in: IMI/DFG-VK: Kein Frieden mit der NATO

World Domination through the Control of Flows

NATO’s role in the militarization of migration

von: Christoph Marischka | Veröffentlicht am: 4. Januar 2009


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This text sheds light on various aspects of NATO’s strategy which restrict people’s freedom of movement and contribute to the militarization of border regimes around the globe. The author wishes to distance himself from a number of deeply disparaging terms such as “migration flows”, “youth bulge” and “surplus population” commonly used in this context. They do not adequately describe individual decisions, emergency situations and their consequences – unless, that is, one is striving for world domination and is therefore analysing demographic trends on a continent scale, as NATO is doing.

Active Endeavour

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, NATO – for the first time in its history – invoked the mutual defence clause contained in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and declared war on an invisible and abstract enemy, namely international terrorism. As part of the global “war on terror”, NATO’s Mediterranean Fleet was mobilized; since then, it has patrolled the Mediterranean as part of Operation Active Endeavour in order to survey merchant traffic. By November 2007, as part of this operation, 88,590 ships had been hailed, 488 escorted and 125 boarded for inspection. A NATO propaganda video, entitled “Defence against terrorism”, shows us what boarding entails: several warships approach the target vessel, in this instance a tanker, while helicopters with manned machine guns hover overhead. Radio contact is established with the vessel, which is requested to state its origin, cargo and destination. The information received is then compared to the intelligence data available from NATO’s “intelligence network”, and if any discrepancies are identified, an inspection of the vessel is carried out. NATO forces may also
undertake random checks. The crew is required to assemble on deck while NATO troops converge by inflatable dinghies and board the vessel, wearing bullet-proof vests and with guns at the ready. They cast a glance at the ship’s logs and cargo and roam through the tanker’s gangways and staterooms.

This type of inspection at sea is only permissible during a state of war, which was declared with NATO’s invocation of Article 5 and is still in force in the Mediterranean today. Officially, Active Endeavour is intended to ensure that no terrorists and particularly no weapons or ABC-Agents cross the Mediterranean into Europe. However, during the inspections, the boarding party is “not looking for one particular activity in one particular area” but attempts gain a general impression of the vessel and look out for anything that might be suspicious. “Until now, all our inspections have always been negative”, it says in the film. “In other words, we have never found any weapons or suspicious material”. However, it continues, the preventive effect of the operation should not be underestimated.

The military presence in the Mediterranean is intended to intimidate crews and force them into prompt obedience. It also entails detailed inspections of cargos, a rigorous approach to blind passengers and in cases of doubt, a policy of not rescuing boat people in distress. Indeed, rescuing shipwreck survivors in the Mediterranean has already resulted in prosecutions being brought against ships’ crews on several occasions.

The US Ambassador in Malta at least tries to convince us that as part of the EU’s strategy of warding off unwanted migrants, the militarization of the Mediterranean – one of the EU’s most important external borders and a region which spans one of the widest prosperity gaps in the world – is having an effect. According to the Ambassador, “Operation Active Endeavour has had a beneficial by-product”: “In the Western part of the Med, where the operation started, irregular immigration was reduced by about 50 per cent.”[1] It is doubtful, though, whether this is the main purpose of the operation. The clue to that can be found in the long-term goal, which is to achieve domination of our globalized world – a world which NATO strategists view primarily in terms of flows of goods, information and people – through the military control of these flows. Terrorism is currently a pretext for this, not only in the Mediterranean.

