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A Terrorist’s Tempest: The Challenge of Operation Sea Guardian

The Middle-East and North Africa (collectively termed ‘MENA’) is a flashpoint for global security. Riven by internal conflict and Jihadist extremism, its convulsions require no re-listing, and will be well-known to any person informed on global affairs. Its geography – at the centre of Eurasia – however, has further implications: namely, enabling the transfer of such tensions into nearby regions. From the Caucasus, Kashmir and Central Asia to the West; to Central Africa to the South, MENA’s arms, ideologies and violence have radiated to its neighbours across land routes and new avenues of connectivity – to each with destabilizing consequences.

To this, Europe has been no exception. While not directly connected to MENA (with its peninsula only circuitously linked via Central Asia), its separation from this region is threadbare – by the narrow Mediterranean Sea, having at its ends the two straits of Gibraltar and the Bosphorus. Indeed, as the world’s most developed region, and historic center of Western civilization, Christendom and colonial metropoles; Europe is magnetic to myriad elements from MENA – e.g., refugees, expatriates and radical Islamists – many of whom have strained the continent. In particular, the influx of its migrants, illegal smuggling and terrorists has upended both security and stability in Europe for most of the last decade. One such culmination of this was Brexit – driven chiefly by immigration anxiety – with such tension being continuous to date.

Enter NATO. Devoted to Euro-Atlantic security, the alliance is institutionally bound to mitigate the spread of unstable elements from MENA into Europe, and secure its Mare Nostrum – being the continent’s most critical commercial sea lane – from threats to navigation. To that end, NATO established Operation Active Endeavour in 2001, which has since been succeeded by Operation Sea Guardian in 2016. Under the authority of NATO’s Allied Maritime Command in Northwood, England; the multinational initiative – operating on surface, undersea and aerial realms – seeks to interrupt the flow of arms and terrorism between MENA and Europe, as well as form a “hub for maritime security information sharing” among member-states.

The operation’s record over the last five years yields a modest assessment. Over each of its three-week patrols conducted six times each year, the operation has detected several thousand vessels travelling across the Mediterranean, with anywhere between 300 and 600 vessels being “hailed” (i.e. contacted by NATO forces) for further examination. Much of the operation’s work has involved supporting the arms embargo on Libya – pursuant to U.N. Security Council Resolution 2292 – by monitoring the transit of vessels to Libyan ports, with broad consistency. Moreover, amidst tensions within NATO on other matters – e.g., burden-sharing and Syrian operations – cooperation between member-states within Sea Guardian has been usually placid, with rivals Greece and Turkey being robust collaborators. Notwithstanding France’s withdrawal in 2020, owing to a dispute with the Turkish Navy – part of broader tensions between both nations – few member-states have raised public complaints about Sea Guardian and its current value.

The absence of complaints, however, is precisely the problem – illustrating the dearth of attention that it has been accorded. If Emmanuel Macron’s notorious epithet of “brain death” is relevant to any part of NATO, Sea Guardian would be a strong candidate. At present, the operation is beset by a chief problem of underutilization – whereby it has merely been a “supportive” engagement – designed to share information and train forces rather than “interdict” the flow of arms and terrorists or protect navigational freedom. Instead, these tasks are undertaken by individual member-states – including the European Union’s Operation Irini – without formal NATO leadership. The fact that, unlike Active Endeavour, Sea Guardian is a “non-Article 5” operation – lacking the statutory authority granting military responsiveness to an armed attack – restricts participants’ ability to conduct any assertive operations or generally use military force (unless directly provoked). Consequently, the operation – to date – has amounted to a mere mirage on the Mediterranean horizon, building the “capacities” of NATO forces to little real effect.

Needless to say, such a prospect is most undesirable. As the civil war in Libya continues, popular discontent grows in Egypt and Algeria and ISIS seeks a new foothold in North Africa (to them, the ‘Islamic Maghreb’), the potential for more extremism and violence to enter Europe increases manifold. Already, European maritime forces struggle to stem the swelling tide of refugee boats (much less screen passengers for terrorist affiliation) that enter Mediterranean coasts every day. The lack of effective inhibition to such transit has already damaged Europe considerably, causing domestic political polarization – stemming from terrorism committed by cross-Mediterranean migrants, and rising budgetary allocations to house migrants and process asylum claims – and Euroscepticism. If NATO does not act to stem their causes via the Mediterranean, European security may be undermined by internal instability – thus abrogating the alliance’s key objective, and undermining the operation’s own objectives.

To that end, Operation Sea Guardian requires several key reforms. At their foundation must rest a shift in understanding the various threats to Europe from MENA – treating Jihadist terrorism on the continent as a threat under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty (triggering collective defence obligations). On such bases, Sea Guardian must be reconfigured as an Article 5 mission that actively interdicts the flow of arms and persons across the Mediterranean, with greater permissiveness for the use of force against perceived threats. This may be partially accomplished via the North Atlantic Council’s activation of Sea Guardian’s enhanced mission objectives – enabling the deployment of law enforcement, special operations and the greater use of force. However, such reconfiguration must include attempts to limit the flow of boats carrying migrants into Europe – which is unlawful, in any case – and forcing them to return to their waters of origin. Some may consider this as disruptive to humanitarianism, an ‘excessive’ military response and/or a ‘morally unconscionable’ act, but the transit of terrorists (perpetrating mass casualty events) via maritime channels is sufficient to merit such changes. Fundamentally, NATO’s responsibility in the region is towards Europe – not migrants and refugees – and it must undertake equivalent steps to secure the continent from threats to its security, which such a measure would effectively achieve.

At present, it is unclear as to whether such reform may be achieved. While Europe continues to bear the brunt of a porous Mediterranean, and would likely welcome enhanced security (providing domestic parties political cover), the ability of NATO member-states to cooperate on such comprehensive reform – on a polarizing issue – is questionable. Much of Sea Guardian’s stability, so far, has hailed from its underwhelming character – with reform inviting further controversy, especially in the context of Franco-Turkish tensions (alluded to earlier) that have lately caused an alliance-wide strain.  Regardless of the obstacles, however, Operation Sea Guardian requires urgent reform if maritime security is to be achieved. Member-states must step-up to secure the Mediterranean, or risk being engulfed by the violent tempest that beckons.

Photo: Migrant operations in the Mediterranean Sea in November 2016, by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times, via PBS Frontline. Open domain.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Arjun Singh
Arjun Singh served as Programme Editor with the NATO Association of Canada. He attended The Doon School and holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of Toronto where he specialized in political science, while also obtaining a major in international relations and minors in American studies and history – graduating with High Distinction and in three years. His primary interests are the U.S. government and foreign policy; individual rights and free speech; the Anglosphere; grand strategy; classical and liberal political thought and American revolutionary history – though he reports a “relentless curiosity” about all the world’s politics and political institutions. Previously, he has worked for the U.S. Department of State, the Parliament of India, G20 Research Group and Elections Canada. He was a Young Global Scholar at Yale University in 2017. His allied interests include writing, cycling, contemporary non-fiction, classic literature, British television, 80s rock and the endless pursuit of knowledge. He seeks a career in political and public service, yet is always keen on new opportunities, wherever they may be.