After eight years of heading up the counter-terrorism team at NATO, Juliette Bird is preparing to pass the baton. She shares her reflections on the evolution of the role of the Alliance in the international response to terrorism – and pays tribute to some of the individuals who have helped NATO progress on this path.

In 2011, I landed my dream job in counter-terrorism at NATO and am now voluntarily surrendering it. Preparing to leave NATO, I feel both satisfied and frustrated – a totally normal state of affairs in a multinational organisation! In my time working for the Alliance, I have seen major improvements in levels of ambition and of preparedness among the Allies and in joined-up-ness across the NATO civilian and military staffs. Working with a multitude of nations, each of whose domestic and international priorities and interests evolve constantly, is often challenging. It means dealing with ever-changing levels of ambition, resources, interest and desire to use NATO. However, I am satisfied that, as NATO marks its 70th anniversary the Alliance’s response to terrorism is no longer seen as an emerging issue, but as a mainstream topic.

NATO can be proud of progress made in the field of counter-terrorism. Noteworthy elements include the development of policy guidelines (2012), an updated military concept (2015), an education and training plan (2015) and action plans (2014, 2017, 2018). We have also seen increasingly emphatic summit coverage flagging the counter-terrorism impact of NATO’s missions and of our interaction with partner countries and partner organisations.

Members of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Armed Forces and the Border Police and State Investigation and Protection Agency take part in a simulated anti-terrorism situation at the Sarajevo International Airport. The drill was part of a five-day EU-led exercise ‘Quick Response’, which also involved reserve forces from the United Kingdom and the NATO-led Kosovo Force – October 2017. © Reuters

While not a primary function of NATO, counter-terrorism is recognised as contributing to all three of the Alliance’s core tasks – collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security. It is also seen as a constituent of work on the current priorities to strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defence posture in the evolving security environment, and to project stability through deepening partnerships with key states and pursuing crisis management measures.

A retrospective of the incremental steps that have brought us here would be dull. However, perhaps some areas could be illustrated by turning the spotlight on a few individuals who have helped NATO make progress. These individuals have little in common beyond a desire, shared with NATO’s counter-terrorism team, to use NATO to best effect against the international challenge that is terrorism. All of us recognise that NATO is only one player in the global approach but that its unique strengths, especially at the civilian-military interface, have particular value in this long-term fight, above all when used in coordination with others.

A constant feature throughout my time, both working downtown at the European Union (EU) and here at NATO, has been the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, the Belgian Gilles de Kerchove. When I first arrived, he was helping Allies understand there was a niche for NATO in the international response to terrorism. Prior to any discussion of a policy in this field for NATO, de Kerchove had briefed the North Atlantic Council several times and was then invited back specifically to tell the Allies about the EU approach and the many areas where the Alliance could complement the work of the EU, which was predominantly focused on Justice and Home Affairs.

At the time, relations with most parts of the European Union on counter-terrorism were entirely informal and personality based. Until steps were taken to strengthen EU-NATO cooperation in key areas, in 2016 and then 2018, a lot of coffees and pizza lunches were taken jointly to ensure deconfliction and complementarity.

Now a solid relationship exists and formal staff-to-staff meetings include various relevant bits of the European Commission, the recently created counter-terrorism division of the External Action Service and, of course, de Kerchove’s staff. Increasingly, we engage with officers working in EU missions abroad who have the most intimate knowledge of EU counter-terrorism projects in partner countries. The extensive travels of de Kerchove and his engagement with partner nations have led to much of this overseas work, and NATO can support and complement the EU’s efforts with its own unique strengths.

NATO regularly provides training in countering improvised explosive devices to troops deploying to operational theatres as well as to armed services personnel in partner countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. © NATO

Both the EU and NATO – as well as all NATO member states and partner countries – work within the context of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy of the United Nations (UN), its related instruments and, more recently, its approach to foreign terrorist fighters and preventing and countering violent extremism. The United Nations is a complicated beast to work with and has counter-terrorism elements divided geographically (between its headquarters in New York and offices in Vienna, etc.) and bureaucratically (between the General Assembly and Security Council). NATO has historically been an awkward interlocutor for the UN, not formally a regional organisation and sometimes regarded as a destructive force that does not tidy up after itself. Working on counter-terrorism with the UN thus tended to be practical interactions with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna more than strategic and operational cooperation through New York. This too has changed.

Some improvement is very recent and is due to the creation of a new Under-Secretary-General post for the Office of Counter-Terrorism, which is currently filled by Vladimir Voronkov. He is a long-standing contact of the current NATO Deputy Secretary General, Rose Gottemoeller. Together they provided impetus for the first joint UN-NATO counter-terrorism project, which will work with Jordan to improve preparedness in case of a terrorist attack using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear agents.

For much of my time at NATO, a fixed point enabling productive engagement with the UN in New York has been the highly professional Egyptian civil servant, Seif el Dawla. He has worked to support several chairmen of the UN Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee and ensured the engagement with NATO of the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (which assists the Committee and is now headed by Michele Coninsx of Eurojust fame). I trust that improvements in the UN-NATO relationship and interaction on matters related to terrorism are clear to all, both here and in New York.

My original doorway to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has moved on but is still extending a helping hand to NATO. The American Tom Wuchte is now based in Malta and is in charge of the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law, which works on, among other things, the use of battlefield evidence and biometric data, driven by the UN and hot topics for the future at NATO. While in Vienna, he was able to ensure that NATO could tap into the OSCE’s work on counter-terrorism, notably its strengths on border security in Central Asia and the Balkans, and to provide access to important international fora hosted by successive Chairmanships-in-Office.