Reinforcing borders in Africa

It was largely by chance that despite initial plans to stage its first official African exercises (Steadfast Jaguar) in Mauritania in 2006, NATO then switched to the Cape Verde islands, from where the number of refugees arriving by boat in the Canaries had recently soared following the clampdown in the Mediterranean. NATO’s interest in the West African coast is largely due to the resource deposits and the pipelines from Nigeria and Central Africa which terminate here.[2] The coast of Nigeria, in particular, is regarded as a piracy “hot spot”; hence it is planned to subject it to more vigorous control by international naval forces in order to safeguard the security of the First World’s supply of cheap oil from the Third World. But here too, we run the risk of interpreting NATO’s interests too specifically if we focus solely on oil. In July 2007, a year after the Cape Verde exercise, part of NATO’s Mediterranean Fleet undertook a circumnavigation of the entire African continent in order “to highlight NATO’s capability to uphold security and international law on the high seas”.[3] To that end, the fleet sailed from the Mediterranean Sea to the west coast of Africa, showed its presence in the Niger Delta and then continued to South Africa, where joint exercises were conducted for the first time with South African Navy ships. Finally, the warships visited the Seychelles and conducted exercises off the coast of Somalia, where NATO ships have also had a constant presence since 2001 within the framework of Operation Enduring Freedom, before returning to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal.

The US Navy has also established an “Africa Partnership Station” initiative, which involves regular visits by US warships to West African ports in order to hold joint exercises, practical courses and professional training for coast guards and mariners. The goal of this initiative is “to improve the ability of the nations involved to extend the rule of law out to sea and better combat illegal fishing, human smuggling, drug trafficking, oil theft and piracy”.[4]

Although these are purely US operations at present, the US forces almost invariably use NATO bases in Europe for their operations in Africa, and many of the ships involved are permanently stationed in Europe and sometimes belong to NATO units. The EU has also deployed military personnel in West Africa, albeit only in Guinea-Bissau until now, but is seeking to expand this engagement. The EU justifies such a move with the argument that there is a need to combat drug trafficking from this region and that local security forces are unreliable. Through reforms of the security sector (police and the military) in the countries concerned and installation of the EU’s own surveillance technology, it aims to improve surveillance of seaports and airports.[5] This is because the hubs where international flows converge, which are not subject to Europe’s control, are regarded per se as a threat to European security.

Combating drug trafficking, along with preventing migration, is also one of the objectives of the Spanish Sea Horse Network. In essence, this entails the transmission of European real-time satellite images from the West African coast to the security agencies, but also includes border management training programmes for the various security forces.[6] The US is planning similar programmes in almost every African country within the framework of counter-terrorism. Border security in Africa is viewed as the key instrument in the war on terror, largely because “failed states” are viewed per se as a hotbed and haven for terrorists and as a hub for weapons (of mass destruction), and also because from a Western perspective, the ability to control one’s one borders is seen as one of the key features of statehood. However, analyses have apparently also shown that although highly unstable states offer opportunities for funding and recruitment by terrorist groups, these networks are also reliant on at least a minimum level of infrastructure (and therefore on more stable states) in order to operate internationally. For that reason too, great importance is attached to internal borders in Africa.[7] Certainly, the unregistered movements across borders which are now the norm in many African countries are viewed as a threat. Various programmes have been launched to control them, notably the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI, which later became the Trans-Sahel Counter-Terrorism Initiative – TSCTI). Within this framework, Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania have received training and equipment for border control.[8] At the same time the EU tries especially in North Africa, to close Africa’s internal borders to potential migrants to the EU. The US initiatives were initially led by EUCOM in Stuttgart. They are now led by US Africa Command (AFRICOM), which is based at EUCOM – which is also intermeshed with NATO.

