NATO’s response to terrorism

  • 01 Jul. 2005
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  • Last updated: 04 Nov. 2008 01:55

Dagmar de Mora-Figueroa examines how NATO has responded to the terrorist threat since the 11 September terrorist attacks against the United States.

Dagmar de Mora-Figueroa examines how NATO has responded to the terrorist threat since the 11 September terrorist attacks against the United States.

Recent terrorist attacks in England, Iraq, Turkey and elsewhere, as well as the anniversaries of 9/11 four years ago and of the Beslan school massacre last year have all been stark reminders that the fight against terrorism must remain high on the Alliance’s agenda.

Terrorism has not always figured so prominently among NATO’s security concerns. Even though the 1999 Strategic Concept, the document setting out the challenges that NATO faces and the ways in which it addresses them, recognised terrorism as a new threat in the post-Cold War era, Allies gave little collective attention to this issue until the events of 11 September 2001. There was little political discussion of the nature and sources of terrorism, or of the implications of terrorism for the Alliance’s concepts, policies, structures and capabilities. Since then, however, nearly every aspect of work at NATO has been reconsidered in the light of the threat terrorism poses to our populations and forces.

NATO’s reaction to the attacks on the United States was immediate and determined. Within 24 hours of the attacks, the Allies invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, the collective-defence clause, for the first time in NATO’s history. Shortly afterwards, in response to requests by the United States, a number of initial support measures were agreed. These included enhanced intelligence-sharing on terrorism; assistance to Allies and other states subject to increased terrorist threats as a result of their support for the campaign against terrorism; increased security for facilities on NATO territory; backfilling of selected NATO assets required to support operations against terrorism; blanket overflight clearances for military flights related to operations against terrorism; access to ports and airfields for such operations; deployment of NATO naval forces to the Eastern Mediterranean; and deployment of NATO’s airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) aircraft to the United States (for details of early NATO support, see Aiding America in the winter 2001 issue of NATO Review).

Since then, on the basis of the political impetus and guidance provided at the NATO Summits in Prague in 2002 and Istanbul in 2004, the Alliance has sought to make an effective and substantial contribution to the international community’s fight against terrorism. To this end, it has factored terrorism into the development of its policies, concepts, capabilities and partnerships.


Since 2001, the Alliance has developed and articulated a consistent policy with respect to terrorism. That policy, set out in summit and ministerial statements and in decisions of the North Atlantic Council, combines forceful condemnation of terrorism in all its forms, a commitment to unity and solidarity in the face of this threat, and a determination to combat it for as long as is necessary. Since terrorists are seeking to destroy the values that are at the core of the Alliance and that these values are shared by Partners, maintaining unity and solidarity is vital to the fight against terrorism.

NATO’s contributions to what is certain to be a long and difficult struggle reflect the Alliance’s comparative advantages and build on its existing expertise. At the same time, given the multifaceted nature of the threat, cooperation with Partner countries and other international organisations has become a key aspect of NATO’s approach to terrorism. Terrorism is now a standing item on the agendas of both the North Atlantic Council and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. Regular consultations on terrorism among Allies and Partners and with other organisations promote common assessments and concerted action, thereby helping to ensure a unified international response in the fight against terrorism.

Concepts and doctrines

Nearly all Alliance concepts and doctrines have been reviewed in the light of the threat posed by terrorism. The most important new Alliance document in this connection is NATO’s Military Concept for Defence against Terrorism that was agreed at the Prague Summit. With the approval of the Military Concept, defence against terrorism became an integral part of the missions of the Alliance’s forces.

The Military Concept sets out the potential contribution that the Alliance’s military forces can make in this context, and enables them to prepare for their operational roles. Accordingly, defence against terrorism includes activities by military forces, based on decisions by the North Atlantic Council, to help deter, defend, disrupt and protect against terrorist attacks, or threats of attacks, directed from abroad, against populations, territory, infrastructures and forces, including by acting against terrorists and those who harbour them. If requested, military forces will also provide assistance to national authorities in dealing with the consequences of terrorist attacks, particularly where such attacks involve chemical, biological, radiological and/or nuclear (CBRN) weapons.

