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NATO and International Terrorism: Can NATO Move Beyond Controversy?

In document DIIS REPORT (Page 63-75)

Berit Kaja Børgensen

NATO’s New Strategic Concept illustrates that the Alliance has gone from being focused on the European territory and neighbourhood in the 1990s to an Alliance focused on unconventional and indeed global threats. The New Strategic Concept thus reflects and builds on developments in the security environment as they have unfolded since the terror attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001.

It is also clear, though, that NATO’s momentum created by the fight against inter-national terrorism, once both clear and irresistible, is now losing steam. Terrorism has in effect become everybody’s business and it is no longer clear what NATO can and should do.

The New Strategic Concept seeks among other things to strike a balance between different views on NATO’s future role in combating terrorism. All Allies have a stake in the issue but they are not fully aligned, and so the question becomes whether the Strategic Concept can be said to provide guidance for the years to come. As we shall see, there is certainly room for improvement.

NATO and terrorism before 9/11

When NATO adopted its first post Cold War strategic concept in 1991 terrorism hardly figured among its concerns. Although some allies had experienced the severe consequences of terrorist attacks, NATO considered these incidents domestic law-enforcement problems calling for national solutions rather than the mobilisation of an international security alliance.1 NATO’s focus was instead on instability in Cen-tral and Eastern Europe, the remaining Soviet threat and Europe’s strategic balance.

However, cognisant of the wider security context, NATO did mention terrorism in the 1991 Concept as one among several security risks ‘of a wider nature’.2

Given its ongoing and strenuous struggles with Kurdish separatists, Turkey was the most prominent advocate of a change of pace in NATO and the collective identifi-cation of terrorism as a serious threat. This resulted in the modifiidentifi-cation of NATO’s near neglect of terrorism at the Brussels Summit in 1994 when NATO condemned all acts of international terrorism as a threat to the peaceful conduct of international relations and called for effective counter-terrorist cooperation.3 Terrorism was thus

cautiously identified as an international phenomenon and problem and not merely a domestic problem. It remained a declaratory stance, though.

In the following years other security issues, such as the operations in the Balkans, captured NATO’s attention. Terrorism held a permanent position on the Alli-ance’s agenda but no major policy action followed.4 Still, partnership initiatives launched in parallel became a driver also within the counter-terrorism domain.

Terrorism was one of the concerns and an area identified for cooperation and consultation in the partnership programmes launched with individual coun-tries such as Russia and Ukraine and also within the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC).5 The issues nourished each other: partnerships encouraged NATO to find common areas of interest, thereby advancing the role of terrorism on the agenda, whilst terrorism also generated a demand for closer cooperation between the partners.

The 1999 Strategic Concept reaffirmed collective defence but, reflecting the Bal-kan experience, clearly addressed crisis management and non-Article 5 operations.

Though the United States was one of the driving forces behind the New Concept, US and Turkish attempts to include a whole paragraph on NATO’s role in counter-ing terrorism did not succeed. In an almost identical fashion as in 1991, terrorism was once again mentioned as a risk that could affect Alliance interests, and Article 4 consultations were still the only measure of response. However, given lessons learned from the Balkan operations, the Concept did address the need to protect NATO’s forces and infrastructure against terrorism.6

The Alliance thus did not seriously consider the issue of terrorism through the 1990s.

According to Christopher Bennett “…there was no consensus on NATO’s role in what were seen by most allies as internal security problems. As a result, there was little or no sustained discussion of the nature of terrorism, of its sources, or its implications for Alliance concepts, policies, structures or capabilities”.7

9/11 and NATO’s immediate response: urgent need for a new policy

This radically changed after 9/11. In what seemed like a split second, terrorism shot to the top of NATO’s agenda, starting with the first ever invocation of the Alliance’s collective defence commitment, Article 5. Terrorism was now central to NATO and nearly every aspect of the Alliance was in need of an overhaul. Though some countries,

especially France, were reluctant to raise the issue to the level of an Alliance core concern, terrorism clearly was at the heart of NATO’s matter.

