The year 2016 will prove even more testing for global security.
Last year saw an increasingly unstable picture for global security, with a significant rise in terrorist attacks across the world, further unrest in Ukraine, continued violence on both the east and west coasts of Africa, and a Middle East in seemingly endless turmoil. The breadth of international terrorist activity had displayed a diversity of tactics, with more lone-wolf attacks by operators both known and unknown to intelligence agencies, acting on a vast geographical scale as international security services become ever more stretched.
Groups such as Boko Haram continue to be largely unaffected by international action, while the Islamic State (IS) show its ability to strike globally from both command and local operators. There appears to be no significant downturn in home-grown extremists willing to carry out operations in IS’ name. The threat of the Taliban in Afghanistan is once again real, and al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for both European and African attacks in the last 12 months in Burkina Faso, Kenya and Mali, and was arguably responsible for the attacks in Paris in January 2015.
Trouble at Europe’s Door
Europe finds itself at a considerable crossroads, with 2015 providing substantial challenges that call into question the European Union’s (EU) capability and capacity to manage a crisis. Borders are closing, fences are going up, the military is mobilized and refugees are escorted out, and numerous terrorist attacks have taken place. Tensions significantly rose across member states as the migrant crisis escalated, adding to economic tensions while continuing to fuel the flames of the far-right across the continent.
It is perhaps this bed of volatility that made the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 see the most significant domestic policy changes: extra funding for security services, police and special forces to the tune of €425 million in France. Britain swiftly followed suit, reacting with an extra £2 billion for special forces, u-turning on the planned policing cuts of around 20-25% at least until 2020 and recruiting significant numbers for intelligence services.
The men who carried out the attacks in Paris included French and Belgian nationals and, most significantly, at least one suicide bomber, Ahmed Almuhamed, made his way on the migrant trail from the Greek island of Leros to Paris via Serbia, Croatia and Austria. This revelation has caused concern and reaction to the fragile nature of the Schengen zone’s security, with many across Europe—particularly the northern economic powers—now debating plans for greater security on its’ borders or a significant “reduction” in the size of the Schengen region, excluding countries such as Greece and the Baltic states.
The Dutch cabinet was the first to draw up options for debate in parliament. In recent days, the finger has even been pointed at the failings of Greece to cope with security at the border, sighting responsibility to Europe. France has since evoked special powers to close its borders, while numerous countries have double or tripled their own border security measures.
The migrant crisis and perceived fragile security of the EU has led to significant concern over the very future of the union, as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned at Davos: “Europe could lose its historical footing and the project could die quickly. The project could fall apart in months.”
The year 2016 may prove a defining one for Europe. The question over free movement has never before been so prominently under the spotlight with numerous senior officials calling for a cap on migration. Britain’s own referendum on EU membership will be eagerly anticipated by countries uncertain of their own security, particularly France and Germany—two leading NATO partners.
A continent that enjoys freedom of movement and a single currency understands that they go hand in hand. Yet the importance of security cannot be underestimated. The year ahead may well see more walls going up and a significant reduction in the Schengen zone, unless there is agreement over perimeter security and, ultimately, funding for the extremities of Schengen.
IS Flexes its Muscles
Globally, the Islamic State flexed its muscles on a much wider scope in 2015 with attacks in Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia and the shooting in San Bernardino, California, carried out by IS sympathizers. This increase in activity will pose interesting questions as 2016 progresses: What are the strategic outlays of IS, and where will it expand its activity? There have been advancements into Europe and Asia, most notably, and these may prove to be regions of continued operations for the group.
Perhaps more importantly, as IS hits out against an increasing number of powers, there may be a more concerted, concentrated effort to tackle the group through a multilateral approach as more and more nations gain vested interest in defeating it. As attacks grow, the message from the United Nations to support action also increases, and those who choose to support the Assad regime in Syria and that seemingly lack interest in tackling IS may find themselves ostracized.
Last year also saw Russia directly affected by IS with the downing of a passenger plane over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. This brought new dynamics to the table as Russia’s strategy in Syria continues to contradict and strain relations with the US and its allies. The bombing raids carried out by the Russians in Syria continue to be controversial as the nature of targets remains ambiguous, leading to the coalition having to tread carefully in its own operations.