In a break with past assumptions that NATO was unlikely to act outside the Euro-Atlantic area, the Military Concept envisages that forces may be deployed whenever and wherever necessary, on the basis of a decision of the North Atlantic Council. It also foresees the possibility of NATO military action, if requested or authorised by the UN Security Council, in support of or as part of the international community’s efforts, including in the framework of crisis-response operations. Other military concepts, doctrines and plans have since been revised or elaborated in line with the Military Concept (for more details of NATO’s Military Concept for Defence against Terrorism, see Military Concept for Defence against Terrorism).


Allies have also taken a series of measures to enhance their military capabilities to tackle terrorism. Several key initiatives, including a deployable nuclear, chemical and biological (NBC) analytical laboratory, an NBC event response team, a virtual centre of excellence for NBC weapons defence, a NATO biological and chemical defence stockpile and a disease surveillance system, are being developed to improve NATO’s defences against NBC weapons. In addition, a NATO CBRN Defence Battalion has been formed to respond to and manage the consequences of the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially against deployed forces (for more details of the CBRN Defence Battalion, see Boosting NATO's CBRN capabilities in this issue of NATO Review).

NATO’s Conference of National Armaments Directors also has an ambitious programme of work for defence against terrorism which includes work on the protection of large-bodied aircraft against man-portable air defence systems, so-called MANPADS; the protection of ships and harbours, the protection of helicopters; countering improvised explosive devices; detection, protection against and defeating of CBRN weapons; new technology for intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition relevant to terrorism; explosive ordnance disposal and protection of sensitive infrastructure and facilities such as pipelines and nuclear power plants (for details of this programme, see Combating terrorism through technology in the autumn 2004 issue of NATO Review).

More broadly, NATO’s efforts to transform its military capabilities better to carry out the full range of its missions also contribute to strengthening the Alliance’s response to terrorism. This is especially the case in the creation of the NATO Response Force, the new Command Structure and the Prague Capabilities Commitment.

Another important capability for combating terrorism is effective intelligence. This contributes to providing a common understanding of the terrorist threats and the preparation of appropriate responses to them. Enhancing intelligence-sharing among Allies and Partners is, therefore, a high priority within the Alliance.

A Terrorist Threat Intelligence Unit has been created to improve intelligence-sharing and analysis on terrorism. This Unit draws on civilian and military intelligence resources, from both NATO and Partner countries, in order to provide assessments to the North Atlantic Council and NATO staff. In addition, a broad review of the Alliance’s intelligence structures is under way. That said, more still needs to be done in this area to ensure the efficient production of intelligence as a basis for policy decisions. In particular, it will be important to define more clearly the kinds of intelligence that could most usefully be shared among all the Allies. Highly sensitive, operational intelligence – the kind that intelligence services are most reluctant to share – is perhaps less relevant for the Alliance’s purposes than assessments and appraisals of a more strategic nature.

Consequence management

Allies and Partners are working together to improve civil preparedness against possible terrorist attacks. Of special concern is the possibility of catastrophic damage from attacks with chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological agents against civilian populations. A set of “minimum standards and non-binding guidelines for first responders regarding planning, training, procedures and equipment for CBRN incidents” is currently being developed and several initiatives are under way to protect critical civil infrastructures. This work is in part of a conceptual nature and in part a matter of identifying and exercising the capabilities Allies and Partners have available for responding to such attacks through, for example, the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) and the possible use of Alliance CBRN defence assets.

The implications of the failure of deterrence and of prevention should also be considered carefully. Here, thought needs to be given to contingency planning for responding to severe forms of destruction as a result of terrorist attacks, in particular involving weapons of mass destruction. In this context, enhanced civil-military cooperation in consequence management and preparedness could contribute to a more effective response.


NATO operations have, directly or indirectly, shown the Alliance’s preparedness and determination to act decisively against the threat of terrorism. Through them, policies, concepts and capabilities are brought into action. NATO’s expertise and key assets – its integrated military structure, highly developed capacity for operational planning, and procedures for calling on a wide range of European and North American military assets and capabilities – make it capable of mounting a full range of significant multinational military operations, including those relevant to the fight against terrorism.