The Allies soon agreed to a range of measures to meet the ‘new’ threat including, for instance, enhanced intelligence sharing and the provision of assistance to Allies and other states whose participation in the counter-terrorist campaign caused them to be threatened. The deployment of its Standing Naval Forces to the Eastern (and later the entire) Mediterranean through Operation Active Endeavour (OAE), and of five (later seven) NATO AWACS aircraft to the US to support operations against terrorism, was a consequence of some of these measures.8

In December 2001 the Alliance published NATO’s Response to Terrorism and stated that meeting the challenge of international terrorism was “fundamental to our [NATO’s] security”.9 For the first time the hybrid threat posed by terrorists and WMD was explicitly recognised, making disarmament and non-proliferation essential contributions to the fight against terrorism. This connection between terrorism and WMD has remained in NATO’s outlook to the present.

Although the 1999 Strategic Concept had recognised international terrorism as a risk to Alliance security and that Article 5 would cover an armed attack against the Alliance from whatever direction, it took 9/11 to connect these two dimen-sions of NATO’s strategic thinking. Consequently, in Reykjavik in May 2002 the old debate about whether NATO should act ‘out-of-area’ was finalised with the North Atlantic Council confirming that NATO would be ready to act when and wherever necessary in order to meet the fundamental challenge to security that terrorism posed.10

The Alliance affirmed from the outset that it could not do everything itself. Much was still up to national authorities and other organisations, and military tools were not sufficient. Broad and civil–military cooperation thus also became integrated into NATO’s counter-terrorism policy. Though cooperation was meant to apply across the board, NATO gave special emphasis to the EU.11 Other partnerships soon fol-lowed, though. The NATO–Russia Permanent Joint Council was replaced by a new NATO–Russia Council in May 2002, with NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson emphasising that, “What was lacking from the earlier NATO–Russia dialogue was a true sense of shared purpose and urgency. The events of 11 September provided that impetus...”.12 A new Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism (PAP-T) was adopted at the Prague Summit in November 200213 and a decision to upgrade the

political as well as the practical dimensions of the MD was made at the Reykjavik Summit in May 2002.14

These rather radical policy reforms fostered an urgent demand for new capabilities.

Although military reform had been on the agenda through the 1990s, 9/11 made international terrorism one of the primary drivers of NATO reform and inspired the urgency captured by reform’s new header: ‘transformation’.

At the NATO Summit in Prague in November 2002 terrorism dominated the agenda and the many decisions adopted there all paved the way for NATO’s new role as an important actor in the fight against international terrorism with its own military concept for defence against terrorism.15 It defined four roles for NATO: anti ter-rorism (defensive measures), consequence management (dealing with after effects of a terror attack), counter-terrorism (offensive measures) and military coopera-tion. This meant being ready to deploy its forces when and where required in order to deter, defend, disrupt and protect against terrorist attacks, or threat of attacks, directed from abroad against NATO. The Alliance should provide assistance to national authorities in dealing with the consequences of terrorist attacks and, on a case-by-case basis, provide its assets and capabilities to operations in defence against terrorism undertaken by or in cooperation with other international organisations or coalitions involving Allies.16

The reform effort reverberated through the NATO toolbox. A NATO Response Force (NRF) came into being as a “technologically advanced, flexible, deployable, interoperable and sustainable force including land, sea, and air elements ready to move quickly to wherever needed, as decided by the [North Atlantic] Council”.17 Moreover, NATO streamlined its command structure, implemented a Civil Emergency Planning (CEP) Action Plan and five nuclear, biological and chemi-cal weapons defence initiatives, approved the Prague Capabilities Commitment, and set out to strengthen capabilities to protect against cyber attack.18 Some of these measures had been underway since the 1990s and were not directly related to international terrorism. The NRF, for instance, was in many ways an answer to an older – primarily US – push to make European forces more expeditionary. But 9/11 created the window of opportunity that allowed for political consensus. The decisions were, in the words of Secretary General Lord Robertson, far-reaching, and made NATO more effective in support of the common international fight against terrorism.19


Despite NATO and Allied efforts several member states were struck by terror attacks in the years following 9/11, both on home soil and in Afghanistan and Iraq. NATO maintained a strong and principled stand against terrorism, for instance by issuing a Declaration on Terrorism20 pointing out terrorism and proliferation of WMD as key threats to NATO and international security and approving a Defence against Terrorism Programme (DAT) in the first half of 2004.21

NATO also found a vital role to play in the fight against terrorism by taking over command of the ISAF operation in Afghanistan in August 2003.22 The decision came on top of the transatlantic Iraq dispute and therefore came in handy as a way of demonstrating NATO cohesion and resolve in relation to terrorism and to the Prague ‘transformation’ agenda. Not only was it the Alliance’s first operation out-side Europe; as ISAF’s mandate was expanded to include the whole of Afghanistan, the operation was soon described as NATO’s key priority and perhaps, as Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer argued, NATO’s litmus test.

