimental Joint Information and Analysis Centre (JIAC). This is structured as a fusion centre to collect all available information and effectively collate, analyse and then disseminate data as actionable intelligence to the appropriate command. It is located in NATO’s Joint Force Command Naples and monitors the whole area of functional responsibility. Together, these agencies provide the information and analysis that allow me as commander of Active Endeavour to direct limited resources as efficiently as possible.

Sheer physical presence goes a long way to maintaining security at sea. The Mediterranean is patrolled by frigates and corvettes specifically dedicated to Active Endeavour by Allies on a voluntary basis. They are supported by the Alliance’s two maritime high-readiness forces, if and when needed. In addition to these surface units, submarines provide complementary surveillance by providing discreet monitoring of specific areas to detect suspicious behaviour. Maritime patrol aircraft also provide wide area coverage across large areas, using a variety of sensors to detect and classify vessels and other objects of interest.

Active Endeavour relies heavily on the logistic support of Mediterranean Allies, using two logistic bases – Souda in Greece and Aksaz in Turkey – and other Allied ports in the Mediterranean basin.

Operation in practice

Every day, merchant ships sailing through the Mediterranean are “hailed”, that is contacted and questioned, by patrolling NATO naval units and aircraft. They are asked to identify themselves and their activity. This information is then reported to both CC-MAR Naples and the NATO Shipping Centre in Northwood, England. If anything appears unusual or suspicious, teams of between 15 and 20 specially trained personnel may board the vessel to inspect documentation and cargo. If there is credible intelligence or strong evidence of any terrorist-related activity, Task Force Endeavour is ready to deploy to the area and take any necessary actions as authorised by the North Atlantic Council.

Vessel inspections are conducted with the consent of both the flag state and the ship’s captain. The results are then evaluated by CC-MAR Naples. If irregularities are discovered, not necessarily related to terrorism, this information will be relayed to the appropriate law-enforcement agency in the vessel’s next port of call, provided there is an established protocol with the country involved to do so. The suspect vessel will then be shadowed until action is taken by a responsible agency, or it enters a country’s territorial waters on the way to a port. If a vessel refuses to be boarded, NATO will take all necessary steps to ensure that it is inspected as soon as it enters any NATO country’s territorial waters.

CC-MAR Naples works closely with Allied national authorities and directly with the NATO naval forces operating in the Mediterranean. An example illustrates the potential benefits of such cooperation. In June 2003, a southern-region country reported that a vessel was operating in a suspicious manner. CC-MAR Naples disseminated this information to a wider audience to increase general awareness and in preparation for any subsequent action on the part of NATO or national authorities. Subsequently, an Ally’s Coast Guard was able to use the information when it spotted the same vessel operating within its territorial waters and the national authorities decided to investigate more thoroughly.

Having a force ready at sea gives NATO the opportunity to react to a broad range of situations and emergencies, in addition to combating terrorism. This includes humanitarian, search-and-rescue and disaster-relief operations. Indeed, in this way, NATO ships and helicopters rescued 84 civilians on a stricken oil rig in high winds and heavy seas in December 2001. And in January 2002, NATO ships and helicopters provided life-saving support to 254 passengers of a sinking ship in the Eastern Mediterranean off Crete. Helicopters evacuated the passengers and the ship’s hull was repaired at sea before being towed into port.

At the June 2004 NATO Summit in Istanbul, the Alliance decided to enhance Active Endeavour by inviting the participation of NATO Partners, including Mediterranean Dialogue countries. All offers of support, including those by other interested countries, are now being considered on a case-by-case basis. Offers of contributory support by Russia and Ukraine, for example, were made in 2004 and expert teams on both sides are currently working to integrate Russian and Ukrainian forces into the operation in 2006.

Three Mediterranean Dialogue countries – Algeria, Israel and Morocco – and three Partner countries – Croatia, Georgia and Sweden – have also indicated a desire to participate in the operation. The extent of the contribution will be tailored according to the specifics of the country concerned and optimised on the basis of the offers received and the needs of the operation.

Improving intelligence-sharing

NATO is also developing an experimental networking system to enable all Mediterranean countries to exchange information about the merchant shipping in the basin more effectively. Once approved and implemented, our understanding of the extent of illegal activities and therefore our ability to control them will be improved. The resulting picture of the merchant shipping traffic in the Mediterranean should assist law-enforcement agencies, as well as NATO forces in international waters, to act decisively against these problems.

In the same context, NATO is looking forward to including more national contributions from non-NATO, Mediterranean-rim countries. Such contributions, in addition to increasing Active Endeavour’s effectiveness throughout the area of responsibility by enhancing cooperation and information-sharing, will reduce the need for more dedicated assets.

Over the years, Active Endeavour has increasingly become an information and intelligence-based operation through the sharing of data gathered at sea by Allies and Mediterranean-rim countries. The level of information-sharing achieved to date provides a sound foundation upon which to build in the future. The aim is to develop a much more effective information collection and analysis system and to change the character of the operation from one that is intelligence-supported to one that is intelligence-driven.

The main tool for this concept will be the JIAC, with the aim of promoting a common information collection and reporting strategy, providing analysis and warning, and advising on deployment of assets. Its establishment is meant to encourage the widest sharing of information and ensure that the JIAC output is passed in a timely manner to the countries or agencies most likely to be able to make use of it. The JIAC should help energise efforts of both NATO and individual Allies to provide usable information that contributes to the struggle against the destabilising factors of terrorism, organised crime and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the region.

The experience that NATO has acquired in Active Endeavour and other maritime interdiction operations has given the Alliance unparalleled expertise in this field. This expertise is relevant to wider international efforts to combat terrorism and, in particular, the proliferation and smuggling of weapons of mass destruction. As a result, countries involved in the Proliferation Security Initiative, a US-led partnership aiming to help halt flows of dangerous technologies to and from states and non-state actors of concern, are currently seeking to learn the lessons of NATO’s maritime operations.

Active Endeavour has proved to be an effective tool in countering terrorism at and from the sea in the Mediterranean. With continuing cooperation from both military and civilian agencies in all Mediterranean countries, the day will come when NATO is only required to provide the coordination for a more holistic approach to countering terrorism, and more generally illegal activity in the area. When effective links are established and appropriate agreements put in place whereby national authorities can react upon suspicious indicators, Active Endeavour should evolve into a more routine activity involving both NATO Allies and Partners.

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