Terrorism in all its forms poses a direct threat to the security of the citizens of NATO countries, and to international stability and prosperity. It is a persistent global threat that knows no border, nationality or religion and is a challenge that the international community must tackle together. NATO will continue to fight this threat in all its forms and manifestations with determination and in full solidarity. NATO’s work on counter-terrorism focuses on improving awareness of the threat, developing capabilities to prepare and respond, and enhancing engagement with partner countries and other international actors.
- NATO invoked its collective defence clause (Article 5) for the first and only time in response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on the United States.
- NATO’s Counter-Terrorism Policy Guidelines focus Alliance efforts on three main areas: awareness, capabilities and engagement.
- A comprehensive Action Plan is being implemented to enhance NATO’s role in the international community’s fight against terrorism.
- NATO has a Terrorism Intelligence Cell at NATO Headquarters and a Coordinator oversees NATO’s efforts in the fight against terrorism.
- A regional Hub for the South, based at NATO’s Joint Force Command in Naples helps the Alliance anticipate and respond to crises arising in its southern neighbourhood.
- NATO is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and supports it through AWACS intelligence flights.
- NATO develops new capabilities and technologies to tackle the terrorist threat and to manage the consequences of a terrorist attack.
- NATO cooperates with partners and international organisations to leverage the full potential of each stakeholder engaged in the global counter-terrorism effort.
More background information
In support of national authorities, NATO ensures shared awareness of the terrorist threat through consultations, enhanced intelligence-sharing and continuous strategic analysis and assessment.
Intelligence reporting at NATO is based on contributions from Allies’ intelligence services, both internal and external, civilian and military. The way NATO handles sensitive information has gradually evolved, based on successive summit decisions and continuing reform of intelligence structures since 2010. Since 2017, the Joint Intelligence and Security Division at NATO benefits from increased sharing of intelligence between member services and the Alliance, and produces strategic analytical reports relating to terrorism and its links with other transnational threats.
Intelligence-sharing between NATO and partner countries’ agencies continues through the Intelligence Liaison Unit at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, and an intelligence liaison cell at Allied Command Operations (ACO) in Mons, Belgium. An intelligence cell at NATO Headquarters improves how NATO shares intelligence, including on foreign fighters. NATO faces a range of threats arising from instability in the region to the south of the Alliance. NATO increases its understanding of these challenges and improves its ability to respond to them through the ‘Hub for the South’ based at NATO’s Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy. The Hub collects and analyses information, assesses potential threats and engages with partner nations and organisations.
Beyond the everyday consultations within the Alliance, experts from a range of backgrounds are invited to brief Allies on specific areas of counter-terrorism. Likewise, discussions with international organisations, including the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), enhance Allies’ knowledge of international counter-terrorism efforts worldwide and help NATO refine the contribution that it makes to the global approach.
The Alliance strives to ensure that it has adequate capabilities to prevent, protect against and respond to terrorist threats. Capability development and work on innovative technologies are part of NATO’s core business, and methods that address asymmetric threats including terrorism and the use of non-conventional weapons, are of particular relevance. Much of this work is conducted through the Defence Against Terrorism Programme of Work (DAT POW), which aims to protect troops, civilians and critical infrastructure against attacks perpetrated by terrorists, such as suicide attacks, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rocket attacks against aircraft and helicopters and attacks using chemical, biological or radiological material.
NATO’s Centres of Excellence are important contributors to many projects, providing expertise across a range of topics including military engineering for route clearance, countering IEDs, explosives disposal, cultural familiarisation, network analysis and modelling.
The DAT POW was developed by the Conference of National Armaments Directors (CNAD) in 2004. Its primary focus was on technological solutions to mitigate the effects of terrorist attacks but the programme has since widened its scope to support comprehensive capability development. It now includes exercises, trials, development of prototypes and concepts, and interoperability demonstrations. Most projects under the programme focus on finding solutions that can be fielded in the short term and that respond to the military needs of the Alliance. The programme uses new or adapted technologies or methods to detect, disrupt and defeat asymmetric threats under three capability umbrellas: incident management, force protection/survivability, and network engagement.
The spread and potential use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems together with the possibility that terrorists will acquire them, are acknowledged as priority threats to the Alliance. Therefore, NATO places a high priority on preventing the proliferation of WMD to state and non-state actors and defending against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats and hazards that may pose a threat to the safety and security of Allied populations. The NATO Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force is designed to respond to and manage the consequences of the use of CBRN agents. The NATO-certified Centre of Excellence on Joint CBRN Defence, in the Czech Republic, further enhances NATO’s capabilities.