Real operations and policy implementation took their toll and disagreements about burden sharing and the weight of counter-terrorism versus reconstruction and devel-opment in the Afghanistan operation arose and came to dominate NATO diplomacy.

Some within NATO spoke up for a full-scale review of the Strategic Concept due at this point but consensus proved elusive. Instead, and in a nod towards terrorism’s ability to disrupt Alliance politics, the Allies adopted a Comprehensive Political Guidance (CPG)23 setting out the priorities for the Alliance’s capabilities, planning disciplines and intelligence for the following decade. This was at the Riga Summit in late 2006.

Lessons learned from Afghanistan and international terrorism clearly influenced the CPG. NATO’s perception of international terrorism coupled with WMD as a principal threat to the Alliance was now deliberately mentioned. It also indicated the degree to which the meaning of collective defence had changed: 9/11 was explicitly used as an indication of what kind of scenarios could be expected in the future. Terrorism had become an Article 5 trigger. NATO therefore needed capabilities to meet challenges from wherever they might come, and to launch and sustain a greater number of smaller and large-scale high intensity operations within and beyond Alliance territory.

The CPG in many ways defined a path that the Alliance has followed and refined up until today. First, international terrorism became a more official and central part of

NATO’s strategic outlook and threat assessment. Moreover, it marked the beginning of a trend of embedding terrorism and NATO’s role in fighting it in a more global context. For instance, Afghanistan and the general emphasis on NATO’s ability to conduct operations wherever and whenever (evident in the 2009 Declaration on Al-liance Security [DAS]24 as well) have pulled the Alliance in a more global direction.

Expeditionary warfare is obviously an essential capability but Riga also launched new work on the political and practical potential of NATO’s partnerships.25 The Afghan footprint was notable but it did not make for NATO consensus: NATO remained seized by a difficult debate on the nature of collective defence and its contribution to global security. Still, it was largely uncontested that NATO needed to pursue the Comprehensive Approach in cooperation with international partners.26

A number of questions linger. Should the Alliance follow the globalist camp, led by the United States, and engage in global security issues such as crisis management beyond Alliance territory? Or should it keep its focus on the collective defence of its member territories as the regionalist camp containing, among others, some of the new Eastern European members, argue? Furthermore, what are the real lessons of Afghanistan? That NATO should prioritise counter-terrorism or development and reconstruction; and how do we fit counterinsurgency into this equation? In sum, NATO consensus peaked soon after 2001 and has deteriorated since. 9/11 opened a window of opportunity for radical policy changes but that window has closed.

Fighting terrorism is everybody’s business today, and NATO has lost direction. This is where the new 2010 Strategic Concept can be of help.

Compromise: NATO’s New Strategic Concept

The newly assigned Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, steered the reflection and negotiation process from Strasbourg/Kehl in April 2009 to Lisbon in November 2010, but the underlying conditions did not change much. Rasmussen highlighted that in order for NATO to be relevant in the 21st century it needed to meet global challenges, including terrorism. In his view, globalisation is increasingly defining our security and “terrorism has mutated from a regional phenomenon into a global fran-chise”,27 and a whole new approach to security and collective defence is necessary.

It is obvious that terrorism has impacted on the work of the Expert Group convened by the Secretary General as well as on the final document. Many of the recommen-dations in the Expert’s report are in one way or another related to international terrorism. First of all unconventional threats are identified as the most probable

threats to the Allies in the coming decade, one of these being strikes by international terrorist groups. Though NATO’s core commitment to collective defence still stands, it needs to be rethought in light of changes in the security environment, making the Experts recommend that on a case-by-case basis unconventional threats such as cyber or terrorist attacks should be recognised as Article 5 threats. Furthermore, partnerships of global reach as well as the comprehensive approach were prominent recommendations.28

These elements figure in the New Strategic Concept but it also remains a compromise between post 2001 consensus on the one hand and wider terrorism controversies on the other. There is thus room for improvement, or, need for a continuous Al-lied engagement with the issue. There is no doubt that terrorism is a threat NATO takes seriously. There is equally no doubt that the fear of terrorists acquiring WMD remains. However, the Concept also mentions instability and conflict beyond Alli-ance borders as possible causes of terrorism and a direct threat to the security of the Alliance. At the same time terrorists are explicitly mentioned as possible sources of cyber attacks.29 These concerns hardly narrow the limits of NATO’s business: they instead invite more work beyond Alliance borders and in cyber space. Without clear definitions of when and where the Alliance should add value in these areas, the potential for controversy is significant.