Reinforcing borders in Eurasia

NATO has pursued the same rationale within the framework of the “Partnership for Peace” (PfP) Programme: “Borders are one of the first lines of defence against terrorism”.[9] Launched in 1994 to support the accession of candidate countries from the Balkans and the Baltic, the PfP Programme now serves as an instrument to extend NATO’s influence deep into the Asian region. Within the PfP framework, NATO pressurizes its partner countries – even those with no prospect of ever joining NATO – to restructure their security sectors, including border security, in line with NATO’s own ideas and to cooperate with international organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Interpol. The PfP anti-terrorism module (Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism – PAP-T), provides for the exchange of intelligence data on cross-border crime and financial transfers and offers training and equipment to national border guard agencies. At the NATO School in Oberammergau (Germany) and the PfP Training Centres in Greece and Turkey, courses in “border security” are offered which explicitly cover training to curb “illegal migration”.[9] In April 2008, NATO’s Marshall Center in Garmisch (Germany) staged a five-day conference on the exchange of best practices in the field of border security, which was attended by delegates from 26 NATO and partner countries.[11] NATO also organizes information exchange on migration routes between partner countries, and with international organizations. It thus plays a direct role in the development of border regimes in countries such as Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. In Central Asia, “border security” is one of the priorities on its agenda.[12] Peter W. Singer from the Brookings Institution responded to the question of NATO’s future role by pointing to the Alliance’s experience of “exporting” border security to the Balkans and Central Asia. He argued that NATO does not have to limit itself to traditionally military functions and could perform this type of “new security function” to a greater extent.[13]

And indeed, NATO’s experience with border management in the Balkans is considerable, if not always glorious. All the Balkan countries (with the exception of Kosovo) are, or were, partners in the PfP Programme and have adapted, or are currently adapting, their security sector, including border security, in line with NATO’s expectations. In Kosovo and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, NATO has undertaken border security itself intermittently as part of its military occupation missions and has played a direct role in setting up border units composed of local personnel thereafter. What’s more, in 2003, together with the EU and the OSCE, it initiated the Ohrid Process on Border Security and Management with a view to improving border security. This process is intended to improve cooperation between border protection agencies in the countries of the Western Balkans and bring their migration regimes into line with the EU’s requirements.

In the Black Sea region too – which, according to Ilkka Laitinen, the Director of the EU’s border management agency FRONTEX, is one of the hotspots of illegal migration and a future field of action for the Agency[14] – NATO is involved in tightening up and militarizing border surveillance.

NATO attaches immense geostrategic importance to this region too, not only because this is where its own sphere of influence meets Russia’s and because several oil pipelines terminate at the Black Sea, but also because NATO regards the Black Sea as a uncontrolled transit region for people, weapons and drugs, especially from Afghanistan. NATO was therefore keen to extend Operation Active Endeavour, discussed above, to this region too. This was successfully resisted by Russia and Turkey. Instead, the two countries joined forces in “Black Sea Harmony”, their own naval operation modelled on Active Endeavour.[15] Both countries had previously participated in the Mediterranean operation, albeit temporarily, in order to study NATO practice.

Together with the United States European Command and the EU, NATO is also developing a strategy on ways of involving itself in security cooperation in the Black Sea region. Two Initiatives should be mentioned in particular here. At the SECI Center (Southeast European Cooperative Initiative) in Bucharest, 24 police and customs officials from all the Balkan countries plus Hungary and Moldova work together, with “leadership and advice” from Interpol and the World Customs Organization. In 2004, for example, this cooperation resulted in the arrest of 500 “human traffickers”. In the Black Sea Border Coordination and Information Center (BBCIC) in Bulgaria, the coast guards of six Black Sea countries exchange information almost on a daily basis. NATO is now speculating on expanding these two centres, which are located in NATO countries, and encouraging more Black Sea states to join. As an incentive, prospective members will be offered access to the more sophisticated reconnaissance assets which NATO is able to make available. The US is considering deploying unmanned reconnaissance aircraft (drones) and passing on reconnaissance data, primarily in order to influence Russian governance policy in the Black Sea region.[16]

Migration as pared-down social policy

Whether in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina or Kosovo: wherever NATO has carried out military occupations and has been involved in new state-building, its efforts were driven primarily by security or strategic interests. In economic policy terms, its state-building efforts have invariably pursued a rigorous neoliberal ideology. In consequence, it has wasted very little effort on the development of social security systems; instead, hopes have rested on the prospect of foreign direct investment, which often failed to materialize or whose profits could be transferred almost in their entirety abroad.[17] Yet at the same time, billions have been invested in setting up new police and armed forces and border protection units. This approach has created impoverished populations with absolutely no prospects for the future, who are consequently more susceptible to different kinds of revolutionary ideologies and whose livelihoods depend on informal or criminal activities. This in turn makes military pacification essential in the long term.

