2016 has proved another difficult year for the worlds’ security and law enforcement agencies with continued conflicts across the Middle East, unrest on the borders of the European Union and a question mark over extremism in-light of recent political elections and referendums.
The year in America ends with questionably more uncertainty over the future out-look of foreign diplomacy and domestic counter terrorism than ever before. The election of Donald Trump, in many regards, could have far reaching effects on global terrorism, although we are yet to see if the election rhetoric will, if at all, ever reach feasible working legislation.
There are three specific areas that the President Elect must challenge early in his administration. Firstly, on the home front, we have seen numerous Islamic extremist incidents in 2016 ranging from mass shootings as seen in Orlando, knife attacks in Minnesota and pipe bombs in New Jersey and New York. By coincidence, hate crimes against Muslims increased 67% in 2015 and are likely to raise further still by the end of 2016 in light of these fresh incidents and increasing tensions between religions and races.
There has unquestionably been divisive language used throughout the 2016 Presidential election, and the US Muslim population has been at the heart of the conversation with the threat of a ‘total ban’ on all Muslims entering the country, first suggested in December 2015 and continuing with a call for all Muslims to register on a central data base this year. As previously discussed, the US does not currently have a significant counter radicalisation programme in place, falling short allies such as the UK and Australia. This religious tension that has been escalated could possibly lead to further individuals becoming isolated from American society and the vulnerable finding an alternative path in extremism.
The concern is radicalisation policy may now shift sharply to the right and focus more on policing, deporting and disrupting, whilst community work and education could fall behind or even be ignored all together. In-order for an effective programme of counter radicalisation there must be a cohesive blend in all spheres of society: law enforcement and community must work in unison – it is imperative that an ‘us and them’ feeling in society is ultimately avoided.
The increase in extremist Islamic attacks carried out successfully continued to rise in 2016, the discourse in American society, tension between races and religions is a serious concern as we end the year, and we will wait to see if these divisions are increased, or a more pragmatic inclusive common sense strategy will prevail. I would, however, to see further attacks from ‘home grown’ terrorists in 2017 if rifts are not quickly heeled.
The second, and potentially most notable, area of counter terrorism policy stands in the new administration’s view on foreign intervention, namely against Islamic State (IS). Whilst there has again been crude and dramatic observations made by the President Elect, the realism of office may taper the reality of continuing the fight against the group in an up-scaled manner. It is extremely likely that the group could have lost Mosul, its last remaining stronghold in Iraq whilst also seeing its hold on territory in North Africa significantly reduced by the time the new administration finally takes office.
Unlike previous operations in the Middle East, we have not seen significant retaliation across Europe as IS loses ground now at a rapid rate, if America were to fundamentally take the war on the ground to IS at this stage and increase its ground operation, there is a real risk it could revitalise IS and see new waves of jihadists join the group, both in the region or locally.
This question of tackling Islamic State internationally extends to the vital relationship with President Putin and the policy taken over the crisis in Syria. Trump has already made it clear he wants to extend relations to the Kremlin and therefore his decision on how he intends to view the current situation in Syria with its multitude of groups and international involvement will be key to the future of Syria and Islamic State, whilst having potential adverse affects on international terrorism and security.
The relationship forged between Trump and Putin will also be paramount to the third key area of security. Europe and NATO has become increasingly anxious with the behaviour of Russia and their continuous aggressive stance over Ukraine and European Union (EU) borders. The threat of a new cold war is becoming more tangible by the month; in the last few weeks alone we have seen Russia move part of its nuclear capability close to Poland and continue deploy warships to the Mediterranean.
The main concern for many EU leaders is the President Elect’s seemingly warm and respectful attitude towards Putin, whilst failing to condemn his actions in the Ukraine or the previous annex of Crimea, leaving other NATO members tense and wondering if, as he has previously alluded to, NATO is an organisation that he doesn’t fully believe in. Early next year we will know the administration’s position on Russia in both Syria and the borders of Europe; there are certainly some worrying days ahead for those neighbouring Baltic states and it may be Trump’s ambivalence that proves most dangerous in both Europe and the Middle East.
The shocking statistics by the middle of 2016 showed that it was one on track to become one of the bloodiest years in recent European history. Once again France suffered profoundly with the significant attack in Nice which saw 87 fatalities. Belgium, the seeming epicentre of European IS cells was also targeted with attacks at both the airport and metro station which claimed 35 lives.
