After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America’s allies were quick to come to its aid. Less than 24 hours after the attack, the North NATO Council made the decision to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty for the first time. On October 4th, when it was determined that the attack had come from Al Qaeda, which was being sheltered in Afghanistan by the Taliban, NATO agreed on a package of 8 measures to support the US under the common defence principle of Article 5.
Since 9/11, NATO has made countering terrorism one of its main priorities. Both NATO’s Strategic Concept and the Lisbon Summit Declaration of 2010 have declared that terrorism poses a real threat, and the allies have gone a long way in increasing their ability to defend against terrorist attacks and root out threats to Alliance members, by increasing intelligence sharing, improving surveillance technology and related measures. On top of that, at a meeting in Reykjavik in May 2002, NATO Foreign Ministers ended the “out of area” debate by stating that the Alliance would operate when and where necessary to fight terrorism.
It is undeniable that NATO’s response to 9/11 set a positive precedent of unity, solidarity and support among Alliance members in the face of terrorism. The parameters for NATO involvement in Afghanistan were relatively straightforward. Not only did all NATO members vote to invoke Article 5, but there was also a UN mandate for intervention. The enemy was easily identified as Al Qaeda and the willingness of the Taliban to harbour the terrorist organization made it very difficult to argue against intervening in that country.
Nonetheless, the difference between now and 2001 is the fact that that terrorist attacks and threats today are hardly as clear-cut. As extremist groups evolve, so do their tactics, making the politics of intervention and assistance all the more muddled. One can only ask the question, if an attack on the scale and severity of the 9/11 were to take place again in any NATO country, would the Alliance react in the same way.
One of the problems today is that the rise in homegrown terror and lone wolf terror attacks has meant that fundamentalist organizations like Al Qaeda are increasingly blurring what constitutes an “attack from abroad”. For example, many of the more recent terrorist attacks and plots such the Fort Hood attack and the Boston Marathon bombing were committed by “lone wolf” terrorists, yet their training and radicalization can be attributed to fundamentalist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Moreover, even when it is clear who the culprit of the terrorist activity is, this does not give NATO the right to intervene in that country. An example of this can be seen with Yemen. Although AQAP has not successfully conducted a large-scale attack on a NATO country to the scale of 9/11, it is frequently the source of training, radicalization, and attempted plots. The Yemeni government, however, has been an ally of the United States, and has done what it can despite being a failing state to align itself with American counterterrorism initiatives. Although the Obama Administration has been conducting drone strikes with the Yemeni government’s approval since 2009, this does not give the US good reasons to infringe on Yemeni sovereignty, as the government is not harbouring Al Qaeda. AQAP is merely capitalizing on issues that cannot be resolved through intervention, such as weak statehood, widespread societal grievances, disappearing resources and the presence of ungoverned areas.
In addition to this, the economic climate in the majority of NATO countries has changed drastically over the course of the last 12 years. Events such as the Great Recession and the Eurozone crisis have forced almost every country to make budget cuts, and many countries have chosen to cut their defence budgets. Even the United States has decided to reduce its defence budget after years of massive spending.
Lastly, over a decade of military involvement in Afghanistan has imbued many NATO members with fear of intervening in another nation and being drawn in to another lengthy war. This can already be seen in the reluctance of many countries to get involved in Syria. Not only do NATO member countries lack the finances for a military campaign and state building, but public opinion is also firmly against another “Afghanistan”.
Prospects for the Future
So, the question still remains, would NATO member countries have the same reaction if a 9/11-style attack occurred tomorrow? If the United States was subject to a terrorist attacks, its allies would in all likelihood again assist the United States. The fact of the matter is that the majority of NATO countries are still reliant on the US for their security, and do not possess the military technology or personnel to defend themselves if attacked.
Not stepping up in a time of need, such as a terrorist attack from abroad, risks that the US government and public will view NATO as an unneeded expense, and will pull back from the Alliance. Defence cuts have meant that the US no longer has the willingness to “go it alone” in conflicts if it can be avoided. An easy way to cut defence costs, however, would be to pull out of an Alliance where the other Allies not only refuse to pull their own weight, but also turned their backs when needed. For this reason, NATO members would in all likelihood “step up to the plate” if the US was once again attacked, even in the face of potential domestic backlash.
Whether this assistance would also be provided if another NATO member were the victim of an attack is an open question. Although NATO has been decisive in countering terrorism, member countries are still consistently the targets of terrorist activity. For this reason, the potential to be tested is still there, and one can only hope that the Allies choose unity over going it alone.