Iris scanning takes place during a biometrics course at the Joint Readiness Training Center. Biometrics uses physiological features, such as fingerprints or irises, as a method of identification and can provide results within a few seconds. (Photo by Pvt. Luke Rollins, U.S. Army)

New organisations of key importance to counter-terrorism efforts have emerged, including the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), which arrived on the scene in 2011 under United States and Turkish co-chairs. As a strictly civilian entity, it is a good match for the EU (which is a member) but is perhaps not an obvious interlocutor for NATO. However, as GCTF is a source of best practice collected across a wide spectrum of member nations (29+EU), it is essential that NATO’s counter-terrorism team be able to point to its cutting-edge work and advise Allies and partners where to turn to in areas where NATO is less well placed. For example the GCTF prioritises civilian capacity-building in areas such as rule of law, border management and countering violent extremism.

In the Forum’s early days, my contacts with the co-chairs’ representatives Raffi Gregorian and Ceren Yazgan were extremely useful and I was delighted to be able to facilitate their presentation of its work to NATO in 2015. The subsequent Dutch chair was also able to brief NATO. As the chairmanship now transitions to Canada and Morocco, I trust that these and future chairs will continue to engage with NATO and ensure that our efforts are part of the bigger picture of those working to deliver the international framework for the fight against terrorism.

A GCTF partner organisation, and one that has been an invaluable academic support to NATO for many years, is the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in The Hague and its constituent institutions. The Centre and individual academics have contributed to a number of projects and events sponsored by the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme. These include a project to compare transitions to civilian-led counter-terrorism in several operational theatres, a workshop with Egypt on counter-terrorism, and lectures at courses run by the NATO School in Oberammergau and the Centre of Excellence for the Defence Against Terrorism in Ankara. Bibi Van Ginkel, ICCT Research Fellow, is an asset to both the UN and NATO, being intimately involved in work on military evidence.

The productive relationship with ICCT began under Peter Knoope, the former ICCT Director, who personally assisted NATO with an event on countering terrorism and violent extremism in Central Asia. In between his current work on, for example, preventing violent extremism in Sudan and Somalia, he moonlights as the spouse of the Dutch ambassador to NATO, so staff at Headquarters may come across him in that context.

Working with partner countries brings all the pleasures and frustrations of working with Allies but in diverse locations. A partner particularly close to my heart after my years at NATO is Mauritania. Not only is it a key country for NATO as a Mediterranean Dialogue partner, but it is the closest NATO gets to the terrorism hot spot of the Sahel. As a member of the G5 Sahel, and the seat of its secretariat, it is also an important source of information on this relatively new regional group. NATO is still working out what, if anything, it might usefully contribute to the secretariat and how it might go about it should it take the plunge.

But beyond these current considerations, Mauritania has been a great example of how a partner can engage successfully with NATO on counter-terrorism. It has progressed from flagging the issue in its individual partnership cooperation programme, via presentations to Allies of the local security situation, to a major project for a Crisis Management Centre and a Defence Education Enhancement Programme (DEEP).

Mauritania’s volatile history has left the country with a large stock of shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles and obsolete munitions, which could pose a security risk to the country and to public safety. A NATO-sponsored project is supporting the destruction of these stockpiles to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists. © NATO

Thanks to tailored advice, Mauritania is improving its ability to offer courses to its military personnel on counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and crisis management. I was fortunate to be part of the DEEP team visiting Nouakchott regularly to train staff and students at the Ecole Nationale de l’Etat Major (ENEM). It was deeply satisfying to see Colonel Bahaide Oude Nema speaking of progress made by Mauritania to other partners at a counter-terrorism cooperation event at NATO Headquarters in 2014. Capitaine de Vaisseau Mohamed Cheikhna Talebmoustaph drove the open attitude to education cooperation with NATO for many years from the office of the Chef d’Etat Major, working closely with the late Jean D’Andurain, who formerly headed up the DEEP team at NATO. Together with the ENEM director, Colonel Mohamed Moumel El Boukhary, he brought considerable firepower to bear on NATO-Mauritanian relations. Colonel Boukhary also wrote Mauritania’s counter-terrorism policy and now, though officially retired, remains a national strategic thinker, still keen to adopt international best practice and relevant examples from abroad.

To hold a NATO post is a privilege and my spell as an Alliance employee has been immensely fulfilling. Though now retired, Jamie Shea played a key role in this, being Deputy Assistant Secretary General for the Emerging Security Challenges Division for most of my time here. He has a reputation for changing mindsets, both within and beyond NATO, and fully supported the wide-ranging approach to counter-terrorism at NATO carried forward by my team

I am very proud of NATO’s progress in counter-terrorism, while recognising that much more will be needed. It will be fascinating to see what becomes of the Alliance’s work at the interface of military and civilian responsibilities. Technical projects are undoubtedly part of NATO’s future, especially with regard to the prosecution of foreign terrorist fighters, but I hope that the wide vision of a global approach to counter-terrorism will be maintained. Links to partners and international organisations are essential for a coherent response to terrorism.

However positive the NATO experience, there are only so many times one can go round the same policy cycle without taking time out to see what else is out in the big wide world. My time for reflection begins this summer. So I must now pass the baton and encourage NATO Allies to support the excellent current team with further national contributions, both in terms of staff and resources. Without such support the Alliance cannot deliver projects related to counter-terrorism in the fields of capabilities, partner capacity-building and cooperation with other international organisations. NATO is now recognised for its contribution to global counter-terrorism efforts and should continue to make its unique strengths available where useful.