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Should homeland security be a fundamental NATO mission?

Rafael L. Bardají versus Daniel Keohane

Rafael L. Bardají is director of international politics at the Fundación para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales in Madrid.

Daniel Keohane is senior research fellow for security and defence policy at the Centre for European Reform in London.

Dear Daniel,

If a ballistic missile, launched from a particular country, were to hit European soil, it would be considered by NATO an attack against all, according to Article 5 of the Alliance's founding Treaty. Why, then, should a dirty bomb, planted by a terrorist group in, say, a container in a European port, only be viewed as a criminal offence? Why should the response to a ballistic missile be a military matter while that to a crude nuclear device is left in the hands of the police?

I believe it's time to recognise that today's terrorists, particularly al Qaida and its various offshoots, have increased the lethality and ambition of terrorism way beyond that of traditional terrorist groups such as ETA, the IRA or the PKK. Moreover, no country - not even the United States - is able to deal with and prevail over what has become a global menace on its own. Since NATO was originally created to strengthen the security of its members through collective arrangements, I believe that the Alliance should now play a similar role in combating today's terrorist threat to that which it played in the Cold War in the face of the Soviet threat. Moreover, it should do this by making homeland security a fundamental mission.

Two basic ideas. Firstly, homeland security is not a new concept for NATO. Indeed, during the Cold War, the Alliance possessed plans to combat Soviet special forces, the Speznats, in case they managed to deploy beyond the front lines and infiltrate our societies from the rear. Secondly, military forces have always been ready to help civilian authorities if and when required, whether responding to natural disasters, sealing borders or protecting critical infrastructure.

For years, security analysts and practitioners have paid lip service to the need for an integrated approach to addressing new, emerging and unconventional threats, arguing that internal and international security should be viewed as a continuum and not two separate and distinct fields. Despite this, administrative divides remain. On the one hand, we have interior ministries; on the other, we have defence ministries, with intelligence services somewhere in between. This disjointed approach is anachronistic.

The Alliance should play a similar role in combating today's terrorist threat to that which it played in the Cold War in the face of the Soviet threat

To prevail over terror, we have to do two things. We need to eliminate the threat, wherever it is, and reduce our vulnerability. But these tasks cannot be accomplished in a compartmentalised manner. For this reason, we need an overarching body to provide coordination, which, in my view, should be NATO. For sure, the European Union also possesses some capabilities to combat terrorism when it comes to the judiciary and police coordination. However, the European Union has few means with which to head off another attack and the capacity of its member states to address threats that emanate from beyond their borders is limited.

Nevertheless, for NATO to play a distinctive and effective role in homeland security, the Alliance has to make changes. Firstly, NATO needs to develop a new mindset and clearly and categorically to identify extremist Islamic groups as posing a vital threat to the Alliance and to behave accordingly.

Secondly, NATO needs a new organisational culture. To this end, the Alliance should begin by holding expanded or reinforced meetings of the North Atlantic Council in which representatives of defence and interior ministries sit together. It should also create a new functional command, possibly drawn up along similar lines to Allied Command Transformation, which deals specifically with counter-terrorism. Armed forces must develop new concepts, prepare special operations units, and allocate their budgets accordingly, all of which could be better accomplished through unified leadership. The key issue, in any case, will be to explore ways in which NATO forces can be used in a preventive capacity, not simply in consequence management after an attack has taken place.

The principal responsibility of any leader is to provide security for his or her citizens. To this end, NATO was a remarkably effective instrument during the Cold War when its defensive shield provided the deterrent that persuaded the Soviet Union not to invade. In recent years, NATO has managed to reinvent itself as an alliance capable of intervening to export stability to troubled regions beyond Allied territory. If, however, terrorist attacks continue to threaten our security - as seems to be the case - people will eventually start questioning the purpose of an expensive, highly trained, and generally efficient organisation that appears to be good at addressing the security needs of third countries, but almost irrelevant to their safety at home.