Countering terrorist misuse of technology
Terrorists have sought to use and manipulate various technologies in their operations, including easily available off-the-shelf technology. Drones in particular have been identified as a threat. Therefore, in February 2019, defence ministers agreed a practical framework to counter unmanned aerial systems (UAS). A programme of work will be implemented over the next two years, helping to coordinate approaches and identify additional steps to address this threat.
Since 2017, NATO has been a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. As a member of the Coalition, NATO has been playing a key role in the fight against international terrorism for many years, including through its long-standing operational engagement in Afghanistan, through intelligence-sharing, and through its work with partners with a view to projecting stability in the Euro-Atlantic area and beyond.
At the 2016 Summit in Warsaw, Allied leaders agreed to provide direct support to the Coalition through the provision of NATO AWACS surveillance aircraft. The first patrols of NATO AWACS aircraft, operating from Konya Airfield in Turkey, started in October 2016.
Moreover, the Alliance decided to launch a training and capacity-building activity to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces both in Iraq and Jordan. Finally, in December 2018, Allies updated an Action Plan to fight terrorism, which included NATO’s membership in the Coalition as well as more AWACS flight time and information-sharing. Following a request by the Iraqi government and the Coalition, Allies agreed in February 2018 on planning and direction for a NATO Training and Capacity Building Mission in Iraq, with the aim of making the Alliance’s efforts more sustainable and taking on additional tasks as required. At the 2018 Brussels Summit, Allies agreed to launch this non-combat training and capacity-building mission in Iraq.
Also in the summer of 2018, Allies agreed a new biometric data policy, consistent with applicable national and international law and subject to national requirements and restrictions. The policy enables biometric collection to support NATO operations, based upon a mandate from the North Atlantic Council. The policy is particularly relevant to the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters. United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2396 highlights the acute and growing threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters and “urges Member States to expeditiously exchange information, through bilateral or multilateral mechanisms and in accordance with domestic and international law, concerning the identity of Foreign Terrorist Fighters.” NATO works to maintain its military capacity for crisis management and humanitarian assistance operations. When force deployment is necessary, counter-terrorism considerations are often relevant. Lessons learned in operations, including by Special Operations Forces, must not be wasted. Interoperability is essential if members of future coalitions are to work together. Best practices are, therefore, incorporated into education, training and exercises.
In December 2019, Allied Leaders underlined their commitment to the fight against terrorism and agreed an updated Action Plan to step up the Alliance’s efforts in the fight against terrorism. Allies remain also committed to supporting the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS as well as to NATO’s training missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
NATO’s maritime operation Sea Guardian is a flexible maritime security operation that is able to perform the full range of maritime security tasks, including countering terrorism at sea if required. It succeeded operation “Active Endeavour”, which was launched in 2001 under Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty as part of NATO’s immediate response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks to deter, detect and, if necessary, disrupt the threat of terrorism in the Mediterranean Sea. Active Endeavour was terminated in October 2016.
Many other operations have had relevance to international counter-terrorism efforts. For example, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) - the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan, which began in 2003 and came to an end in 2014 - helped the government expand its authority and implement security to prevent the country once again becoming a safe haven for international terrorism. Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, which followed ISAF and stood up in 2015, is a non-combat mission that builds capacity in the Afghan security forces.
NATO’s long-standing work on civil emergency planning, critical infrastructure protection and crisis management provides a resource that may serve both Allies and partners upon request. This field can relate directly to counter-terrorism, building resilience and ensuring appropriate planning and preparation for response to and recovery from terrorist acts.
Protecting populations and critical infrastructure
National authorities are primarily responsible for protecting their population and critical infrastructure against the consequences of terrorist attacks, CBRN incidents and natural disasters. NATO can assist nations by developing non-binding advice and minimum standards and act as a forum to exchange best practices and lessons learned to improve preparedness and national resilience. NATO has developed Guidelines for first response to a CBRN incident as well as for civil-military cooperation in case of a CBRN terrorist attack and organises ‘International Courses for Trainers of First Responders to CBRN Incidents’. NATO guidance can also advise national authorities on warning the general public and alerting emergency responders. NATO can call on an extensive network of civil experts, from government and industry, to help respond to requests for assistance. Its Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) coordinates responses to national requests for assistance following natural and man-made disasters including terrorist acts involving CBRN agents.
