Since the so-called Arab Spring stormed North Africa in 2011, security cooperation with partner countries along the Southern flank of the Mediterranean Sea has been a primary concern for NATO. The collapse of long-standing regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia has forced the North Atlantic alliance to reconsider its role in the region, exploring options to accompany these countries in their difficult democratization processes. However, the military coup in Cairo in July 2013 and Libya's long descent into the second phase of the civil war have reversed the geopolitical dynamics, promoting a restoration trend that has gone beyond the region. Since then, NATO's priorities in North Africa have evolved, taking into consideration its increasing political instability, the proliferation of jihadist organisations and the illicit activities of different criminal networks.
Counterterrorism has topped the list of the North Atlantic alliance's priorities especially in Tunisia. Building upon the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) programme, in 2014 the country entered a NATO Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme (IPCP), aimed at strengthening its capacity to fight terrorism and improve security along the borders. The announcement made by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at Warsaw summit in July 2016 of the establishment of an intelligence fusion centre in Tunisia raised expectations of an enhanced bilateral partnership, just one year after the United States had designated the country as a Major Non-NATO Ally.
Efforts to protect and safeguard what has been known as the "Tunisian exception" have continued in the following months, as part of NATO's plan to project stability beyond its borders, a commitment announced by Stoltenberg in Warsaw. Nonetheless, the revelation made last February by Tunisia's Defence Minister Abdelakrim Zbdidi, about the rejection of a US$3 million grant from NATO for the establishment of a joint command centre in Tunisia, disclosed all the limits of the cooperation between NATO and Tunisia. The rejection, as well as the lack of progress registered on the intelligence fusion centre, was clearly driven by internal and external factors, including Tunisian authorities' jealousy of national prerogatives in security matters . The setback convinced NATO to limit the scope of its security cooperation with Tunis, adopting less ambitious programmes that could be more suitable for the reluctant partner. In this context, NATO is working on a Defence-Capacity Building (DCB) package, a demand-driven and tailored set of initiatives aimed at developing special operations forces, intelligence, border controls and counterterrorism.
Less intrusive options have also been welcomed by Algeria, which has always been particularly wary about Western States' influence in neighbouring countries. A long-established non-interventionist foreign policy and the traditional military partnership with Russia did not prevent Algeria from establishing a scientific cooperation with NATO, focusing on issues of common interest. As an example, on 14-15 November 2017 NATO experts met with Algerian officials in Hassi Messaoud and visited the Krechba natural gas plant, which was the target of an attempted terrorist attack in March 2016. The visit was part of a multi-year research project supported by the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme to develop a new imaging and detection system aimed at securing critical infrastructures from terrorist attacks .
However, Algeria still looks at the bilateral security partnership with Tunisia as the best way to mitigate the terrorist threat. After a deal in 2014 to secure the common border and share intelligence, a security cooperation agreement was signed in March 2017. The partnership is producing relevant results in the fight against terrorism, disrupting terrorist cells and neutralising senior figures of the terrorist networks active along the border.
At the same time, counterterrorism efforts by both countries are intrinsically undermined by the ongoing crisis in Libya, where jihadist groups have found a safe haven from which they direct operations and infiltrate neighbouring countries. The drone strike that on 24 March 2018 killed two senior terrorists in the Fursan district of Obari, southwest Libya, was a clear indication of the free movement enjoyed by terrorist groups along Libya's porous borders. The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) claimed the attack, identifying one of the terrorists killed as Musa Abu Dawud, a commander of the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) southern zone and in charge of training and recruiting new members.
Since the launch of the Operation Solid Structure (Bunyan Marsous) in 2016 to oust the so-called Islamic State from Sirte, AFRICOM has borne the brunt of the military operations against terrorist groups in Libya, while NATO is in talks with the country’s authorities to discuss how to help Libya establish its security services and defence institutions. In February 2017, Stoltenberg said that the Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj had sent a formal request to NATO to obtain support for Security Sector Reform in Libya, including the establishment of a Libyan defence ministry with a chief of staff and intelligence gathering capabilities.
However, interferences of regional and international powers resulted detrimental to NATO's efforts. Indeed, since July 2017 Egypt has sponsored talks between the GNA and the Libyan National Army (LNA) for the reunification of the Libyan military. The Egyptian initiative, which resulted so far in six meetings held in Cairo, overlapped with Sarraj's request to Stoltenberg. The fact that Egypt, alongside France and the United Arab Emirates, is considered among the main supporters of the LNA also gave the impression of conflicting agendas between Cairo and the North Atlantic Alliance, which was instead willing to consider the GNA's request. The backing given by France to the Cairo talks, resulting from article 7 of the joint declaration agreed at the International Conference on Libya held in Paris on 29 May 2018 , also revealed diverging views between NATO and one of its main member-States, which, since the election of President Macron in 2017, has promoted a muscular foreign policy in North Africa.
These developments limited NATO's leeway in Libya, confining the activity of the organisation to the Operation Sea Guardian, established at the Warsaw summit and launched in 2017 with flexible tasks of maritime security building, situational awareness and counter-terrorism. In the last weeks, there have been speculations about a bigger role for NATO in the fight against human smuggling networks, responsible for the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean Sea. The new Italian government is pushing for including the North Atlantic Alliance in the efforts to stem the flow of migrants not only along the Central Mediterranean Route, but also along Libya's southern borders . In a recent interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica, Stoltenberg said that there are no military solutions to the migrant crisis, but reaffirmed NATO's commitment to tackle the problem, referring to NATO's mission in the Aegean Sea as a success that helped decrease the illegal and dangerous trafficking of human beings .
The reluctance of partner countries to deepen strategic partnerships; military cooperation agreements with third and adverse parties; dysfunctional relations among member-States: these are all factors limiting NATO's room for manoeuvre in North Africa. Such limitations are paving the way for external powers to set a foot in the North African desert. Russia’s military partnership with Algeria and Egypt, as well as its support for the LNA and its increasing economic cooperation with the GNA, represent direct challenges to NATO and its members. Russia’s expanding influence in North Africa is taking advantage of the United States’ disinterest in the region and occurs in times of increasing tensions among European partners. For NATO, projecting stability in its North African neighbourhood has become crucial in order to prevent Moscow's Maghreb moment from being enduring.
Umberto Profazio, Tunisia’s reluctant partnership with NATO, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 6 April 2018.
 NATO launches first scientific cooperation agreement with Algeria, NATO, 26 October 2017.
 Declaration politique sur la Libye, 29 May 2018, Presidence da la Republique francaise.
 Umberto De Giovannangeli, L’Italia chiedera’ una missione NATO ai confini sud della Libia,Huffington Post, 28 June 2018.
 Giampaolo Cadalanu, Jens Stoltenberg: ‘Libia, la NATO pronta ad aiutare l’Italia’, La Repubblica, 23 June 2018.
 Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, Vasily Kutznetsov, Moscow’s Maghreb Moment, Diwan-Carnegie Middle East Centre, 13 June 2018
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)