NATO: Assessing the Alliance’s Counter-Terrorism Efforts

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 8

German soldier in the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan (Source:

NATO’s counter-terrorism efforts have been the focus of much attention in recent months.  Faced with a U.S. ultimatum that Washington might “moderate its commitment” to the Alliance, member states have sought ways to demonstrate that the organization plays a significant part in global counter-terrorism efforts and that it could do even more (al-Jazeera, February 15; New Europe, February 16).

However, although the Alliance has a role — one recognized, to the relief of Europeans, by President Donald Trump when he declared NATO “no longer obsolete” — it is one constrained by political boundaries and limitations that are unlikely to fall away anytime soon.

Policies and Principles

According to policy guidelines from 2012, NATO’s counter-terrorism efforts are focused on three main “pillars”: increasing “shared awareness” of terrorist threats; developing adequate capabilities to counter these threats; and engagement with partner countries to enhance their ability to combat terrorism at a local level. [1]

In the area of intelligence sharing, NATO expects significant improvements from the establishment of a new “joint intelligence and security division” led by an assistant secretary general for intelligence and security. Although the division is not restricted to counter-terrorism, it is intended to make the most of intelligence provided by NATO members. In addition, at a February 2017 meeting NATO defense ministers announced the creation of a “Hub for the South,” based at NATO Joint Force Command in Naples (NATO, February 15).

The Hub will be a 100-person strong focal point aimed at both understanding the challenges stemming from the region — collecting, assessing and analyzing information — and at responding to those challenges through engagement with partner nations. Assessment and analysis also falls into the remit of NATO’s Centre of Excellence for Defense Against Terrorism, an institution located in Turkey’s capital Ankara and designed to provide a forum for exchange and a source of additional expertise.

At the heart of the second pillar, the development of capabilities, is NATO’s “defense against terrorism program of work” (NATO, April 9, 2015). Its aim is to develop innovative technologies to help prevent attacks and better protect troops and civilian infrastructure. Under three umbrellas — incident management, force protection and survivability, and network engagement — the program covers a wide variety of areas such as: protecting against man-portable air defense systems (MANPADs) or CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) attacks; countering improvised explosive devices (IED); biometric identification; protection of ports and harbors; and experimenting with non-lethal weapons. The program is run on the basis of common funding by all allies, and projects are led by individual NATO countries, with support and contributions from other member states.

The third pillar of NATO’s counter-terrorism activities is intended to contribute to regional stability through capacity building in partner countries. As Secretary General Stoltenberg put it at the latest foreign ministerial meeting, “in the long run, it is much better to fight terrorism and project stability by training local forces, building local security institutions, instead of NATO deploying large numbers of our own combat troops in combat operations.” [2]

It was in this spirit that in February 2017 the Alliance launched an in-country training program teaching Iraqi security forces to counter IEDs, while also continuing to train hundreds of Iraqi officers in Jordan (al-Arabiya, January 24). Furthermore, in 2016 mobile counter-terrorism training courses were provided to Egypt, and training in counter-insurgency was provided to Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. According to Secretary General Stoltenberg, “the possible use of NATO’s mobile training teams and special operation forces headquarters is one of the different options [NATO is] looking into [when it comes to deciding] what more we can do in general to fight terrorism” (NATO, March 31).

Beyond the three main areas identified by the 2012 Policy Guidelines, NATO’s involvement in the fight against terrorism sometimes occurs in a more directly operational context. In fact, following the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the Alliance invoked Article 5 — NATO’s collective defense clause — for the first time in its history.

In October 2001, the Alliance launched Operation Eagle Assist, which deployed NATO’s Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) radar aircraft to help patrol U.S. airspace until mid-2002, and Operation Active Endeavour, which saw NATO naval forces assigned to patrol the Mediterranean. These missions were succeeded in October 2016 by Operation Sea Guardian, which took on an extended range of maritime security tasks (al-Jazeera, July 9, 2016).

NATO also commanded the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan from August 2003 to December 2014. Most recently, since October 2016 at the request of the United States, NATO’s AWACS surveillance aircrafts provide support to the Global Coalition to Counter Islamic State (IS) (EFE, October 25, 2016).

