Table of Contents


Europe is facing a crisis in its Southern neighborhood; several fragile, dysfunctional, or failed states are struggling with rapid urbanization and severe economic inequality, which are expected to increasingly contribute to sizable migratory flows. Such ungoverned territories are also expected to become frequent safe havens for a range of criminal activities, including terrorism and human trafficking.

While crime, terrorism, and trafficking are not traditional NATO threats, the nexus between them has become a cause for significant concern for most European countries and the United States. The trend started with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and has deepened further with the attacks in Europe over the past two decades. The return of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq to Western countries has contributed to increased alarm in Europe in particular. There have also been fears that refugee flows served as a back door for terrorists—although the link has been greatly exaggerated, as most attacks have been perpetrated by homegrown terrorists radicalized in Europe.

Thanos Dokos
Thanos Dokos is the director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

To remain credible in the eyes of national capitals and electorates, the alliance needs to demonstrate that it takes this concern seriously. NATO must show that it is doing all in its power to minimize the risks while recognizing that migration itself is not primarily a security, let alone a military, issue.

Issues at Stake

The Criminal Triad

From the viewpoint of NATO countries, the new challenge is the rise of multicriminality, in which organized crime, terrorism, and drug and human trafficking have become more interconnected. The nexus between organized crime and transnational terrorist groups gives criminals increased access to funding and weapons, allowing them to expand their geographic reach and bolster their capabilities. The factors that permit these interconnections are unhindered access to ungoverned spaces, unsupervised maritime routes, and unguarded borders.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State may have been defeated on the ground in Syria and Iraq, but the threat of terrorism to European security will remain at least as long as the jihadist narrative is undefeated and its root causes are unaddressed. The Islamic State continues to be present and active—often through affiliates—in various countries in the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The combination of ungoverned territories, weak states, and persistent trafficking networks may create an environment in which organized crime and terrorism—with their underground linkages—will flourish.

Transnational organized crime, and the associated problem of corruption, is a serious security concern for NATO member states and partner countries in the Western Balkans, around the Black Sea, and in the MENA region. Categories of organized crime of special concern include trafficking of human beings, cyber crime, and the production and smuggling of illegal drugs, which is a business worth $320 billion a year.1 Human trafficking has flourished with increased migratory flows. To defeat it, NATO will need a multipronged approach that involves disrupting the business model of trafficking and enhancing transnational law enforcement and judicial cooperation.

Cyber criminals can help terrorists with their activities, while the drugs trade can be an important source of funding for terrorist organizations. Modern organized crime, which is expected to remain both a highly profitable business for criminals and a growing threat to Europe’s security, requires a multidisciplinary approach to effectively prevent and counter it.

There is also increasing concern about the migratory movements from Europe’s broader Southern neighborhood to European countries—movements that have considerable economic, security, and environmental consequences. Demographic pressures and uneven economic development in the global South are causing rapid urbanization, social and economic strains, and a steady stream of migrants seeking to escape poverty and conflict. The numbers of migrants and refugees are expected to rise further because of conflicts, climate change, and the fact that Europe remains—mainly, but not uniquely, for reasons of geography—an attractive destination for migrants and refugees.

Furthermore, migratory flows present significant opportunities for illegal activities such as human trafficking and other forms of organized crime. In cases of unsuccessful integration, these flows can become a factor for violent radicalization. On limited occasions, migratory flows have served as cover for smuggling terrorists into Europe. In response, officials and experts agree on the need to develop a comprehensive, long-term migration policy that encompasses aspects beyond security.

NATO’s Response So Far

In the past, NATO has not dealt with organized crime or human trafficking to any significant extent (with the exception of its Aegean maritime mission), because these were considered predominantly law enforcement issues. In the case of organized crime, states are primarily responsible for their security and resilience through national law enforcement and intelligence agencies and judiciaries. There also are several specialized non-NATO agencies in this field, such as Interpol and Europol, which focus on police cooperation; Eurojust, which deals with judicial cooperation; and the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training, which trains European Union (EU) law enforcement officials.

Since 2016, NATO’s naval assets have been participating in efforts to control irregular migration, mainly through the alliance’s Aegean deployment. Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 is tasked with conducting reconnaissance, monitoring, and surveillance of illegal sea crossings between Turkey and Greece. The group provides real-time information to the Greek and Turkish coast guards and to Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard agency, on the locations of refugee and migrant boats. However, because of the Aegean’s geography, the sensitive nature of the mission, institutional obstacles in sharing classified information between NATO and the EU, and, possibly, institutional rivalry between the two organizations, the alliance’s contribution to halting human trafficking has been rather limited.

NATO mentioned terrorism as a threat in its 1999 and 2010 strategic concepts.2 Since 2001, the alliance has devoted considerable resources to counterterrorism activities, including in the Mediterranean (Operation Active Endeavor, replaced by Sea Guardian in 2016); in Afghanistan and Iraq; and, more broadly, within the international coalition to defeat the Islamic State, the NATO Strategic Direction South Hub (NSD-S), and a counterterrorism intelligence cell in NATO’s headquarters.

Finally, on transnational organized crime, NATO’s contribution has consisted mainly of efforts to combat piracy in the waters off the coast of Somalia and cooperation with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).


