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NATO’s approach to develop security in Iraq as part of the challenge against international terrorism

The end of the Cold War marked the beginning of an adaptation path for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). After the crisis in Syria and the birth of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), many European and Middle Eastern countries have perceived the danger of the terrorist threat, fostered by the increasing number of migratory waves arriving in the countries of the Alliance through the central Mediterranean and Turkey. After the attacks on the Twin Towers, NATO began a long process of adaptation, implementing a comprehensive approach and supporting member countries and its partners, especially those of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Stability in that area is a priority. This is why NATO, during the Brussels Summit in 2018, has launched its mission in Iraq, under the request of the Iraqi government, in order to develop security structures and help the country’s forces protect their territory against ISIL. In this article, firstly, the path that NATO has followed to deal with international terrorism will be presented. Secondly, expert advice on NATO’s ability to provide support in order to develop security will be shown. Finally, the specific case of the NATO Mission in Iraq (NMI) will be highlighted, exploring its purpose and modalities.

1. NATO’s path in the fight against international terrorism

In 2002, during the Prague Summit, NATO leaders adopted a package of measures aimed at adapting the Alliance to fight terrorism. These measures included a Military Concept for Defence against Terrorism , the Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism (PAP-T), nuclear, biological and chemical defense initiatives, a Civil Emergency Planning Action Plan, a cyber defense strategy, cooperation with other international organizations and the improvement of intelligence sharing[1]. However, the first Strategic Concept came only to 2010 when, during the Lisbon Summit, Allies pledged to strengthen their capabilities in order to counter international terrorism, also by developing adequate military capabilities and basing on a comprehensive approach capable of bringing together political, civil and military instruments[2] by cooperating with partner countries and organizations such as the United Nations (ONU), the European Union (EU) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)[3]. Within the framework of the counter-terrorism policy, NATO has benefited since 2017 from greater information sharing thanks to the cooperation between the intelligence services of its member states. Information sharing between NATO and partner country agencies is active through the Terrorism Intelligence Cell at NATO Headquarters in Brussels which improves the way the Alliance cooperates to meet the challenges by enhancing its ability to respond to them, also through the Hub for the South, based in Naples[4].

In concrete terms, the way in which NATO opposes international terrorism is based, on the one hand, on the Defence Against Terrorism Programme of Work (DAT POW), that aims to protect troops, civilians and critical infrastructures[5]; on the other, on the Center of Excellence for Defense Against Terrorism (COE-DAT), which acts as an advisory body to Allied Command Transformation (ACT) on matters related to terrorism and establishes relations with numerous NATO bodies and other entities. Located in Ankara, its mission is to provide a global understanding of the terrorist threat in order to adapt NATO (but also other countries involved) and allow it to face future challenges while also improving counter-terrorism capabilities. Indeed, since its inauguration in 2005, the Center has collaborated with over 2503 professors, conducted 217 education and training activities or through mobile training teams and hosted over 12,456 participants from 108 countries[6].

Over the past 10 years, NATO made considerable progress and the approach to counter terrorism is listed in the NATO’s Policy Guidelines on Counter-Terrorism. The latter, adopted in 2012 during the Chicago Summit and published in 2016, provides a strategic direction to the counter-terrorism activities underway within the Alliance, identifies the principles to which NATO adheres, identifies the key areas in which it has to strengthen prevention and resilience and provide support for the development of adequate capabilities to address the terrorist threat both within the Alliance and out thanks to cooperation with partner countries and other international actors. In outlining these guidelines, NATO complied with international law, especially the principles of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the same time, considering the solid legislative basis, this allows NATO to support, on request, member states even if it is their primary responsibility to protect their citizens from terrorism. Therefore, NATO wants to avoid any forms of duplication of competences and presents itself as a complementary organization capable of coordinating and exploiting its competences and resources to strengthen the actions of the Allied nations and other international actors. For this reason, the Alliance focuses fundamentally on three main areas: the development of awareness to deal with the terrorist phenomenon, the improvement of capabilities and the engagement to be able to stem the terrorist danger[7].