To be fair, NATO has become involved in counter-terrorism in recent years and could quite easily increase that involvement. Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean could be expanded geographically; an anti-ballistic missile system could be put in place; a nuclear, radiological, biological and chemical warning system could be developed for the whole Atlantic area; and intelligence could be shared in a more integrated manner. I believe there is already sufficient consensus at NATO for the Alliance to take such measures. But they should be viewed as only the start of a shift in priorities that leads to a much greater involvement in homeland security.



Dear Rafael,

Thank you for your letter. Let me begin by asking: what do you mean by "homeland security"? Strictly speaking, I understand homeland security to be about internal counter-terrorism policies, such as laws, border controls and emergency responses. As you rightly point out, counter-terrorism in today's world cannot only be about internal security (or in this case "homeland security"). In its broadest and fullest sense "counter-terrorism" spans a number of policy areas, including law enforcement, border control, as well as foreign and defence policy.

Should NATO have a role in helping to secure our homelands? Absolutely. As you wrote, it already does play such a role. But does this mean that NATO should be the primary organisation for the West's counter-terrorism efforts? Not necessarily.

NATO is first and foremost a military alliance. I agree with you that al-Qaida-type terrorism is far more dangerous than earlier types of terrorism we have experienced. You compare today's terrorist threat with that of the Soviet Union, adding that NATO should replicate its Cold-War role to counter international terrorism. Although al Qaida and its supporters do share totalitarian characteristics with the Soviets, that's where the comparison ends. If anything, it is unhelpful to think of al Qaida as a coherent strategic threat like the Soviet Union.

According to most terrorism experts, al Qaida is not a homogeneous network of terrorists united by the same aims. Indeed, the main danger today to NATO's homelands seems to be greater from al Qaida inspired, rather than linked, terrorist groups. Moreover, the threat is emanating from within our borders as well as from outside, as demonstrated by the home-grown suicide bombers who carried out the July 2005 attacks in London.

NATO should play a role in homeland security, but it does not have the resources to be a truly effective counter-terrorism organisation

By emphasising the military aspects of counter-terrorism (of which there are some), you are implying that we are fighting a conventional "war". Not only does that lend legitimacy to the repugnant aims of al Qaida and its aspirants, it also suggests that we can defeat terrorists primarily with military means. Terrorists are not like states, and cannot be defeated through military means alone. The political illegitimacy and illegality of terrorism is the reason why governments treat terrorists as criminals (and fight wars against states).

You also dismiss the importance and usefulness of the European Union's counter-terrorism policies too easily. I would argue that the European Union has much more to offer global counter-terrorism efforts than NATO. The 25 EU governments agree that the Union is the best place for them to work together. In Europe, interior and justice ministries typically take the lead on counter-terrorism, whereas it is foreign or defence ministries that cooperate in NATO. The Atlantic Alliance has no say over its member-states' laws or police cooperation. In contrast, EU justice and interior ministers meet regularly to pass laws and to agree on common policies for police and judicial cooperation (as do their foreign and defence counterparts for their policy areas).

You correctly wrote that a disjointed approach between internal and external ministries is anachronistic. The European Union is the only organisation where European governments can collectively "join up" the counter-terrorism parts of their law enforcement, border control, immigration, foreign and defence policies.

For instance, reliable information is the key to preventing terrorist activities. EU governments agree that the European Union's Situation Centre (SitCen) should provide them with strategic analyses of the terrorist threat. Moreover, the SitCen combines external assessments with information from internal security services, and from Europol (the European Union's law-enforcement body). This is significant because the SitCen can encourage EU foreign, defence and internal security officials, as well as national security services, to coordinate better their thinking on the terrorist threat. NATO does not have a similar system for sharing internal and external assessments of the terrorist threat.

I would support most of your recommendations for beefing up NATO's role in homeland security. The European Union is also encouraging its member states to build up their infrastructure protection and emergency-response capacities, including for nuclear, chemical, biological and radiological attacks. This is clearly an area where the European Union and NATO should work closely together.

