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Refining NATO's role in combating terrorism

C. Richard Nelson analyses NATO's contribution to the fight against terrorism and suggests how it might be enhanced.

Speeding ashore: The NATO Response Force should be assigned substantive counter-terrorism roles and missions (© SHAPE )

International terrorism presents the Euro-Atlantic community with a complex, persistent threat that calls for a comprehensive, multilateral strategic response that includes NATO. However, the extent to which the Alliance will contribute to this effort is uncertain, with some Allies arguing for broad engagement while others prefer more modest roles.

The initial debate on appropriate roles and missions for NATO reflected two contending approaches to terrorism: the "war" approach and the "risk-management" approach. The war approach, espoused mainly by the United States, implies a massive mobilisation of resources in a unified effort, accepting limits on individual freedoms, and sacrifices. For many Europeans, talk of war is inappropriate. You cannot "defeat" terrorism unless you deal with root causes; something they believe cannot be done by military means. From this perspective, terrorism is a dangerous, inescapable risk to be managed, unlike a war that can be won.

These two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but they do imply different priorities, strategies and trade-offs for collective action. For example, the war view tends to dictate a strategy that emphasises offensive and preventive measures, while the risk-management view tends to call for a strategy emphasising defensive measures. Nevertheless, elements of both strategies are needed for an effective counter-terrorism effort.

The debate about NATO's role in fighting terrorism was further complicated because of differences over the Iraq War and alleged connections of the Saddam Hussein regime with al-Qaida terrorists. Moreover, transatlantic divergences on how to deal with terrorism also reflect the fact that many European countries have their own, very different experiences of terrorism as well as large and sometimes poorly-assimilated domestic Muslim communities, different historic connections to the Middle East and North Africa, varying degrees of anti-US sentiment and different views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We should not, therefore, be surprised that it has been difficult to reach a consensus within NATO on how best to deal with terrorism.

Despite these differences, the Alliance agrees on the serious nature of the threat posed by international terrorism and has decided to undertake the challenge, thereby creating expectations that it will succeed. But achieving even modest degrees of success will oblige the Alliance to move beyond the initial debate that has characterised its deliberations to date.

Initial NATO responses

For the first time in its history, NATO invoked Article 5 within 24 hours of the terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001. By 4 October 2001, in response to requests by the United States, Allies agreed to take eight measures to expand the options for fighting terrorism. These initial measures included enhanced intelligence sharing; blanket overflight rights and access to ports and airfields; assistance to states threatened as a result of their support for coalition efforts; as well as the deployment of NATO naval forces to the eastern Mediterranean and the dispatch of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft to the United States to backfill US AWACS deployed to support operations in Afghanistan.

However, the United States, in the view of several Allies, made a major mistake by failing to make better use of NATO when it launched operations against al Qaida and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. This undermined confidence in the Alliance and made it more difficult for national leaders to provide additional assistance to the United States.

Subsequently, however, the United States recognised the value of NATO in complementing both national responses to terrorism and UN efforts to orchestrate the global effort. Within this context, NATO fills an important niche because of its unique capabilities to provide security. In this way, NATO was the logical framework within which to organise the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, which has become NATO's first operation outside the Euro-Atlantic area. And NATO's comprehensive, systematic approach to the problem is in part responsible for the fact that terrorism has now become a high priority item on the national security agendas of 53 countries directly affiliated with NATO. These are the 20 members of the Partnership for Peace and the seven Mediterranean Dialogue countries as well as the 26 Allies.

Nature of the threat

Over the past three years, NATO has reached consensus on the serious nature of the threat and the fact that terrorism knows no boundaries. International terrorism is now understood to be a single problem with many manifestations, whereas in the past terrorism was viewed more as a series of discrete national phenomena with the result that differences between terrorists groups were highlighted. The older approach missed important linkages and consequently underestimated the value of broad cooperation among governments.

The international terrorist threat differs sharply from that posed by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact for which NATO was designed. This new threat consists primarily of al-Qaida and related groups that form a network of jihadists who share the ultimate goals of establishing a new order in the Middle East and the Gulf based on strict Islamic principles. They hope to eliminate the Western presence in the region along with Western support for local regimes.