The most significant increase in terrorist activity in Europe however, has come in Germany where attacks have mounted, with July particularly active. A teenager used an axe to attack passengers on a train in Würzburg, Bavaria, whilst another axe attack saw a pregnant women killed in Reutlingen, and in the town of Ansbach, Bavaria, there was a suicide bomber who blew himself up outside a music festival, although there were no casualties recorded.
Despite the first half of the year remaining tense with numerous attacks in Europe, the latter half has seen a break from the attacks, notably from IS. This could be for several reasons; however, it is more likely a combination of all. Belgium, France and Germany have all advanced counter extremism thinking and policy with France continuing to make sweeping changes to their security organisations. There has also been, throughout the year, a vast number of terror raids across Europe, almost 200 were carried out in November alone in Germany. Security agencies have managed to foil a number of IS related terror plots including the UK, Belgium and France, where this summer’s European Football Championship was targeted. There are signs of a greater willingness to share information and acknowledgement that this is paramount, particularly in the European Schengen Zone, that intelligence must be communicated accordingly.
The United Kingdom, whom has one of the most advanced counter extremism strategies in place, whilst remaining at a heightened threat level, has avoided any significant attack in 2016. In late November, the British Government announced plans for dedicated unit to protect the UK’s major national infrastructure.
Many countries in Europe, such as Germany, are quickly waking up to the reality and seeming relentless difficulties that terrorism gives authorities – and are now quickly adapting and developing strategy. It may appear, with cautious note, that Europe could be turning a corner and beginning to deal effectively with the threat from Islamic extremism.
Whilst Europe gets to grips with Islamic Extremism from IS, cooperation amongst European states has also been tested by tensions in the Ukraine and along the Baltic border with Russia. President Putin has continued to be brash and aggressive with his rhetoric towards NATO whilst Russian planes have persistently strayed into other countries airspace with seemingly complete disregard for international law, whilst also amassing an estimated 30,000 troops on the border of Ukraine and moving troops and arsenal into strategic positions east of Poland. The situation and build of troops has even raised debate in Sweden as to whether they should now join NATO in seeking a bilateral defence strategy.
NATO in response has continuously reviewed the situation on its Eastern border and sent a considerable force to the region. At the NATO summit in Warsaw in July, ministers agreed to send an extra 4 Battalions, around 3,500 troops, to Poland and Estonia to increase security and show intent, the US pledged a 1,000 troops whilst the UK, 650. President Putin, however, in recent months has continued his build up of troops and sparked fear with remarks he made, accusing Ukraine of planning terror raids against the Crimea.
Finally, despite the UK vote on Brexit, Britain appears dedicated to remain a core NATO member and has lead the way, with the exception of the US, to send both troops and military hardware to both Poland and Estonia while sticking to its obligation of spending 2% of GDP on defence.
Europe is in a waiting game and by January they will fully know the new American President’s position on Putin. The relationship could well determine European security for decades to come, but in the meantime, Russia is at its most dangerous as America makes its transition of power.
The gains against IS reported in the middle of the year have now beguine to rapidly advance. Mosul could well fall by the end of January, if not sooner, while Syrian militias, backed by the US, start to chip away at the surrounding villages outside the city Raqqa in Syria. However, despite these advances, there has been a steady tide of suicide bombs across Iraq: 47 people were killed in a series of attacks, with the deadliest targeting a funeral in northern Bagdad claiming 35 victims and wounding a further 63.
The seemingly total lack of security many Iraqis believe exist in the country has certainly not been addressed sufficiently as yet, and with the potential end of a tangible, centralised, IS in sight, the worry is suicide bombing and IED’s may become the groups natural and only option in the country to force it’s will, a counter insurgency campaign may well ensue.
The battle for Mosul also raises questions over what next for Iraq, in particular, the potential for civil war. The increasingly unpopular Shia Government must act to quash concerns of Sunnis who see them as repressors whilst the Shia community feels vulnerable from a lack of security from Sunni groups such as IS. Furthermore, the city of Mosul itself will be, as it has been since the early part of the 20th century, disputed over by Iraq, Turkey and the Kurds who are heavily involved in reclaiming the city from IS and crave independence for decades. Whilst the battle for Mosul may conclude by the spring of 2017, the war for the city and Iraq itself, may yet begin!
