BUCHAREST, Romania – NATO's latest security worries go far beyond Taliban fighters or Al Qaeda extremists: They include computer hackers, threats to global energy supplies and climate change profiteers.
World leaders gathered in Bucharest for this week's NATO summit are debating what role the trans-Atlantic alliance can play in containing "cyberterrorists," "hacktivists" and other emerging menaces that experts concede are untraditional, but still potentially lethal.
NATO needs to gear up for "iWar" — systematic attacks on the Web that could disrupt commerce worldwide by using crippling computer worms to shut down consumer online services such as Internet banking — warns Johnny Ryan, a researcher with the Institute of International and European Affairs.
"iWar will proliferate quickly and can be waged by anyone with an Internet connection," Ryan cautioned in an analysis for NATO.
"In the short term, iWar poses a gathering threat to NATO members," he said. "NATO must approach the problem as an immediate threat and strive to develop practical defensive cooperation."
NATO member Estonia suffered a series of paralyzing and economically devastating cybercrime attacks last year that it blamed on Russia, which has denied involvement.
The attacks "raise questions about the alliance's ability to protect its newest members," said Stanley Kober, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
Securing vulnerable energy infrastructure may be an even more pressing concern, NATO officials said Wednesday as the summit got under way.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has been pushing for a new "strategic concept" that would define the alliance's role in dealing with the threat.
"Many of these challenges will not trigger a classical military response. But they will require allies to support each other — politically, economically, and perhaps also militarily," de Hoop Scheffer told a security forum in Brussels, Belgium, last month.
His spokesman, James Appathurai, told reporters Wednesday that the 26 NATO allies hoped this week to lay the groundwork for a new blueprint on how to tackle evolving security challenges.
Energy has also become a worry for NATO as Russia tightens control of its most important natural gas fields. Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled energy monopoly, controls key pipelines that supply gas to Western Europe.
The U.S. is prodding NATO to take a larger role in energy security — something Washington considers a major post-Cold War menace.
"I think there's an increasing recognition in the United States that these are growing issues," said Stephen Larrabee, a senior security analyst for the RAND Corp. think tank.
Climate change — already a major concern on a wide range of fronts — is starting to preoccupy NATO as well.
De Hoop Scheffer says the alliance may have to be ready to protect food and water supplies if global warming makes them scarce and tensions create enough economic or political instability to nudge nations to the brink of war.
EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana gave a bleak assessment in a March 3 report warning that climate change threatens to undermine international security.
"It is important to recognize that the risks are not just of a humanitarian nature — they also include political and security risks that directly affect European interests," the report says, warning: "Unmitigated climate change ... will lead to unprecedented security scenarios."
But any attempt to push the new threats to the forefront likely will run into resistance from allies pressing NATO to get back to basics, said Julianne Smith, Europe program director for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Many countries would like to see NATO return to its core mission," she said. "I just find it hard to believe that NATO is going to be able to reach consensus on any of these issues."
NATO's core function is defined in its 1949 founding treaty, which states that all members will come to each others' aid if any are attacked by an outside power.