The most striking example of a economically non-viable state that was bombed into existence by NATO in its own geopolitical interests is probably Kosovo, where youth unemployment now stands at 75%, and 40% of the population – that is the official figure – lives in poverty.[18] The international community long ago abandoned any hope of achieving a level of economic development which could match Kosovo’s strong population growth. Even power generation from lignite – Kosovo’s “only potentially viable economic sector” – is unlikely to create more than 20,3000-30,000 jobs, at best, in a situation in which 36,000 young people join the ranks of the workforce every year. “Migration pressure” here has been maintained by military means, e.g. through the measures described above. In 2007, due to the dire state of Kosovo’s economy and on the basis of intelligence data, the Institute for European Politics (IEP) warned of “revolutionary-like upheavals” in the coming years. In recent years, there have therefore been increasingly vocal calls for visa facilitation for young Kosovans in the interests of security, in order to give them the chance to work abroad and support their families through remittances. The Center for Applied Policy Research (CAP) noted at the same time, however, that such a move “…requires the effective implementation of readmission agreements by the Western Balkan states.”[19]

The demographic risk

The demographic composition of the population is now a key focus of attention in Western risk analyses and security strategies. The “youth bulge”,[20] i.e. an excess in especially young adult males in the total population, is now viewed as a particular threat; this can arise, for example, if survival rates improve due to better hygiene conditions or medical care but there is no corresponding fall in the birth rate. This “youth bulge” is especially noticeable in many Arab countries. If policy-makers are unwilling or unable to expand the public infrastructure (kindergartens, schools, housing, social amenities) accordingly, either due to a weak economy or neoliberal adjustment programmes, for example, there is a risk of a “surplus population”[21] arising. “Demographic trends affect urbanisation, crime and terrorism”.[22] For that reason, “demography” i.e. “population growth and change across the globe”, is identified by leading figures in NATO – the authors of a proposal for a new NATO strategy – as the first of six “principal challenges … facing the global community today”. Such threats are posed not only by population growth in the Arab countries and Africa, but also by the shrinking and ageing of the populations in Europe, while Russia, due to its own shrinking population, “… will increasingly struggle to control its vast landmass”.

World domination through interdiction

All in all, the authors of this draft strategy paint a gloomy picture of globalization which, they argue, has produced “a complexity beyond predictability” and new threats. “To be prepared for what cannot be predicted is going to be one of the foremost challenges in the years ahead.” These challenges cannot be mastered by any “individual nation acting alone”. What is needed, therefore, is a renewed NATO as “an alliance of democracies” … “to make the common and comprehensive zone of common security from Finland to Alaska become a reality”. The authors conclude that of the present institutions, NATO is the most appropriate to serve as a core element of a future global “security architecture”.[23]

This claim to world domination is currently evident from the actions of NATO’s naval forces, a kind of multinational consortium which is attempting to gain permanent control of all the major chokepoints of international maritime trade.[24] Indeed, interdiction – “in other words, the control and interruption of passenger and goods transport”[25] on a grand scale – is the traditional function of any navy. But in a globalized world beset with unpredictable hazards (severe weather, epidemics, unrest, flight, strike action) – a world which, moreover, has now declared war on terrorism – it is not enough simply to inspect container vessels. Every industrial site and border post becomes part of the security architecture. Military strategists therefore take the view that interdiction must be one of the key tasks of the future armed forces. However, NATO forces cannot and should not monitor every border post and stretch of coast themselves (in any case, more “civilian-type” forces are better suited to deal with fishing boats, commuters and tourists), but they are meant to ensure that such surveillance takes place and exert influence over how it is carried out. This is the reason for NATO’s presence off the coast of West Africa while the US and EU are training gendarmeries there, and it is the reason why NATO is supporting local cooperation initiatives such as SECI and BBCIC. It is the reason why NATO is providing advice to border officials from Central Asia and Western Europe, and why it is inspecting tankers in the Mediterranean, while FRONTEX undertakes the coordination of its member states and their Defence Ministries, intelligence services and coast guards. The aim is to ensure that no fishing boat ever ventures to make the crossing again and no inflatable dinghy ever lands undetected in Europe.