As the global counter-terrorism effort requires a holistic approach, Allies have resolved to strengthen outreach to and cooperation with partner countries and international actors.
Increasingly, partners are taking advantage of partnership mechanisms for dialogue and practical cooperation relevant to counter-terrorism, including defence capacity building. Interested partners are encouraged to include a section on counter-terrorism in their individual cooperation agreements with NATO. Allies place particular emphasis on shared awareness, capacity building, civil emergency planning and crisis management to enable partners to identify and protect vulnerabilities and to prepare to fight terrorism more effectively. Countering improvised explosive devices, the promotion of a whole-of-government approach and military border security are among NATO’s areas of work with partners.
Counter-terrorism is one of the five priorities of the NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme. The SPS Programme enhances cooperation and dialogue between scientists and experts from Allies and partners, contributing to a better understanding of the terrorist threat, the development of detection and response measures, and fostering a network of experts.
Activities include workshops, training courses and multi-year research and development projects that contribute to identifying: methods for the protection of critical infrastructure, supplies and personnel; human factors in defence against terrorism; technologies to detect explosive devices and illicit activities; and risk management, best practices, and use of new technologies in response to terrorism. The SPS Programme is flexible and able to respond to evolving priorities. As examples, in 2017 SPS issued a Call for Proposals to address human, social, cultural, scientific and technological advancements in the fight against terrorism. In 2018, NATO launched a new initiative to develop an integrated system of sensors and data fusion technologies capable to detect explosives and concealed weapons in real time and to secure mass transport infrastructures, such as airports, metro and railway stations. This initiative is constituted by a number of projects all working together to achieve a live demonstration in 2021.
On 1 April 2014, Allied foreign ministers condemned Russia’s illegal military intervention in Ukraine and Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Ministers underlined that NATO does not recognise Russia’s illegal and illegitimate attempt to annex Crimea. As a result, ministers decided to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia, including in the area of counter-terrorism, which had been among the main drivers behind the creation of the NATO-Russia Council in May 2002. This decision was reconfirmed by Allied leaders at the Wales Summit in September 2014 and to date, practical cooperation with Russia remains suspended.
With international actors
NATO cooperates in particular with the UN, the EU and the OSCE to ensure that views and information are shared and that appropriate action can be taken more effectively in the fight against terrorism. The UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, international conventions and protocols against terrorism, together with relevant UN resolutions provide a common framework for efforts to combat terrorism.
NATO works closely with the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee and its Executive Directorate as well as with the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force and many of its component organisations, including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. NATO’s Centres of Excellence and education and training opportunities are often relevant to UN counter-terrorism priorities, as is the specific area of explosives management. More broadly, NATO works closely with the UN agencies that play a leading role in responding to international disasters and in consequence management, including the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the UN 1540 Committee. In March 2019, NATO and the UN launched a joint project to improve CBRN resilience in Jordan.
NATO and the European Union are committed to combatting terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. They exchange information regularly on counter-terrorism projects and on related activities such as work on the protection of civilian populations against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) attacks. Relations with the European External Action Service’s Counter-terrorism section, with the Counter-terrorism Coordinator’s office and other parts of the EU help ensure mutual understanding and complementarity.
NATO maintains close relations with the OSCE’s Transnational Threats Department’s Action against Terrorism Unit and with field offices and the Border College in Dushanbe (Tajikistan), which works to create secure open borders through specialised training of senior officers from national border security agencies.
NATO is also working with other regional organisations to address the terrorism threat. In April 2019, NATO and the African Union held their first joint counter-terrorism training in Algiers.
The use of civilian aircraft as a weapon in the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to efforts to enhance aviation security. NATO contributed to improved civil-military coordination of air traffic control by working with EUROCONTROL, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the US Federal Aviation Administration, major national aviation and security authorities, airlines and pilot associations and the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
NATO offers a range of training and education opportunities in the field of counter-terrorism to both Allies and partner countries. It can draw on a wide network that includes the NATO School in Oberammergau, Germany, mobile training courses run out of Joint Force Commands at Naples and Brunssum and the Centres of Excellence (COEs) that support the NATO Command Structure. There are more than 20 COEs fully accredited by NATO of which several have a link to the fight against terrorism. The Centre of Excellence for Defence Against Terrorism (COE-DAT) in Ankara, Turkey serves both as a location for meetings and as a catalyst for international dialogue and discussion on terrorism and counter-terrorism. The COE-DAT reaches out to over 50 countries and 40 organisations.
