Table of Contents


The so-called Islamic State’s 2014 proclamation of a caliphate caught NATO by surprise. Allies were prepared to fight the jihadist terrorism of al-Qaeda in many ways, but they did not foresee the transformation of the terrorist threat into a well-organized military insurgency that could occupy and control territory. Although local and international forces have since retaken the territory, the terrorist threat lingers with new methods and new battlefields.

NATO needs to improve its counterterrorism toolbox accordingly. The alliance must attach a high priority to this matter and change its focus from postconflict measures—such as restoring essential services, fostering a gradual return of governance, and engaging with nonstate actors—to preconflict measures. Steps such as timely security sector reform can prevent the reappearance of a new caliphate. NATO must also assess whether its current training and capacity-building mission in Iraq is suitable for the purpose and evaluate the impacts of Russia and Iran in Syria.

Issues at Stake

NATO’s fight against terrorism remains a difficult task because terrorist groups change their behavior frequently, forcing the alliance to adapt its strategies and responses. NATO became actively engaged in fighting terrorism in 2001, when the allies unanimously invoked Article 5 of the alliance’s founding treaty—which states that an attack on one ally is an attack on all—for the first time in response to the September 11 attacks by al-Qaeda on U.S. soil.

By 2014, when the caliphate occupied the Levant, the allies had grown more divided about the risks at stake. Not all allies shared the same threat assessment, and some stayed out of the global coalition on terrorism established on the margins of NATO’s September 2014 summit in Wales.

Félix Arteaga
Félix Arteaga is a senior analyst for international security and defense at the Elcano Royal Institute and a lecturer at the General Gutiérrez Mellado University Institute.

Divergences among the allies help explain why in Iraq, despite the presence of all NATO countries, the organization does not lead the global coalition against the Islamic State. Instead, the alliance limits its role in the country to the deployment of airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) and training and capacity building—the latter through NATO’s Mission in Iraq. Even this secondary contribution may be affected by increasing tensions in the region. The proliferation of conflicting interests is due, among other disputes, to the rivalry between Iran and its Gulf neighbors, growing divergence between the United States and Turkey, the animosity between Israel and Iran, and, last but not least, differences between the United States and its European allies over the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.

Despite NATO’s long-standing political engagement with some countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, or the assistance that NATO offers in building counterterrorism capabilities, the alliance is not yet considered a strategic actor there. The limited allied presence in MENA, the overwhelming strategic influence of the United States in Middle Eastern affairs, and the dominance of France in Africa restrict NATO’s influence to a limited number of military actors involved in counterterrorism cooperation.

As for the role of the military in crisis management, NATO’s experience shows a clear imbalance between the successes of military mandates and the poor performance of measures aimed at postconflict reconstruction. Military interventions may help once-fragile nations restore stability, but they cannot address the many problems that caused such fragility in the first place. Instability in MENA countries is due to nonmilitary drivers such as limited economic development, demographic pressure, a lack of governance, and an accumulation of grievances, among many others.1

Regional players present further obstacles to a greater role for the alliance. In Syria, Russia and the Syrian government oppose the involvement of Western countries in negotiations to end the conflict and reject Western contributions to postconflict recovery and reconstruction. This leaves little room for a future NATO security engagement there.

The alliance has extended its traditional operations of defense and deterrence to the projection of stability in the Southern periphery with limited results.2 Algeria distrusts NATO’s presence in MENA, and it is the U.S. Africa Command, rather than NATO, that is involved in the fight against the Islamic State in Libya.3 The outcomes of NATO’s maritime missions in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas to control migration flows have also shown the limits of military means to solve security problems. NATO should learn from these experiences.


The evolution of terrorist tactics and strategies requires NATO to deploy a fluid mixture of instruments to form a tailor-made response. On the doctrinal level, the alliance adopted a military concept in 2002, policy guidelines in 2012, and an action plan in 2014. In 2017, NATO created a terrorism intelligence cell in the Joint Intelligence and Security Division in Brussels.4

Yet the alliance must go further. If the allies are to have a fighting chance of preventing the emergence of a new caliphate, they need to improve their situational awareness. The 2014 events in Iraq and Syria grew out of specific political, economic, and social circumstances. NATO must enhance its ability to read these early warning signs to avoid new surprises. The creation of a NATO Strategic Direction South Hub in the Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy, will help. Given that the Islamic State’s military strength is diminishing, NATO faces the risk of reducing the priority it once gave to the fight against terrorism. This could be a mistake, and any change in the emphasis on counterterrorism should be based on strong intelligence assessments from the hub for the South and other relevant sources.

