The attacks on New York and Washington were comparable to a nuclear strike and have changed the world "out of all recognition", Nato's most senior official said yesterday.
Speaking the day after Nato took the historic step of invoking its mutual defence clause, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen called for a fundamental reappraisal of defence thinking around the globe.
The alliance sees an international coalition, including Russia, emerging to combat terrorism. However, it accepts that it needs "new ideas" to combat threats such as chemical and biological weapons.
In his first press interview since Nato's unprecedented decision on Wednesday, the alliance's secretary general told The Independent and other European papers that the attack on American targets crossed the "threshold of unacceptability". This has stopped others using weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear arms.
Lord Robertson argued that the hijackers used civilian airliners as "flying bombs" which were "much mightier than practically any bomb Nato has in its armour". He continued: "We were trying to think today about a weapon that could do the damage these airliners did and I'm not sure we have it. You would need quite a number of cruise missiles to inflict anything like that damage.
"The countries who are nuclear capable, the individual groups who might acquire it, know that that crosses a threshold – not just in terms of penalty but in terms of what the world would think of them and their cause if they were to do it."
Nato's ruling council has yet to discuss any form of retaliation and the initiative lies with the United States. The alliance yesterday issued a denial of reports that it is drawing up plans for an assault on Afghanistan, which is blamed for harbouring Osama bin Laden. In fact, the US has yet to propose any course of action and might choose to respond unilaterally or with just a few allies.
Lord Robertson carefully declined to say that Nato was "at war" but warned that the alliance's tough stance is a "big alarm bell to those who dabble in terrorism or who harbour those who do".
Whatever the form of the response, Nato believes that the implications are profound, both for its role in future counter-terrorism strategy and for the architecture of international security. Already, the willingness of Russia to co-operate with Nato as part of a "coalition of outrage" has helped to cement a new partnership.
"The world has changed now out of all recognition as a result of this," said Lord Robertson. "There will be a much greater focus on how we deal with terrorism and other so-called asymmetric threats.
"The attack on New York and Washington could have been an attack on Paris or London or Amsterdam. It could well have been an attack on Moscow, and President Putin's spontaneous and personalised reaction had a lot to do with the fact that some of the same potential threats exist for his capital city.
"There is a new coalition because every citizen, community and factory is vulnerable to these asymmetrical threats which have come home with such savagery this week. A group of people with skill, with imagination, with meticulous organisation, planning their own deaths and the deaths of thousands of others – where has that been seen before? In the new world of new threats we need to have new ideas."
As well as chemical and biological weapons, including sarin, Lord Robertson listed ballistic missiles as a threat – even though Tuesday's attacks proved that a more extreme form of conventional terrorism is a bigger threat. He argued that there was no contradiction in beefing up low-tech security measures at airports while trying to build an anti-ballistic missile shield – an ambition of President George Bush.
Lord Robertson added: "For some terrorists a bomb in a suitcase is appropriate [although] these went a lot higher than that, and there will be some who will use ballistic missiles. These are not mutually exclusive. We may have to do both, and more, to make sure that people are secure."
After the decision on Wednesday to invoke article five of Nato's founding treaty on collective defence, the US has options. It could retaliate unilaterally, or with a coalition of the willing, under Article 51 of the UN charter. Alternatively, it could return to Nato, taking advantage of the coalition of support to ask for international approval of its plan.Reuse content