The Alliance's 1999 Strategic Concept identifies terrorism as one of the risks affecting NATO's security.
11 September 2001
Four coordinated terrorist attacks are launched by the terrorist group al-Qaeda upon targets in the United States.
12 September 2001
Less than 24 hours after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – NATO Allies and partner countries, in a meeting of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, condemn the attacks, offering their support to the United States and pledging to "undertake all efforts to combat the scourge of terrorism". Later that day, the Allies decide to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, the Alliance's collective defence clause for the first time in NATO's history, if it is determined that the attack had been directed from abroad against the United States.
13-14 September 2001
Declarations of solidarity and support are given by Russia and Ukraine.
2 October 2001
The North Atlantic Council is briefed by a high-level US official on the results of investigations into the 9/11 attacks -- the Council determines that the attacks would be regarded as an action covered by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.
4 October 2001
NATO agrees on eight measures to support the United States:
- to enhance intelligence-sharing and cooperation, both bilaterally and in appropriate NATO bodies, relating to the threats posed by terrorism and the actions to be taken against it;
- to provide, individually or collectively, as appropriate and according to their capabilities, assistance to Allies and other countries which are or may be subject to increased terrorist threats as a result of their support for the campaign against terrorism;
- to take necessary measures to provide increased security for facilities of the United States and other Allies on their territory;
- to backfill selected Allied assets in NATO's area of responsibility that are required to directly support operations against terrorism;
- to provide blanket overflight clearances for the United States and other Allies' aircraft, in accordance with the necessary air traffic arrangements and national procedures, for military flights related to operations against terrorism;
- to provide access for the United States and other Allies to ports and airfields on the territory of NATO member countries for operations against terrorism, including for refuelling, in accordance with national procedures;
- that the Alliance is ready to deploy elements of its Standing Naval Forces to the Eastern Mediterranean in order to provide a NATO presence and demonstrate resolve;
- that the Alliance is similarly ready to deploy elements of its NATO Airborne Early Warning Force to support operations against terrorism.
NATO launches its first-ever operation against terrorism – Operation Eagle Assist: at the request of the United States, seven NATO AWACS radar aircraft are sent to help patrol the skies over the United States (the operation runs through to mid-May 2002 during which time 830 crewmembers from 13 NATO countries fly over 360 sorties). It is the first time that NATO military assets have been deployed in support of an Article 5 operation.
26 October 2001
NATO launches its second counter-terrorism operation in response to the attacks on the United States, Operation Active Endeavour: elements of NATO's Standing Naval Forces are sent to patrol the eastern Mediterranean and monitor shipping to detect and deter terrorist activity, including illegal trafficking.
At their Reykjavik meeting, NATO foreign ministers decide that the Alliance would operate when and where necessary to fight terrorism. This landmark declaration effectively ends the debate on what constituted NATO's area of operations and paves the way for the Alliance's future engagement with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
At the Prague Summit, NATO leaders express their determination to deter, defend and protect their populations, territory and forces from any armed attack from abroad, including by terrorists. To this end, they adopt a Prague package, aimed at adapting NATO to the challenge of terrorism. It comprises:
- a Military Concept for Defence against Terrorism;
- a Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism (PAP-T);
- five nuclear, biological and chemical defence initiatives;
- protection of civilian populations, including a Civil Emergency Planning Action Plan;
- missile defence: Allies are examining options for addressing the increasing missile threat to Alliance populations, territory and forces in an effective and efficient way through an appropriate mix of political and defence efforts, along with deterrence;
- cyber defence;
- cooperation with other international organisations; and
- improved intelligence-sharing.
In addition, they decide to create the NATO Response Force, streamline the military command structure and launch the Prague Capabilities Commitment to better prepare NATO's military forces to face new challenges, including terrorism.
10 March 2003
Operation Active Endeavour is expanded to include escorting civilian shipping through the Strait of Gibraltar. The remit is extended to the whole of the Mediterranean a year later.
11 August 2003
NATO takes lead of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. ISAF’s primary objective was to enable the Afghan government to provide effective security across the country and develop new Afghan security forces to ensure Afghanistan would never again become a safe haven for terrorists.
NATO's Strategic Concept, adopted at the Lisbon Summit in November 2010, recognises that terrorism poses a direct threat to the security of the citizens of NATO countries, and to international stability and prosperity more broadly. It commits Allies to enhance the capacity to detect and defend against international terrorism, including through enhanced threat analysis, more consultations with NATO's partners, and the development of appropriate military capabilities.
