Terrorism and Mediterranean Security: A Net Assessment

According to the latest figures from the Global Terrorism Database, the incidence and lethality of worldwide terrorism declined in 2015.[1]  This is good news, and helps to put

According to the latest figures from the Global Terrorism Database, the incidence and lethality of worldwide terrorism declined in 2015.[1]  This is good news, and helps to put the global terrorism challenge in context.  Yet, the Mediterranean region has little to celebrate when it comes to terrorism trends and consequences. Both Turkey and Egypt have experienced a sharp rise in terrorism over the past year, and the European security environment as a whole is being shaped, in large part, by terrorism and the threat of terrorism emanating from Europe’s southern periphery. These risks are hardly new, but they have acquired new meaning in light of the sustained conflict and chaos around the southern and eastern Mediterranean, and the persistent economic and social pressures across southern Europe.  Above all, terrorism concerns and counter-terrorism partnerships will underscore the strategic importance of the region on both sides of the Atlantic at a time of flux in national, NATO and EU strategies. Four points stand out from our debate in Naples.

First, the Mediterranean security environment as a whole will continue to be strongly affected by terrorism, and the flow of terrorists through the region. This will be the case even in the absence of any local increase in the frequency and lethality of attacks.  Unlike Al-Qaeda, the latest generation of jihadi terrorists has shown little inclination for mass lethality on the pattern of the 9/11 attacks or interest in terrorism with weapons of mass destruction. But competitive dynamics and a propensity for escalation has been a characteristic of religious terrorism in the past.  Competition with Al-Qaeda, and within the IS network itself, could push in this direction, as could the frustration of IS territorial ambitions in Iraq, Syria or Libya.

There will be no shortage of radicalized individuals returning from the fighting in the Levant and Libya. Of the thousands of foreign fighters recruited from Europe, it is estimated that some thirty percent have already returned to their home countries. North Africa is also exposed. Tunisia, often seen as a relatively successful post-revolutionary society, has produced the largest contingent of foreign fighters for IS. The Moroccan diaspora in Europe is also prominent. By contrast, relatively few Algerians have journeyed to fight for IS. The exhausting experience of Algerian terrorism in the 1990s, in which over 100,000 died, is widely seen as limiting the attraction of violent Islamism in contemporary Algeria. This may well be the case, although significant numbers of Algerians have joined AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) cells operating in North Africa and the Sahel.

Beyond violent Islamists, the Mediterranean remains a reservoir of terrorism and political violence based on secular ideologies of the left and the right, nationalism and ethnic grievances. The sharp rise in PKK terrorism in Turkey (and terrorism by spin-off groups based in urban areas) is a leading example. Greece continues to confront steady, low-intensity terrorism from left-wing and anarchist cells, alongside right-wing extremism. Southern Europe as a whole has a long history in confronting separatist and ideological terrorism, and our debate pointed to the potential for its revival under conditions of protracted economic stress and political instability. The general rise of populist movements could also encourage the emergence of xenophobic, anti-globalization or simply nihilistic terrorism on the fringes of radical politics.

Second, maritime terrorism will remain a concern, but is unlikely to play a major role in terrorist operations. There have been surprisingly few terrorist attacks at sea in the Mediterranean, or at ports and choke points such as Gibraltar and the Suez Canal.  But there have been some.  The lethal hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 by the Palestine Liberation Front remains the most serious incident of this kind, not least because of the ensuing confrontation between Italy and the U.S. over the incident.  There have been other minor attacks on commercial shipping at Gibraltar and Suez, and the IS presence in Syria and Libya has fuelled concerns about the exposure of cruise ships, commercial and naval vessels operating in the central and eastern Mediterranean.  With growing instability in the Sinai, the terrorist risk to the Suez Canal has increased, although the Egyptian government has long made the security of the Canal a very high priority. Offshore energy infrastructure in the eastern Mediterranean is another point of potential vulnerability, although hardly an easy target for terrorists (there have been some very inaccurate attempts to target offshore oil platforms with rockets fired from Gaza).

Overall, however, the maritime risks in the Mediterranean appear modest and manageable. Maritime terrorism is difficult. Terrorist movements around the region, including the foreign fighters, are poorly equipped to operate in a demanding maritime environment, even if their presence ashore gives them some proximity to potential targets. Commercial ships, including tankers and cruise ships, are relatively hard targets, generally much harder to attack with effect than lightly built naval vessels. Coastal hotels, resorts and port installations are more vulnerable.