On the 11th and 12th  July 2018, during the Brussels Summit, Allies reaffirmed their commitment to the fight against terrorism, by confirming the complementary role of NATO in supporting international efforts but also its member countries through an approach at 360 degrees based on deterrence, defense and projecting stability[8].

2. Expert opinions

Several experts and academics have recently shown their interest in NATO’s ability to adapt to international changes and therefore also to the new types of threats that require a comprehensive approach based on cooperation with countries that require Alliance support. NATO’s ability to project stability, for instance by strengthening the development of a country’s security structures, is confirmed by Colonel Ian Hope (who had an operational experiences in the first Gulf War, in the Balkans, Africa, Afghanistan, and domestic operations, and he is now serving on faculty at the NATO Defense College in Rome), which in the introduction of the essay “Projecting Stability: Elixir or Snake Oil?” emphasizes that the crises in different parts of Africa and the Middle East have encouraged the Alliance to engage in the management of the fragility of some countries[9]. Also Benedetta Berti (Head of the Political Planning Unit at the Office of the Secretary General at NATO Headquarters) and Ruben-Erik Diaz-Plaja (Senior Policy Adviser in the Policy Planning Unit in the Office of the Secretary General at NATO HQ in Brussels) in their essay “Two ages of NATO efforts to Project Stability – Change and Continuity” showed that NATO adopted a so-called 360 degree approach, in order to adapt itself to a scenario where threats are increasingly hybrid and to be able to respond effectively to the challenges arising from the Middle East and the North African region[10]. According to them, NATO’s approach based on the projection of stability by training local forces rather than deploying troops has shown the Alliance’s ability to adapt quickly and effectively in order to ensure the security of its borders: training missions through bilateral partnerships in the Ukraine, Georgia, Jordan, Tunisia, Iraq and Afghanistan they are a prime example[11]. Always Ruben Díaz-Plaja in another publication “Projecting Stability: an agenda for action” confirms that NATO is increasingly interested in the Middle East region and it is precisely for this reason that the Allies, in Warsaw, underlined the importance of developing a sustainable approach to stabilize neighboring countries where internal crises could have direct repercussions on the Alliance. The effectiveness of the approach, according to the author, is based first of all on the sustainability of the policies that NATO provides: any mission is planned to produce effects even after the Alliance decreases or ends its support to a country partner. Secondly, the approach is based on durability: helping a country to develop institutions is potentially a long-term project that aims at strengthening its capabilities and then be able to face challenges independently[12].

Also according to Karen Donfried, President of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), the secret of NATO’s longevity was its ability to adapt and remain an actor capable of managing an ever-changing international scenario. In his publication “NATO At 70: A Strategic Partnership For The 21st Century” she points out that although the Alliance was created to avert the Soviet threat, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it remained the only organization capable of providing a credible and stable support for the development of security both inside and outside its borders. The proof is its ability to present itself as a transatlantic organization able of dealing with the terrorist threat. According to her, NATO’s most significant operational commitment to date (in addition to Iraq) is the mission in Afghanistan, started with the International Security Assistance Force under NATO leadership from 2003 to 2014 and followed by Resolute Support to train and assist the Afghan security forces[13].

3. The emblematic support for the development of security in Iraq

As part of its comprehensive approach to strengthen the security structures of partner countries and develop local capacities thus projecting stability, during the Warsaw Summit on 8th and 9th July 2016, Allied leaders decided to provide support to the fight against ISIL, through AWACS aircraft (to provide information to the Global Coalition through the optimized use of multilateral platforms) and starting to train Iraqi officers in Jordan[14]. Already in July 2015, in response to a request from the Iraqi government, NATO had agreed to provide support to strengthening the security capabilities and hold a series of training courses in Jordan. Only after the Warsaw Summit it was decided to support Iraqi military forces in Iraq.