As already highlighted, the plight of Syria continues in front of the world’s eyes with seemingly no peace until the city of Aleppo is flattened and the relentless and discriminatory bombing has killed all those that inhabit the Eastern part of the city. Once again, much rests on the direction President Elect Trump decides to go: will he decide to support Putin and therefore prop up Assad, or join the majority of the international community on the side of the militants? The uncertainty of what a Trump administration will do could see Putin and Assad increase their activity whilst the transition of power in the US takes place. After another regrettable year in Syria, despite the occasional cease-fire, the future remains extremely bleak.
The war that many in the West want to forget in Afghanistan is also the country that seems largely forgotten by the media, not given the coverage the current situation deserves or indeed demands. 2016 has been a year of turmoil for Afghanistan, every month without exception there have been countless attacks. The Government remains corrupt and the army and police infiltrated with extremists or those easily bought off by the terrorist groups in country. The Taliban has been extremely active in 2016 and even managed to take control of the district of Khanbad which connects to Takhar and came just days after they captured the district of neighbouring Baghlan.
As pockets of areas reclaimed by the Taliban pop up all over the country, the Afghanistan military is struggling to deal with the new surge and this is not helped by the political discourse in Kabul. In addition to the Taliban’s new footprint, Islamic State have also been active with several attacks against the military and civilian population as well as being embroiled in a power struggle with the Taliban. In October, IS kidnapped and executed 30 people in the central Ghor province, North of Firoz Koh. These warring factions and dysfunctional government could see Afghanistan once again fall into a sustained period of violence and instability; the country has known war for many decades and 2016 has only laid the foundations for this to continue.
In Yeman, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, the Government forces continue to fight the Houthi rebels. 2016 has seen the conflict intensify with an estimated 80% of the population in need of aid. The ongoing battle which has claimed thousands of lives already has created a vacuum in which groups such as Islamic State and Al Qaeda have exploited, seizing land. 2016 may have seen the fighting intensify, but the instability could see terrorist groups settle and the war may rage throughout 2017.
Rest of the World
Turkey has had a year of immense instability with the July 15th coup d’etat the most significant civil disruption which has seen sweeping and dramatic action taken by President Erdoğan. An estimated 40,000 people in the public sector have been detained: soldiers, teachers, judges and 100,000 people have been purged by the Government.
President Erdogan has recently hinted he may well turn his back on the prospect of EU membership, instead considering joining the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) whose members include China and Russia. The country’s Ataturk Airport in Istanbul was attacked by IS in June with 41 people killed as explosives were detonated near the airport’s x-ray security checkpoints. Other attacks from the Kurdish militants (PKK) included a wedding bombing that killed 28 as the group remains active.
Boko Haram continues to remain active in Northern Nigeria, despite claims from the Government that the group was ‘on its knees’. A spree of fresh attacks however that have inflicted numerous casualties have put these claims to bed. In October, 21 girls were released by the group and safely returned to their families, two years since they were kidnapped from the town of Chibok.
Despite losing much of its land, Boko Haram has remained resilient and in September and October undertook numerous attacks on military targets. Although President Buhari had pledged to crush the group, it still appears there is some way to go for the security forces and 2017 will require a significant surge against the group.
After 60 years of guerrilla insurgency, there finally appears a possibility for peace between Las Farc and the Colombian Government. On the 25 August 2016, President Santos agreed a peace agreement, however, the ensuing referendum returned a ‘no’ vote, rejecting the deal by the narrowest of margins, just 0.4%. Peace seems set to finally be agreed as government and opposition continue to negotiate a new deal as the truce holds.
On 28 June 28, IS carried out its first successful attack in Malaysia, the grenade attack near Kuala Lumpur – no one was killed. IS has been trying to increase its presence across Southeast Asia throughout the year and the threat levels remain heightened. An attack in neighbouring Indonesia was also shocking in its diversity and likeness to other European incidents. Whilst there were few casualties, the incidents in Jakarta had a multitude of explosives and guns, much like the Paris attacks of November 2015. Raids have been carried out across the region with multiple arrests and clear evidence of planned attacks such as the August raids on Batam Island where clear collaboration between Singaporean and Indonesian authorities proved fruitful in foiling the plot.
As 2016 draws to a close and we consider what has unfolded and the way forward in 2017, it can’t be underestimated how imperative international relations may be. The wave of right – wing populism in the West – is a concern, but the key to security in Europe and large parts of the Middle East may well rest on the shoulders of one vital relationship, America and Russia, Trump and Putin.
Edward Marsh is a director within the aerospace, defence & security team at Frost & Sullivan. He previously served with the British military and studied both Master’s and Ph.D in counter terrorism at St. Andrews University.