This new type of terrorist network, distinguished from the more traditional nationalist terrorist groups, will be more difficult to defeat than the political and nationalist terrorist groups of the 1960s through the 1980s. Islamic extremists are more global in their reach, more lethal, more adaptable and have broad appeal. The threat is constantly changing in that as nations develop counter-measures to respond to threats, the terrorists themselves adapt their modes of operation.

NATO's role

To better understand NATO's potential and develop realistic expectations for the organisation, we should consider where NATO fits in the broad fight against terrorism from both structural and functional perspectives.


Logically, NATO fits between the broadest-scope efforts orchestrated by the United Nations and the more specific national approaches to fighting terrorism. A combination of all three levels of effort - national, regional and global - is needed to treat both the symptoms and the disease. Taken together, they can provide the most effective response possible to the threat of terrorism.

Primary responsibility for fighting terrorism lies with the individual nation states because terrorism ultimately is a local phenomenon and for a variety of reasons, much of the cooperation between governments will necessarily be bilateral, primarily between law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Nevertheless, NATO, the G8, that is the group of seven most industrialised countries and Russia, the European Union, the United Nations and other organisations play important coordinating and integrating roles in supporting the primary efforts undertaken by the states. The key is to coordinate these efforts and avoid any unnecessary duplication.


NATO has made the fight against terrorism a high priority and consensus has been built around the nature of the problem and, in general, on appropriate responses. As a result of this and similar efforts by other institutions, it is no longer acceptable for any country to provide a permissive environment for terrorists, sometimes justified as "freedom fighters", in return for terrorists not causing trouble within its territory.

NATO's approach to fighting terrorism acknowledges that primary responsibility rests with member nations. The Alliance's goals are to help states deter, defend, disrupt and protect against terrorist threats from abroad, "as and where needed". The basic approach, outlined in NATO's military concept for defence against terrorism and approved in November 2002, includes four components: anti-terrorism defensive measures to reduce the vulnerability of forces, individuals and property; consequence management, including reactive measures to mitigate effects; counter-terrorism offensive measures with NATO either in the lead or in supporting roles, including psychological and information operations; and military cooperation with members, partners, and other countries, as well as coordination with international organisations such as the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations.

Although NATO's political guidance notes that it is preferable to deter or prevent terrorist acts rather than deal with the consequences, there are no standing provisions for pre-emptive military operations by the Alliance. In this way, any direct action by the Alliance against terrorists or those who harbour them requires prior approval by all member nations. As a result, NATO is best suited for roles that involve coordinated action over a sustained period of time, such as preventive measures, consequence management, stability operations, surveillance of airspace and sea lanes, and enhancing national capabilities, particularly among weaker states.

NATO has a well-established network to facilitate cooperation. NATO's Partnership Coordination Cell at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers, Europe, for example, has military representatives from 43 countries, giving it the broadest geographic reach of any international military organisation in the world. The NATO-Russia Council and the NATO-Ukraine Commission are also important forums for cooperation on terrorism-related issues.

The Alliance plays a leading role in developing strategies, doctrine and training for fighting terrorism for those circumstances in which military forces may be needed. Of particular note is NATO's programme of exercises that provides opportunities for developing and practising integrated civil-military operations to deal with a wide range of potential terrorist attacks. At the Istanbul Summit, Allied leaders unveiled details of an eight-point research and technology programme to combat terrorism, including countering the threat posed by home-made bombs and reducing the vulnerability to attack of aircraft and helicopters.

NATO also plays an important early warning role. Operation Active Endeavour, for example, monitors shipping in the Mediterranean and NATO has unique capabilities for aircraft and missile early warning.

The Alliance is noted for enhancing the interoperability of international forces and can bring this expertise to bear on those dimensions of the terrorist challenge for which military and civil organisations must work closely together. Using English as a common language and using comprehensive NATO standard operating procedures, more than 50 countries are developing the capacity to work together.

To help deal with the consequences of a terrorist attack, the Alliance's Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre provides unique capabilities. The Centre maintains a NATO-wide registry of capabilities that may be called upon for disaster relief. It has a force-generation process including communications, transport and logistics, as well as monitoring and relief units. These capabilities are exercised regularly, providing substantial experience with disaster relief. The Centre deals directly with a dedicated organisation in each of the 46 participating countries and it does not need to wait for approval by the North Atlantic Council to act.