Similarly, collective defence remains a core task in the Strategic Concept but its mean-ing and content has changed. The Strategic Concept states that NATO will deter and defend against any threat of aggression and emerging security challenges where they threaten the fundamental security of the Alliance. As in the context of regional instability and cyber attacks, this is not a clear guidance. While NATO maintains that collective defence of the territory of its member states is the core task, the Concept opens the way for an Alliance with global, non-Article 5 responsibilities.

Though controversial, the comprehensive political, civilian and military approach is also stated as necessary for effective crisis management. The decision to form a modest civilian capacity within the Alliance to interact and coordinate with other civilian organisations does at least outline a clearer role for NATO in crisis management operations: it is now obvious that NATO will be better suited to fill civilian gaps.

But not much is clear beyond this point. NATO has yet to define its new and small civilian capacity and NATO’s relationship to other organisations remains dynamic. The Strategic Concept therefore settles for ‘flexible formats’ – which is politically astute but not of much use in planning the countering of terrorism and other threats.30

The Strategic Concept has in effect enlarged the space for political disagreement.

Even if we accept the Comprehensive Approach, it is not clear how much NATO should actually do, and how much it should leave for other international actors.

Nor is it quite clear how much NATO intends to get involved in counter-terrorism, crisis management and cyber security. It is clear that NATO intends to involve more partners but it is not yet clear exactly how NATO intends to involve them. Should the dividing line between NATO allies and non-NATO partners remain clear and visible, or should it recede into an almost invisible background depending on the nature of operational coalitions?

The next years will reveal whether the Alliance with Secretary General Rasmussen at the helm can agree on more than a ‘communiqué NATO’ and actually put into practice the many and diverse roles for NATO. Terrorism worked, for a short while, as a real glue in the Alliance; it increasingly no longer is. Much work is therefore to be done by member states that must provide military capabilities and political will and by NATO’s organisation that must tie the strings together and provide for ef-fective policy implementation.


1 Bennett, Christopher (2003), ‘Combating terrorism’, NATO Review, Spring 2003 (available at http://www.

nato.int/docu/review/2003/issue1/english/art2.html, accessed 31 December 2010).

2 The Alliance’s New Strategic Concept, Agreed by the Heads of State and Government participating in the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council, Rome, 7–8. November 1991, §12.

3 ‘Declaration of the Heads of State and Government’, Press Communiqué M-1, vol. 94, no. 3, Ministerial Meeting of the North Atlantic Council, NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 10–11 January 1994, §19.

4 Among others, see, ‘Final Communiqué’, Press Communiqué M-NAC-1 (95)48, Issued by the North Atlantic Council in Ministerial Session at Noordwijk, The Netherlands, 30 May 1995, §15; Final Communiqué, Press Release M-NAC(98)59, Ministerial Meeting of the North Atlantic Council, Luxembourg, 28 May 1998, §17.

5 Among others, see Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between the Russian Federation and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO–Russia Summit, Paris, 27 May 1997; Basic Document of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, Press Release M-NACC-EAPC-1(97)66, Spring Meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers, Sintra, 30 May 1997, §11; Charter on a Distinctive Partnership between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Ukraine, NATO Summit,Madrid, 9 July 1997, §6.

6 The Alliance’s Strategic Concept, Approved by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council, Washington D.C., 24 April 1999.

7 Bennett, Christopher (2003).

8 See for instance, ‘Statement to the Press by NATO Secretary General, Lord Robertson, on the North Atlantic Council Decision on Implementation of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty Following 11 September Attacks against the United States’, NATO HQ, Brussels, 4 October 200.

9 NATO’s Response to Terrorism, Press Release M-NAC-2(2001)159, Statement issued at the Ministerial Meeting of the North Atlantic Council, Brussels, 6 December 2001, §5.

10 ‘Final Communiqué, Press Release M-NAC-1(2002)59’, Ministerial Meeting of the North Atlantic Council, Reykjavik, 14 May 2002, §3,5.

In document DIIS REPORT (Page 63-75)