NATO should remain a military alliance that plays a supporting, not leading, role in managing law enforcement and nonmilitary security challenges. But in doing so, the alliance should increase its contribution to the security of member states and improve its public image, but without losing its identity.

In dealing with terrorism, transnational organized crime, trafficking, and irregular migration, NATO should focus on increasing the control of maritime routes across the Mediterranean, collecting intelligence, monitoring the activities of nonstate actors in ungoverned territories, and providing early warning of criminal operations. When required, and in cooperation with national authorities, the allies should seek to intercept smuggled cargo and use military force against terrorists. In general, the mere presence of NATO in areas of terrorist operations imposes constraints on the terrorists’ ability to do business.

NATO could upgrade its contribution to combating human trafficking by participating in interagency groups and combined efforts such as the joint task force, set up in November 2017, of the African Union, the EU, and the United Nations. The likelihood that migration flows will increase in the future means that management efforts will require the use of all available resources. While the nature of migration means that a military recourse should be an exception rather than the rule, NATO could nevertheless play a complementary role to Frontex.3 The alliance could permanently offer its considerable expertise in risk assessment and analysis, as well as some of its naval capabilities, where necessary.

Regarding counterterrorism, the alliance has demonstrated its ability to contribute by providing actionable intelligence and conducting maritime interdiction and military operations outside NATO territory. To give a concrete example of how the alliance could do more in this field, it could use its capacity in biometrics to identify foreign fighters.

NATO’s role and experience as a security provider suggest two other contributions to defeating the nexus of organized crime, terrorism, and trafficking. First, peacemaking operations could make an important contribution by stabilizing conflict regions. Second, NATO could then help build up local capacity to deal with security problems through security sector reform missions, with a focus on training and expertise sharing.

NATO has extensive experience in peacemaking operations and humanitarian interventions—although experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have made member states reluctant to become substantially involved in such missions in the Mediterranean or sub-Saharan Africa unless the crisis is dire and there is sufficient legitimacy and international support. NATO countries might even decide that regional countries should carry the main burden in any such mission and that the alliance’s role should be limited to providing support.

As for assisting local security sector reform efforts, a good example is the cooperation program between UNODC and NATO. This initiative provides tailor-made training for law enforcement officers and connects target countries of the drugs trade in Europe and North America with the source and transit states. The aim of the program is to use NATO expertise for capacity building to empower countries to deal with drug trafficking.

The need for security sector reform will be particularly high in southern Mediterranean and sub-Saharan countries in transition, former failed states under reconstruction, or countries facing serious internal challenges, such as Libya and Tunisia. With its extensive experience in security sector reform in Central, Eastern, and South-East Europe, NATO could offer valuable assistance to those countries that wish to reform their security agencies. NATO and the EU should continue and expand the considerable investment they have made in security sector reform for more than twenty-five years.

Two related NATO initiatives can also make a useful difference. One is the Building Integrity Initiative, which aims to increase transparency and accountability in the defense and security sector and thus reduce corruption. The other is the Defense and Related Security Capacity Building Initiative, which builds on NATO’s extensive track record and expertise in advising, assisting, training, and mentoring countries that need help to boost their defense and security capabilities.

A change in focus of these initiatives might be necessary, however. The rule of law, democratic control, transparency, and accountability should remain important priorities. But parallel efforts should focus on making the security sector substantially more efficient in dealing with new security threats, especially transnational ones. What agencies in the security sector urgently need are innovative training methods that would provide them with not only new skills but also cutting-edge technologies and fresh organizational structures. This would bring about a change in mentality and modus operandi that is essential in dealing with complex security problems.

Although law enforcement agencies seem better positioned to offer such training, NATO could make an important contribution because of its existing institutional links with several countries in the MENA region through the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. The allies should make increased use of these tools.

NATO also has a comparative advantage when it comes to training the paramilitary and special forces that are necessary for various types of law enforcement operations. Walking the fine line between accountability and efficiency in the security sector will not be easy, but NATO has considerable experience from the past three decades. The alliance should capitalize on the recent creation of the NSD-S, which could provide extremely valuable strategic analysis and enhance situational awareness in the MENA region.

Farther afield, the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa are becoming regions of increasing interest for NATO, because instability is being exported from there to adjoining areas and NATO territory. But while the impacts of ethnic conflicts and terrorist activities are widely felt, the root causes of these problems are economic, demographic, and environmental—and NATO is ill-equipped to deal with them. The alliance’s role in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa should therefore focus on building capacity in the security sector and providing counterterrorism training. The allies would also benefit from an improved understanding of regional security dynamics, which the NSD-S could provide.

NATO can certainly do more but cannot do everything, as it has finite means and resources and must pick its battles to remain effective. The allies should make decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis of the resources invested versus the results produced. The alliance is right to search for ways to better connect the internal and external dimensions of security, but it should not lose its focus on defending against military threats.


1 “Transnational Organized Crime—The Globalized Illegal Economy,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, accessed October 14, 2019,

2 “The Alliance’s Strategic Concept,” NATO, April 24, 1999,; and “Active Engagement, Modern Defence: Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” NATO, November 2010,

3 Margriet Drent, “Militarising Migration? EU and NATO Involvement at the European Border,” Clingendael Spectator 4 (2018),