But I am less certain about the utility of NATO meetings that involve interior ministers. For one, laws form the most important part of justice and police cooperation. Unless NATO members were to draw up a new transatlantic treaty, the Atlantic Alliance has no legal basis for proposing counter-terrorism legislation. For another, EU member states have already agreed on a number of pan-European, anti-terror laws and procedures. The United States has signed agreements with the European Union on sharing passenger data, screening shipping cargoes and procedures for extraditing terrorist suspects. Transatlantic cooperation would surely benefit if the European Union and the United States developed these types of justice and policing cooperation further.

NATO should play a role in homeland security, but it does not have the resources to be a truly effective counter-terrorism organisation. Given the broad number of policies involved in counter-terrorism, including homeland security, it would make more sense to focus on enhancing EU-US co-operation than wasting time and energy creating a whole new system in NATO.



Dear Daniel,

Terror is but a tactic of jihad. Al Qaida did not invent jihad. On the contrary, Al Qaida is a manifestation of jihad. And jihad is the glue linking disparate groups, like the Madrid and London bombers, the would-be terrorists arrested in Canada, and the assassin of Theo Van Gogh. Jihadism represents a political and strategic vision of how the world should be organised and Al Qaida is but one group, albeit probably the most deadly, seeking to implement this ideology. As such, it is little more than the tip of the iceberg.

For NATO to play a distinctive and effective role in homeland security, the Alliance has to make changes

As you correctly pointed out, jihadists are among us. But the radical Islam within our borders is fed by the creed and actions of extremists beyond them. For this reason, exclusive reliance on intelligence and police forces will fail to provide solutions. Although, as you argue, terrorism cannot be defeated by military means alone, it is equally true that we will not prevail over terror without the military. Some actions will have to be taken beyond national jurisdiction.

We Europeans are, as you made clear, well aware of the terrorist threat -- hence the extent of collaboration at the European Union. Nonetheless, I don't see why we cannot do collectively at NATO what every Ally is, in any case, doing in practice, namely looking to the armed forces as the homeland defence component of a broader homeland security policy. I don't want to belittle EU achievements, but when critical infrastructure must be defended, or when special capabilities are required, national authorities almost invariably turn to their defence establishments. Even if it were easier to take this issue forward at the EU level, such an approach would be insufficient, since the appropriate response to jihadism is global or, at the very least, transatlantic.

To be sure, neither the European Union nor NATO, as currently configured, is particularly suited to addressing the threat posed by Islamic terrorism. That said, I think it will be easier and more effective to make NATO the focal point of the fight against terror. We need to transform our militaries, and NATO provides the best framework for this. We also need to develop global approaches and global partnerships to security issues, and again NATO is better placed to do this. However, NATO will also need to undergo a much deeper transformation than that which has taken place to date to be able to take on such a role.



Dear Rafael,

I agree with you that terrorism is a tactic, but am not sure it is enough to say we are fighting jihadism. True, loose interpretations of jihad (which has many meanings) may inspire many terrorists. But the threat we face is much more complex, which is why we need a multi-faceted approach to counter-terrorism - not least because the threat is both internal and external.

Military transformation will not be the decisive factor in defeating terrorist organisations

What motivates someone to become a terrorist? Are most jihadist terrorists aiming to establish a new Muslim caliphate? Or are some of them motivated by more specific local grievances, such as corrupt pro-Western regimes, or a perception that Western governments are anti-Muslim? Or is it the situation in Chechnya, Israel, Iraq or Afghanistan? In some cases it may be all of the above. In others it may be only one or two factors. We don't know.

But we shouldn't forget that the vast majority of terrorist incidents take place in predominantly Muslim countries. This suggests that, for most terrorists, their motives are local rather than global. Moreover, most of the Muslim world has so far rejected these types of jihadism. I agree with you that we need to develop global partnerships if we are to defeat the terrorists. We should do this in at least two ways: develop international law-enforcement cooperation by working with the police, intelligence, diplomatic and defence establishments in those countries where terrorists are active; and seek to reduce the support base for terrorists across the Muslim world, especially in the greater Middle East, by encouraging democratic, economic and legal reforms.