Third, terrorism – and the effectiveness of counter-terrorism strategies – will be a key driver of stability and security in individual Mediterranean states.  Some key countries have already been profoundly affected by terrorist attacks and the prospect of continued campaigns, often from multiple sources.  Turkey is a prime example.  The end of a protracted ceasefire with the PKK, and a return to terrorism and insurgency of the kind experienced in the 1990s – a conflict in which perhaps 30,000 people died – is profoundly weakening the stability of the country. PKK attacks, largely on security forces, have been accompanied by a recent rise in IS attacks inside Turkey, something Turkey had avoided for years, despite the steady flow of foreign fighters across the Turkish-Syrian border.  Given the likely scale of jihadi networks in Turkey, these attacks, most of which have targeted foreigners, could well increase and become more ambitious in tempo and lethality. Turkish towns along the Syrian border are regularly targeted by rockets fired from IS controlled territory. 

Taken together, the PKK and IS attacks (as well as some by more obscure left-wing extremists) have fostered a sense of mounting insecurity in Turkish society.  They have also had a serious effect on tourism, already badly hurt by the loss of Russian visitors.  There  is a substantial risk of declines on international trade and investment too, especially vis-à-vis Western businesses.  Almost daily sorties by Turkish aircraft against PKK positions in Iraq and Syria, but also against targets in south-eastern Anatolia, are contributing to growing unease in NATO and the EU about the stability of a key partner. On a political level, sharp differences over the legal definition of terrorism and approaches to counter-terrorism are now a leading source of friction between Ankara and the country’s European and American partners.

Morocco has been relatively successful in its attempts to forestall radicalization and monitor extremist networks, including networks involving the diaspora in Europe (Rabat has been a leading source of counter-terrorism intelligence for the French and Belgian authorities). That said, there is substantial concern in Moroccan policy circles about the country’s exposure to terrorist movements operating across the Sahel and West Africa, where Morocco has close ties, or instability in Algeria which would certainly affect Morocco.

The consequences of terrorism for stability and prosperity have been most striking in Egypt, where a wave of IS and other Islamist attacks on government facilities, security forces, hotels and aircraft have led to the collapse of international tourism. The IS presence in Sinai threatens government control in a region critical for the visitor economy, but also for the security of the Suez Canal.  The Egyptian case is probably the most striking Mediterranean example of the isolating effect of terrorism on countries that have come to depend on global flows of people and capital.

Fourth, terrorism emanating from the Mediterranean and adjacent regions will give strong impetus to transatlantic strategy looking south.  Without question, counter-terrorism is likely to be a leading driver of national, EU, and NATO attention to Mediterranean security and transatlantic strategy looking south.  The widely distributed nature of the challenge also means that this concern will hardly be limited to southern Europe and Turkey.  Europe as a whole is exposed to terrorism linked to developments around the Mediterranean, and the IS threat in particular looms large in the perception of publics across the EU.[i] Together with the very different challenge posed by Russian actions to Europe’s east, counter-terrorism is also likely to be a central concern for the U.S. in the context of European security.  The theatre of concern is very wide, and should be thought of as a continuum stretching from West Africa and the Sahel, through the Maghreb to Europe. In the east, the links stretch from the Indian Ocean, the Horn of Africa and the Gulf, to the Levant and the Balkans. The sheer extent and diversity of risk across this space, without a single animating threat, complicates the development of NATO and EU strategy looking south. But the level of public and political attention to terrorism, especially in its Middle Eastern dimension, suggests that policymakers will be compelled to address this challenge as a matter of transatlantic strategy. It will surely be near the top of the agenda at NATO’s Warsaw summit in July, and should figure prominently in the EU’s forthcoming global strategy document. To the extent that transatlantic security partners bolster their military presence in the south, and become more actively engaged in counter-terrorism missions, defence establishments will almost certainly need to contend with more serious force protection challenges affecting bases and operations around the Mediterranean.

 In a Mediterranean frame, terrorism is a trans-regional and not simply a transnational phenomenon.  Europe may look to the southern Mediterranean littoral with concern, but the countries of North Africa are even more directly exposed to risks emanating from further south.   These countries, and Turkey, also see themselves as exposed to spill-overs from radicalized Muslim communities in Europe, as well as the organizational and fundraising activities of secular separatist movements inside the EU.  In this sense, the north-south flow of ideology, people and resources related to terrorism is very much a two-way street. 

Finally, the prominence of terrorism in strategic perceptions on both sides of the Atlantic should give greater impetus to international cooperation on counter-terrorism, from intelligence sharing to multilateral operations and common approaches to counter-radicalization.  But attention on this front has been accompanied by political pressures for re-nationalization in defence policies and evident scepticism about the effectiveness of coalitions on both sides of the Atlantic.  These tendencies, if entrenched, will inevitably complicate counter-terrorism strategy, and the consequences will be felt, first and foremost, in the Mediterranean. 



[i] According to the latest polling by the Pew Research Center, majorities across Europe – even in Northern and Eastern Europe – see ISIS as the most serious threat.  See Bruce Stokes, Richard Wike and Jacob Poushter, Europeans Face the World Divided (Washington: Pew Research Center, June 2016).