The UK has previously fought enemies—domestic and foreign—who do not play by the same laws of armed conflict, but the potential of combating IS or even Boko Haram would push the attributes and abilities of the forces to new levels…
In the United States, Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has been a champion of the fight against IS, and his rhetoric has certainly built further resentment and anger among many in the GOP against Muslims at home and abroad. If there is a significant increase in Islamophobia, there may well be further cases of extremism, and the watch list in America could grow.
China has been consistent in its lack of policy when it comes to international terrorism. However, it has invested heavily across the world, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, and more recently pushing its’ interests in the United Kingdom with nuclear investment, starting with the Hinkley Point facility at an estimated cost of £25 billion. As its economy slows, there will be a greater determination to project Chinese interests overseas.
China has already started a more aggressive policy protecting its international waters while making claims to further territory, disputed by its neighbors. There has been a dramatic increase in scale and activity of its navy within the South China Sea, causing increased concern internationally and potentially sparking an arms race with Japan.
Britain reacted to heightened risk levels in 2015 with both domestic and international security questions looming large. The first question that the home secretary must address is the continuous supply of homegrown terrorists, as Assistant Commissioner for Special Operations Mark Rowley alluded to in a closed speech at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security think tank, late last year. There is an increasing burden on resources as the number of individuals on the watch list steadily rises.
Coming to terms with radicalization and dealing with it effectively throughout communities is proving a significant challenge. While there have been initiatives to impose travel bans that have indeed worked in numerous cases—Abu Haleema, the north London-based radical who preached alongside Siddhartha Dhar, who recently carried out executions in Syria, is a case in point—it also creates further resentment and hate preaching from those left. Individuals do not have to travel to the Middle East in order to carry out the work of IS.
The British government may also seek to push for further powers to help security services access the “dark space”—the area of the Internet that is difficult to view, and where it is easier to hide communications and data within social media. It is becoming increasingly harder for intelligence organizations to track suspects, including the delay in arrests and prosecutions. There is anger within the police and intelligence agencies over the lack of cooperation and transparency with some social media firms (unnamed by the police), who they believe are making investigations increasingly difficult.
Academics are also now turning their attention toward “joined up” counterterrorism strategy—the correlation between domestic and military cohesion that has previously been lacking. It looks at how overseas military intervention or reaction to terrorist attacks, such as the war in Iraq or the bombing campaign in Syria, must be linked more closely with domestic security. Ultimately, the UK must realize that unless it is efficient in its overseas military action, security budgets, threats and attacks may well spiral over the coming years.
The latest Strategic Defence review published by the government in November 2015 has left the armed forces in a gray area moving into 2016. On the one hand, the special forces have received excellent funding for counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, likely with an eye on both international and domestic capabilities. However, Russia poses a real menace to peace in Ukraine, simmering the potential for armed conflict the UK is simply no longer equipped for.
Thus, there is a degree of ambiguity in military planning. Is Britain designing a force for resilience, or one capable of counterterrorism operations?
The danger is the creation of what appears to be a boutique force that does not have either the agility or resilience required. How this force is ultimately structured and just how it is configured into an overall strategy by the government is imperative. The UK has previously fought enemies—domestic and foreign—who do not play by the same laws of armed conflict, but the potential of combating IS or even Boko Haram would push the attributes and abilities of the forces to new levels and significantly test the nation’s appetite for conflict even further.
The year 2016 looks like it might prove even more testing for the international community. A change of guard in the US gets closer, a lengthy campaign against IS will continue, and a European Union that may not exist by the end of the year—at least not in its current format, with the British referendum looming and the questions over Schengen. There is no sign of terrorism decreasing, and there may be a spike in activity by the time the year draws to an end if the Islamic State and Boko Haram are not addressed.
The major trends to watch this year include the potential shrinking of the Schengen zone; further homegrown terrorists attacks in Europe; China’s reaction to global insecurity; further laws enabling intelligence agencies access in the social media space; continued uncertainty in Russia’s role against IS and the Syrian rebels; a building of sentiment for ground troops in Syria and Iraq; and Boko Haram to continue its operations with potential attacks further afield in Africa.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.