In October 2016, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, in Brussels. During the meeting, Secretary General praised the success of Iraqi security forces in the recovery of key territories from ISIL,  by emphasizing both NATO’s commitment to develop Iraq’s capabilities and putting into practice what was decided at Warsaw[15]. In January 2017, NATO began deploying a core of eight civilian and military personnel in Baghdad and the month after Jordan-based training was transferred. NATO Mission in Iraq (NMI)[16] was officially launched at the Brussels Summit on 11th and 12th July 2018, at the request of the Iraqi government and in coordination with the Global Coalition to defeat ISIL. The aim is to help Iraqi forces protect their country from terrorism thanks to the support of NATO trainers and to prevent the ISIL from resuming the already liberated territories. Hence, the NATO mission helps Iraq strengthening its security forces as well as advises military institutions by training instructors who depend on the Iraqi government. This mission wants to make security structures more stable and operational and deals with combating corruption, guaranteeing the rule of law and protecting civilians[17]. It is therefore a non-combat mission based on respect for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Iraq. NATO training activities are carried out in Iraqi military schools in the Baghdad, Besmaya and Taji area, and it is under the authority of the Allied Joint Force Command (JFC) of Naples[18].

In September 2019, during his visit to Iraq, NATO Secretary General underlined the importance of NMI which is providing advice to Iraqi officials, mainly at the Ministry of Defense and the Office of the Councilor for National Security. In addition, the visit represented the opportunity to thank also Australia, Finland and Sweden for their first commitments as operational partners in this mission[19]. On 20th November 2019, during the meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs it was also approved the updated action plan on strengthening NATO’s role in the fight against terrorism. This includes sharing more information on important terrorist activities and attacks in foreign countries. Finally, it was decided to continue to training missions in Iraq but also in Afghanistan in support of the Global Coalition to defeat ISIL[20].

After 11th September, the Alliance saw a new challenge emerge that forced it to change its perspective. For the public opinion, after the end of the Cold War, NATO had lost its “raison d’être” because the Soviet threat had been eradicated. However, the ever-changing global order, the emergence of new hybrid threats and institutional crises within neighboring and partner countries have deeply influenced the Alliance’s approach as well as its ability to face new challenges. In a world where wars are no longer fought at the front between two well aligned armies but where the threat is changeable and flexible, NATO has become an actor able to adopting a comprehensive and effective approach in order to develop security and capabilities, sources of future stability, in an unstable state like Iraq hit by a hybrid threat such as terrorism.

Maria Elena Argano

Légende Photo: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg views NATO Training Camp Base-Iraq activities at Camp Besmaya, Iraq, March 5, 2018. Stoltenberg greeted NATO trainers and Iraqi troops while touring the facilities

[1] NATO Website, Countering terrorism: (12/11/2019)

[2] NATO Website, A “comprehensive approach” to crises: (26/06/2018)

[3] NATO Website, Brussels Summit Declaration, art.68:  (30/08/2018)

[4] NATO Website, Countering terrorism: (12/11/2019)

[5] NATO Website, Defence Against Terrorism Programme of Work (DAT POW): (03/07/2018)

[6] Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism Website, What is COE?: (18/11/2019)

[7] NATO Website, NATO’s Policy Guidelines on Counter-Terrorism (2012), pp. 6-7:

[8] NATO Website, Brussels Summit Declaration, art. 10: (30/08/2018)

[9] Hope (2018), Introduction – Projecting Stability: Elixir or Snake Oil?, NDC Research Paper, p.1:   

[10] Berti, Diaz-Plaja (2018), Two ages of NATO efforts to Project Stability – Change and Continuity, NDC Research Paper, p. 19:

[11] Ivi, p. 22

[12] NATO Website, Diaz-Plaja (2018), Projecting Stability: an agenda for action, NATO Review:

[13] German Marshall Fund Website, Donfried (2019), NATO At 70: A Strategic Partnership For The 21st Century:

[14] NATO Website, Countering terrorism (12/11/2019)

[15] NATO Website, Secretary General: NATO stands in support of Iraq: (18/10/2016)

[16] NATO Website, NATO Mission in Iraq: (24/06/2019)

[17] Ivi

[18] NATO Website, Factsheet NATO Mission In Iraq: (10/2019)

[19] NATO Website, NATO Secretary General in Iraq: training national forces is a key tool in fighting terrorism: (17/09/2019)

[20] NATO Website, Foreign Ministers take decisions to adapt NATO, recognize space as an operational domain: (20/11/2019)

Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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