[1] “The Potential for Growth”: Vanessa Macdonald interviews the US Ambassador to Malta, Molly Bordonaro,

[2] Martin Pabst: External Interests in West Africa, in: Brigadier Walter Feichtinger, Gerald Hainzl: Sorting Out the Mass – Wars, Conflicts, and Conflict Management, Studien und Berichte zur Sicherheitspolitik der österreichischen Landesverteidigungsakademie, 1999

[3] „NATO naval force sets sail for Africa“, NATO News, 30.7.2007

[4] (13.1.2009)

[5] Christoph Marischka: Was kostet Guinea-Bissau?, Telepolis, 13.6.2008, and: “EU plant weiteres Engagement in Westafrika”, kritische Online-AG Neue Kriege, 14.11.2008

[6] „Indra will deploy a communications channel for information exchange regarding illegal inmigration and drug trafficking“, press release issued by Indra Sistemas S.A., 9.5.2008

[7] Jessica R. Piombo: Terrorism and U.S. Counter-Terrorism Programs in Africa – An Overview, in: Strategic Insights, Volume VI, Issue 1 (January 2007)

[8] ibid. The following document provides a valuable overview of the programmes and cooperation implemented by the US as part of its anti-drug trafficking efforts in almost every country of the world: US Department of State: International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2008,

[9] “The Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism – How does cooperation work in practice?” NATO Topics, 30.1.2008

[10] ibid.

[11] “Marshall Center border security conference focuses on best practices”, press release issued by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, April 2008

[12] Alexander Catranis: NATO’s Role in Central Asia, in: Central Asia and the Caucasus 5/2005

[13] “New Thinking on Transatlantic Security: Terrorism, NATO, and Beyond”, speech delivered by Peter W. Singer at the 2002 BMW Herbert Quandt Stiftung Workshop on „Transatlantic Challenges“, 26.11.2002

[14] As stated by Laitinen at an event organised by the European Commission at the Europäisches Haus in Berlin, 19.5.2008

[15] Eugene Rumer / Jeffrey Simon: Towards a Euro-Atlantic Strategy for the Black Sea Region, National Defense University / Institute for National Strategic Studies Staff Analysis, January 2006

[16] ibid.

[17] For a discussion of Afghanistan in particular, cf: Jürgen Wagner: Neoliberaler Kolonialismus – Protektorate, Aufstandsbekämpfung und die westliche Kriegspolitik, in: Widerspruch 53 – Weltordnung, Kriege und Sicherheit

[18] Institut für Europäische Politik (IEP): Operationalisierung von Security Sector Reform (SSR) auf dem westlichen Balkan, Studie im Auftrag des ZTransfBw, January 2007

[19] Dominik Tolksdorf: Der westliche Balkan nach dem Ahtisaari-Vorschlag – Handlungsfelder auf dem Weg in die EU, Bertelsmann-Stiftung / CAP: Reform-Spotlight 1/2001

[20] US Department of the Army: Army Modernization Strategy 2008,

[21] This term comes from UN-Habitat’s “The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlement” (2003). It was critiqued by Mike Davis in “Planet of Slums” (Verso, 2006); for similar, see Zygmunt Bauman: Wasted Lives – Modernity and Its Outcasts, Polity Press, 2004

[22] General (ret.) Dr. Klaus Naumann, KBE, et al: Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World: Renewing Transatlantic Partnership,

[23] ibid.

[24] Lothar Rühl: Nicht nur eine Definitionsfrage – deutsche Sicherheitsinteressen in Afghanistan, in: Strategie & Technik 50 (2007)

[25] Stephan Böckenförde: Sicherheitspolitischer Paradigmenwechsel von Verteidigung zu Schutz, in: Europäische Sicherheit, August 2007