NATO interacts with the security personnel of countries affected by terrorism more intensively outside those countries than within. This generates a gap between the reality on the ground and the perception of that reality in NATO’s headquarters. The alliance should realize that because of its intermittent presence on the ground, any potential intervention to combat terrorism in MENA would require extra time and coordination with local actors to acquire the necessary situational awareness.

To further increase its ability to fight terrorism, NATO must help its members enhance their military capabilities to conduct direct military actions against training camps or other infrastructure of terrorist groups. NATO planners must adapt new instruments of warfare—information, cyber, and hybrid—to the fight against terrorism. In the East, the alliance must combine its advanced presence with reinforced capabilities, while in the South, it must complement its permanent monitoring and surveillance of terrorist groups with the capability for collective direct action if necessary. That need could arise at some point if NATO members decide unanimously that populations in the South of the alliance are at risk.

Because NATO lacks the proper instruments to deal with drivers of instability, it must choose between developing its own nonmilitary instruments and cooperating with other international, regional, or subregional organizations in MENA and beyond.

The alliance also needs to learn the lessons of recent counterterrorism campaigns, in which the allies failed to bridge the gap between their low level of ambition and the high level of effort required to deliver stability. In Iraq, the U.S.-led military campaign to overthrow the regime of former president Saddam Hussein was marred by a lack of postconflict planning. In Afghanistan, NATO’s military planning included civil-military cooperation programs to provide aid and relief to the local population. But the gains of the alliance’s local reconstruction teams could not compensate for the failure of international bodies and external states to promote governance and development at the national level.

NATO should avoid becoming involved in military actions without sound planning for the day after the intervention ends. That is an error the alliance made in Libya, where the mixed outcome of the NATO-led military operation affected allies’ regional reputation and ability to carry out cooperative security missions in the MENA region.

As for NATO’s future roles in Iraq, Syria, and the global coalition, alliance planners must consider allies’ differing strategic cultures and national interests. Divergences matter, and not all allies see their vital interests threatened in Syria. Even if the civil war in that country comes to an end, NATO’s military planners should continue to monitor the situation to minimize its impact on allied security and regional stability. In its postconflict role, NATO’s secretariat should keep up political dialogue with actors to help prevent new conflicts. The alliance should support international reconstruction missions and exchange intelligence on subjects such as the return of foreign terrorist fighters, arms trafficking, or maritime security in the Mediterranean.

Given the accelerated evolution and complexity of terrorist methods and the wide range of nonmilitary actors and factors involved, NATO should not aspire to play a leading role in the fight against terrorism. Instead, the alliance should adopt a supportive function. It should focus its counterterrorist efforts on enhancing strategic intelligence, improving situational awareness, and continuing to build local capabilities to cope with terrorist threats at the national or regional level.

The intelligence gathered and the analysis conducted by the hub for the South in Naples must be comprehensive and include structural sources of terrorism and early warning to give NATO and its members as much time as possible to respond. In the context of such a supportive role, NATO must reinforce its capacity for surveillance or intervention to prevent strategic surprises and deter potential threats on the alliance’s Southern flank.

NATO should avoid placing the military in crisis management roles traditionally performed by civilians. Whatever the complexities of building and managing coalitions, the alliance should strive to harness partners’ capabilities, as it has been doing in the context of improving cooperation with the European Union. This will have the added benefit of reducing the high costs and risks of NATO-only or NATO-led operations. Even when no allies or partners can be found to join alliance crisis management operations, NATO should avoid the temptation to lead complex crisis management missions in the MENA region and look instead for ad hoc networks and responses.

The alliance’s role in MENA largely depends on the willingness of the United States to either scale back or reinforce its military presence in the region. If the United States withdraws its forces from Iraq and Syria, other allies in the global coalition will likely follow, and their ability to shape events on the ground will be limited.


1 “North Africa Regional Dynamics,” NATO Strategic Direction South Hub, May 2019,

2 Benedetta Berti and Ruben-Erik Diaz-Plaja, “Two Ages of NATO Efforts to Project Stability—Change and Continuity,” in “Projecting Stability: Elixir or Snake Oil?,” NATO Defense College, December 13, 2018,; and “Perceptions of NATO in North Africa and Sahel,” NATO Strategic Direction South Hub, January 29, 2019,

3 Negative public and elite attitudes toward NATO remain a challenge, according to Ian Lesser, Charlotte Brandsma, Laura Basagni, and Bruno Lété, “The Future of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue,” German Marshall Fund of the United States, June 27, 2018, For a less optimistic view, see Umberto Profazio, “NATO’s Limited Leeway in North Africa,” Italian Institute for International Political Studies, July 5, 2018,

4 Kris Quanten, “What NATO’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy?,” NATO Defense College policy brief 12, May 31, 2019,