NATO's role in fighting post-caliphate ISIS looms large
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With the Islamic State defeated in Mosul and on the ropes in Raqqa, NATO is trying to assess what its role could or should be in the post-caliphate phase of the counterterrorism fight to come. The alliance has an important role to play, but it should stick close to its traditional mission and skillset. At its core, NATO is a military alliance, not a counterterrorism (CT) agency.

The spike in international terror incidents in the West and the unrelenting instability rocking the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, provided a stark backdrop for the blunt comments of President Trump about NATO’s need to do more on counterterrorism. NATO, then presidential-candidate Trump said in May 2016, was “obsolete.” 


He soon clarified: “It’s obsolete because it wasn’t taking care of terror.” Since then, senior U.S. officials — most recently, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster — have asserted the Trump administration is fully committed to the NATO alliance. Beyond the rhetoric from Washington, however, is the reality that NATO — via Turkey — sits at the geographic front lines in the battle against ISIS, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.  


NATO is not new to the CT mission, having invoked Article 5 for the first time after 9/11 and soon launching the largest combat operation in its history in Afghanistan in response to the terror attacks against the United States. NATO has developed particular expertise at training local security forces in Afghanistan to take on the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS and stabilize the country.

Similar NATO training missions have focused on CT capabilities in in the MENA region as well, including in Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. NATO surveillance planes support the anti-ISIS coalition, and at the NATO summit in May, the alliance announced it would become a full member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS

But given the nature of the terrorist threats today, it should not surprise anyone that both former and current NATO secretaries general recently concluded there is more NATO can and should do on CT. Despite the near-term battlefield defeat of the so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq, the terrorism forecast is grim.

As ISIS loses territory, the terrorist threat it poses in the region — through its provinces and terrorist cells — and in the West may increase (at least in the short term) as it devolves from governance to insurgency and terrorism. Returning foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) present one threat, compounded by the social-media-driven phenomenon of homegrown violent extremism (HVE), which in turn can include a spectrum of terrorist threats from foreign-inspired, enabled or directed plots. 

There is no light at the end of the tunnel with respect to the Syrian tragedy, a jihadist enterprise that has given al-Qaeda a new lease on life, a group that is also resurgent in the Arabian Peninsula and in Africa. To Europe’s south, Libya presents a variety of security threats that show no signs of abating and threaten stability across North Africa and into the Sahel, and, as the Manchester attack suggests, up into Europe as well.

Europol’s 2017 TESAT report highlights the threats posed to Europe by regional instability outside the EU, including the Western Balkans, Caucasus, Africa, Middle East and in NATO-member Turkey. 

The latest Global Trends report published by the U.S. National Intelligence Council focuses on two key trends that will significantly impact the future direction of the terrorist threat:

First, “the resolution or continuation of the many intra- and inter-state conflicts currently underway — most importantly, the Syrian civil war, but also conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and the Sahel, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere — will determine the intensity and geography of future violence.” 

The key factor this will impact is the spread of ungoverned space, which to date has created “an environment conducive to extremism and encouraged the enlistment of thousands of volunteers eager to fight.” 

The second factor is how we deal today with the foreign fighter and migrant phenomena. If not properly managed, these will become the recruiting pools for tomorrow’s terrorist groups.  

What more could NATO do in the counterterrorism arena?  As the latest State Department report on counterterrorism notes, NATO’s added-value in the CT space comes in the three cones of its current strategy: improving threat awareness, developing CT capabilities and enhancing partner engagement.

The creation of a new NATO Strategic Direction-South (NSD-S) Hub in Naples is a welcome development and should help NATO improve situational awareness along NATO’s southern flank and provide long-range, “horizon-scanning” analysis and policy recommendations for NATO HQ, SHAPE and the North Atlantic Council.

This effort should leverage resources to address both existing and future regional security challenges. NATO should play a greater role countering FTFs and the migrant crisis, as an example of current challenges. The EU counterterrorism coordinator has called for increased connectivity between NATO soldiers and Europol for the timely sharing of biometric and other tactical intelligence collected in the field. 

NATO could also do more on maritime security related to the EU’s migrant crisis, he added. But the NSD-S Hub will have the biggest potential impact getting ahead of future problems by partnering NATO officers and analysts with academics and subject-matter experts to focus international engagement (primarily training) in areas that would benefit from being preemptively inoculated from projected instability. 

For example, NATO could focus efforts to prevent the spread of violent extremist organizations in relatively stable but fragile states, such as Tunisia. This must be made a strategic priority over a 10-20-year horizon. 

At the end of the day, the NSD-S Hub cannot be just a response to President Trump, in which case it will be focused more on being seen to be doing something rather than actually generating effects. To get ahead of the trajectory of the tomorrow’s terrorist threat, we must collectively address the two key factors laid out by the NIC: contending with the foreign terrorist fighters coming out of Syria and Iraq and addressing the festering conflicts that create looming disequilibria and the ungoverned spaces in which tomorrow’s threats can fester.

Matthew Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler fellow and director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that seeks to advance a realistic understanding of American interests in the Middle East and to promote the policies that secure them.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.