Operation Active Endeavour, NATO’s counter-terrorism operation in the Mediterranean, clearly demonstrates the Alliance’s resolve and ability to respond to terrorism. Launched in October 2001 in the context of the invocation of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, it began with the patrolling of the eastern Mediterranean and monitoring of merchant shipping. The operation was subsequently extended to include escorting civilian shipping through the Straits of Gibraltar and compliant boarding of suspicious vessels, and its geographical scope further expanded to the whole Mediterranean. Operation Active Endeavour is increasingly attracting the attention of NATO’s Partners. Agreements with Russia and Ukraine concerning their support to the operation have been finalised. Negotiations are also under way with several Mediterranean Dialogue countries on how they might support the operation (for more on Active Endeavour, see Combating terrorism in the Mediterranean in this issue of NATO Review).

Practical support is also being provided to Allied countries holding selected high-visibility meetings and events. This kind of operation began in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 with Operation Eagle Assist, which provided airborne early warning support to the United States between October 2001 and May 2002. Subsequently, similar support has been provided to high-level meetings such as EU and NATO Summits, as well as to the Olympic Games in Athens where, in addition to airborne early warning support, elements of NATO’s CBRN Defence Battalion were deployed.

NATO-led operations in Afghanistan and the Western Balkans help prevent terrorist or extremist groups from undermining efforts to establish peace and stability. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan has, among other things, supported the presidential and parliamentary election processes and thereby helped ensure that the Bonn Process, the country’s internationally supported stabilisation programme, is not derailed by terrorist or extremist groups. In Kosovo, KFOR is continuing to gather intelligence on extremist and terrorist groups to restrict their freedom of movement, including by monitoring the province’s borders and boundaries. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the residual NATO headquarters in Sarajevo has retained a capacity to support counter-terrorist activities while ensuring force protection. The NATO headquarters in both Skopje, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia ª, and Tirana, Albania, provide advice to local authorities on defence reform and border interdiction operations, thereby helping strengthen each country’s own counter-terrorism capabilities.

International cooperation

NATO’s commitment to work with Partners and other international organisations against terrorism is reflected in a series of initiatives and concrete measures. The founding charter of the NATO-Russia Council, that was created in May 2002, identified terrorism as a key area for NATO-Russia consultation and practical cooperation, and an Action Plan against Terrorism was agreed in December 2004 (for more on NATO-Russia cooperation in this field, see NATO-Russia cooperation to counter terrorism in this issue of NATO Review). The fight against terrorism is also an important dimension of NATO’s intensified dialogue with Ukraine. The Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism agreed in November 2002 provides a framework for NATO’s cooperation in this area with all its Partners (for details of this programme, see Working with Partners to fight terrorism in the spring 2003 issue of NATO Review). In addition, the seven Mediterranean Dialogue countries can participate in activities under the Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism on a case-by-case basis.

The Alliance’s role in Afghanistan has been critical to taking cooperation with the United Nations against terrorism to a new level. Meanwhile, relations with the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee and with specific UN agencies, in particular in the field of civil-emergency planning, are being strengthened. Consultations and exchange of information with the European Union on terrorism and WMD proliferation are being actively pursued. Regular consultations with the OSCE are also under way, including, in particular, on MANPADS, the economic aspects of terrorism and border-control issues. In addition, NATO is working together with EUROCONTROL, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Air Transport Association to improve civil-military coordination in air traffic control.

Continuing terrorist acts are constant reminders that more needs to be done to defeat this scourge. The Alliance, with its crucial transatlantic dimension, partnerships, and unique expertise, can and must make a significant contribution to this long-term struggle. Heads of state and government have set an appropriately demanding agenda for NATO in this regard. We must now ensure its full and effective implementation.

Dagmar de Mora-Figueroa works on terrorism-related issues in NATO's Defence Policy and Planning Division.

ª Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.