The European Union is already doing some of these things, including developing police and intelligence cooperation with North African countries, and spending more money on societal reform and development across the broader Middle East. To be fair, it is too early to judge how effective these policies will be. But it is unclear to me how NATO can play the global role that you suggest. Defence policy does have a role in counter-terrorism, especially as part of homeland security. However, because NATO is a military alliance, it has few, if any, diplomatic, policing or economic resources to bring to the broad counter-terrorism table. As a result, it is ill-suited to be the focus of the West's counter-terrorism efforts.



Dear Daniel,

I completely agree with you that NATO is not prepared to address the threat posed by terrorism or jihadism in its current configuration. It will, therefore, have to undergo a profound retooling. However, NATO is not a static body, but a living alliance. The Riga Summit should provide an ideal opportunity to redirect the Alliance's strategic orientation for the coming years. Indeed, if Riga manages to set clear guidelines on how to deal with the strategic threats of our times, it will be a landmark event.

Military force is not simply one element in counter-terrorism, it is an indispensable one

NATO cannot be the prisoner of its own past success. Had we decided in the mid-1990s to maintain NATO as it was during the Cold War, the Alliance would not have been able to provide solutions to the problems of the past decade. Today, the strategic landscape of the 1990s is behind us, and NATO must adapt again if it wants to remain relevant to the security of its members.

I think I'm not mistaken in saying there is a consensus that the threats posed by extremist Islamist terrorists such as al Qaida and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are two problems that need to be addressed. Indeed, I'd go further by saying that there is a direct link between the two, and that we will not solve one without eliminating the other. The Proliferation Security Initiative and NATO's Operation Active Endeavour are both good examples of how the military can contribute to combating these threats.

To summarise my vision: First, military force is not simply one element in counter-terrorism, it is an indispensable one; second, any policy in this field must be transatlantic - if not global - if it is to be effective.

NATO, in my view, has many assets to offer. The only requirement is that they are all pointed in the appropriate direction. For this, the Alliance does not need a new Strategic Concept right now. But it might be good if Allied leaders decided at Riga to task a group of "wise men" to prepare a report on how best to respond to the new and emerging strategic challenges we all face.



Dear Rafael,

I agree that NATO should evolve with the times and that it is not currently prepared to address the terrorist threat. The problem is that the complex threat from terrorism does not fit comfortably with NATO's evolving strategic agenda. For instance, you wrote that NATO governments should take issues like military transformation more seriously. I agree wholeheartedly. But military transformation (and defence policy generally) will not be the decisive factor in defeating terrorist organisations. The fact is, although NATO has an important role to play in global counter-terrorism efforts, it is not necessarily the most important or useful body to address that threat.

The European Union and NATO should work to bring together the full range of their political, judicial, police, diplomatic and military resources

You suggested that NATO should re-configure itself. NATO governments could do that. But it would be extremely difficult and time-consuming to re-invent the Alliance as a proper counter-terrorism organisation that can bring together defence, foreign, law-enforcement and border policies. Surely it would be better to use existing policies in other organisations rather than re-invent the wheel?

The European Union has counter-terrorism policies that cover areas NATO does not address, such as cross-border law enforcement, border control cooperation and foreign policy. Furthermore, transatlantic cooperation is crucial and the European Union and the United States are already working closely together in these areas. If anything, EU and NATO counter-terrorism policies complement each other.

Both Americans and Europeans must ensure that counter-terrorism does not become part of an inter-institutional game to prove that the European Union is more capable or superior to NATO or vice versa. Instead, the primary aim of transatlantic cooperation in this field should be effective counter-terrorism policies, whether pursued through the European Union or NATO (or both). It is crucial, therefore, that the European Union and NATO avoid competition in the area of counter-terrorism, as institutional disputes over policy tend to generate more heat than light.

The European Union and NATO should try to work more closely together, so that their governments can bring together the full range of their political, judicial, police, diplomatic and military resources, all of which have a role to play in the fight against terrorism.



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