At the Chicago Summit, NATO leaders endorse new policy guidelines for Alliance work on counter-terrorism, which focus on improved threat awareness, adequate capabilities and enhanced engagement with partner countries and other international actors. The Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism is subsumed into the overall NATO approach. The NATO Military Concept for Counter -Terrorism, reflecting the policy guidelines, became a public document in 2016.
Responsibility for security gradually transitioned from ISAF to the Afghan security forces in a phased approach. The Afghan forces assumed full security responsibility, and ISAF ended, by the end of 2014.
1 January 2015
NATO’s Resolute Support Mission is launched to provide further training, advising and assistance to Afghan security forces and institutions in order to help the Afghan National Unity Government to prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming a safe haven for terrorism.
At the Warsaw Summit, Allied leaders decide to provide support through NATO to the fight against ISIL. NATO AWACS aircraft will provide information to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. NATO will begin training and capacity building in Iraq, while continuing to train hundreds of Iraqi officers in Jordan. Allies will enhance ongoing cooperation with Jordan in areas such as cyber defence and countering roadside bombs.
Allies also undertake to promote information-sharing through the optimised use of multilateral platforms and to continue to seek to enhance cooperation in exchanging information on returning foreign fighters.
Operation Active Endeavour is terminated and succeeded by Sea Guardian, a broader maritime operation in the Mediterranean. Sea Guardian is a flexible maritime operation that is able to perform the full range of maritime security tasks, if so decided by the North Atlantic Council.
5 February 2017
NATO launches a new training programme in Iraq, teaching Iraqi security forces to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs). This is particularly relevant for territory newly liberated from ISIL occupation.
16 February 2017
Defence ministers agreed to create a new regional ‘Hub for the South’, based at NATO’s Joint Force Command in Naples. It will be a focal point for increasing both the Alliance’s understanding of the challenges stemming from the region, and its ability to respond to them.
31 March 2017
Foreign ministers decided to step up their efforts inside Iraq, including with military medicine courses to train new paramedics, and with training to help maintain tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.
25 May 2017
At their meeting in Brussels, Allies agreed an action plan to do more in the international fight against terrorism with: more AWACS flight time, more information-sharing and air-to-air refuelling; NATO’s membership in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIL; the establishment of a new terrorism intelligence cell at NATO Headquarters and the appointment of a coordinator to oversee NATO’s efforts in the fight against terrorism.
5-6 December 2017
At their meeting, foreign ministers underlined the continuing need to provide support to NATO’s southern partners in building counter-terrorism capabilities and institutions. They reaffirmed their full commitment to Allied efforts in training and assistance, building Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s security capacity, which is an important part of NATO’s contribution to the fight against terrorism. Ministers also noted that NATO’s role within the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS would evolve as the Coalition moves from combat operations to stabilisation efforts.
NATO and the European Union agreed to boost their cooperation in the fight against terrorism, including by strengthening the exchange of information, coordinating their counter-terrorism support for partner countries and working to improve national resilience to terrorist attacks.
15 February 2018
At their meeting, defence ministers agreed to start planning for a NATO training mission in Iraq, at the request of the Iraqi government and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
11 July 2018
At the Brussels Summit, Allies decided to establish a training mission in Iraq and increase their assistance to the Afghan security forces, providing more trainers and extending financial support. They will continue to contribute to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and will also increase their support to partners to further develop their capacities to tackle terrorism.
4-5 December 2018
Foreign ministers agreed an updated Action Plan on enhancing NATO’s role in the international community’s fight against terrorism. It consolidates NATO’s counter-terrorism activities related to awareness, preparedness, capability development and engagement with partners.
14 February 2019
Defence ministers endorsed a practical framework to counter unmanned aerial systems and a set of guidelines on civil-military cooperation in case of a potential CBRN terrorist attack.
3-4 April 2019
At their meeting on the occasion of NATO’s 70th anniversary, foreign ministers tasked a further review of NATO’s counter-terrorism Action Plan.
4 December 2019
At their meeting, Allied Leaders noted an updated Action Plan to enhance NATO’s role in the international community’s fight against terrorism. They also took stock of NATO’s role in the fight against terrorism, including the Alliance’s training missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, which continue to play a key role in preventing the resurgence of ISIS and other terrorist groups.