NATO's support to Greece during the Olympic and Paralympic Games is an example of the kind of preventive role for which NATO is well-suited. In this case, NATO provided AWACS aircraft, maritime patrols and augmentation to Greece's chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence capabilities.

Afghanistan provides a key test for NATO in meeting the challenges of terrorism and the new international security environment. ISAF is assuming increased responsibility for operations in Afghanistan. The first step of a "progressive process" is to increase the scope of ISAF beyond its original mandate to provide security around Kabul. This includes expanding the number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and helping with the demobilisation of warlords' forces and local militia.

At the Istanbul Summit, Allied leaders also agreed to improve intelligence-sharing through a Terrorist Threat Intelligence Unit at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. This Unit, which was created after the terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001, has now become permanent and will analyse general terrorist threats, as well as those more specifically aimed at NATO.

Realising NATO's potential

Translating NATO's potential for fighting terrorism into reality will require much additional work, particularly on the part of the political leadership. Even though leaders on both sides of the Atlantic agree that a successful global effort to combat terrorism requires a multifaceted approach that draws on the strengths and unique assets of many international organisations, NATO remains under-utilised. Among the initiatives that would make better use of NATO capabilities, the following merit priority attention:

  • NATO should appoint a new Assistant Secretary General responsible for coordinating NATO counter-terrorism efforts. This should be a full-time position, not an additional duty, with responsibilities for managing the entire spectrum of NATO activities in this area, including coordination with the European Union, the United Nations and other international organisations. Unnecessary duplication of efforts, particularly with the European Union, is a major concern, and it seems appropriate for NATO to have a senior official as a counter-part to Gijs de Vries, the European Union's Counter-Terrorism Coordinator.

  • The NATO Response Force (NRF) should be assigned substantive counter-terrorism roles and missions. This would assist in developing a broader base of national capabilities than would otherwise exist within the Alliance. Such missions would require the NRF, in certain contingencies, to reduce reaction time to less than five days (particularly for the use of special forces and air strikes). This would also have implications for enhancing timely decision-making by the North Atlantic Council.

The highly adaptive nature of the international terrorist threat requires frequent adjustments in the ways nations and institutions think and act

  • Creation of a NATO Stabilisation Force designed to complement the NRF should be considered in view of the challenges of the transition from combat operations to stability operations. Stabilisation missions have become a core NATO competency and this should be reflected in the force structure of the Alliance. NATO forces in Afghanistan and the Balkans will continue to face numerous terrorist threats. The lessons of these two missions need to be incorporated in Alliance planning and applied to future NATO-led operations.

  • In implementing NATO's military concept for defence against terrorism, the Alliance should place a high priority on Partnership for Peace countries because they are among the least prepared and enhancing their capabilities to thwart terrorism will also benefit the security of Alliance members. Under the military concept for defence against terrorism, traditional roles are reversed and NATO provides a supporting role to Allies and Partners, which bear primary responsibility for combating terrorism. This suggests that much of NATO's efforts should be organised around the Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism.

  • NATO should establish a counter-terrorism research institute to stimulate research and analysis. This institute could bring together the best minds, building on the different experiences and expertise throughout NATO. They could play an important role in shaping and disseminating better understanding of the highly adaptive nature of the threat and facilitating the frequent adjustments needed in ways of thinking and acting to deal more effectively with the problem. The struggle against international terrorism will be prolonged. This requires a cadre of analysts who are able to understand the strengths, vulnerabilities, thinking and recruiting appeal of the terrorist organisations and thereby develop insightful assessments. It does not require the sharing of sensitive or operational intelligence.

  • NATO could play a useful role by encouraging the development of new technologies. Allied Command Transformation, for example, plays an important role in promoting cooperation among defence industries and could help ensure that any new anti-terrorism equipment is interoperable by specifying standards.

In sum, the highly adaptive nature of the international terrorist threat requires frequent adjustments in the ways nations and institutions think and act. NATO, during the Cold War, demonstrated such adaptability by continually developing strategies, albeit not without considerable disagreements. In this new geopolitical environment, the Alliance faces a similar challenge in building the consensus necessary to make it the most effective contributor possible in the fight against international terrorism.

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