The Alliance’s AWACS capability was also called upon to help secure several high-visibility events, such as the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Greece, the 2006 World Cup in Germany and the 2012 European soccer championship in Poland.

Political Difficulties Persist

While NATO’s counter-terrorism activity is varied, it is nevertheless confined to discrete tasks and specified areas as a result of the multiple disagreements between NATO allies both on the analysis of threats and on how to respond to them. Within the Alliance, views differ markedly on the respective roles of the police versus the military, the application of certain counter-terrorism measures, data protection and the use of force, to name just a few.

Against this backdrop, the official NATO policy guidelines make clear: “Allies recognize that most counter-terrorism tools remain primarily with national civilian and judicial authorities.” [3]

Where tackling terrorism is concerned, the Alliance is intended to complement rather than coordinate efforts at the national level. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged this in his first NATO foreign ministerial remarks, saying: “We do not believe NATO has to lead everywhere in the fight on terrorism. Others will often have that role, including national governments, the Coalition to Defeat ISIS, or the European Union. But NATO must add value where it can and provide greater support.” [4]

In fact, political differences can be a hindrance even at the most fundamental of levels. In the field of intelligence sharing, concerns among the 28 members over source protection, bias and potential leaks hold back cooperation. Despite some organizational progress made at the 2016 summit in Warsaw, a NATO report noted: “Increased intelligence sharing, including as part of Allied ISR, has long been an elusive goal for NATO” (NATO, November 20, 2016). Or as Michael Fallon, the UK defense secretary, described intelligence sharing within NATO to the UK’s parliamentary defense committee, “there is quite a way to go on that.”[5]

Counter-terrorism capability development has so far been primarily focused on protecting NATO’s own assets (making sure the Alliance remains operational in the face of a terrorist threat), albeit not without some beneficial spillover effects. The approach is similar to NATO’s role in cyber defense, where the Alliance’s main role is defined as the protection of its own networks. In both cases, those member states adamant about increasing NATO’s role see this as a starting point rather than a restriction.

As for the third pillar, it was decided at a NATO summit in the United Kingdom in 2014 — and subsequently reaffirmed at a summit in Warsaw in 2016 — that NATO does have a role to play in the global South, especially through capacity-building activities with local partners. That role, however, is not without its own constraints. There are allies who would prefer to limit the Alliance’s involvement in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for fear that a NATO presence might be seen as provocative. Unease over encroaching on certain member states’ traditional spheres of influence — or simply a belief that a Southern-focus distracts NATO from its principal aim of protecting against Russia on the eastern flank — also plays a role.

Finally, on a more operational level, serious political reservations remain apparent. In the wake of the Paris terror attacks of November 2015, France preferred to invoke the EU’s collective security clause than resort to NATO. In an earlier display of divergence within the Alliance, during combat operations in Afghanistan, national caveats — the restrictions members place on the use of their forces — became such a source of friction that it was a running joke among U.S. troops that the acronym ISAF in fact stood for “I Saw Americans Fight.”

These difficulties continue to be reflected in the NATO AWACS’ contribution to military operations against IS, with the secretary general’s annual report for 2016 making a point to specify: “The planes operate over Turkey or international airspace and are not involved in coordinating Coalition airstrikes or providing command and control for fighter aircraft.” [5]

President Trump’s comments on April 13 that NATO is “no longer obsolete” are a relief for Alliance members. Nevertheless, as Stoltenberg, standing next to him, noted, the Alliance “can, and must, do more in the global fight against terrorism.”

It is a topic that will likely be high on the agenda at next month’s NATO summit in Brussels.



[1] See here for NATO’s policy guidelines on counter-terrorism.

[2] The full text of Secretary General Stoltenberg’s speech is available here.

[3] The full text of NATO’s Policy Guidelines on Counter-Terrorism is available here.

[3] The full text of Secretary of State Tillerson’s speech is available here.

[5] Defense Secretary Fallon’s testimony is available here.

[4] See NATO’s annual report (2016), available here.