I am a glass half full kind of guy, someone who seeks to find the positive in life. I am an optimist tinged with realism. Three decades in intelligence and 15 years in counter terrorism do tend to give one a good look at the less savoury aspects of life on this planet and as a result I cannot be polyannaish about things. But I still do look for the bright spots. Even if there is a lot of negative to deal with.
I know that a lot of people can’t wait for 2016 to be over. Aside from the usual faith we put into new beginnings (and resolutions to do better) there were a lot of horrible things that happened this year. On the terrorist front alone, we had the attacks in Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Istanbul (multiple occasions), Orlando as well as countless deaths in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, among others. Many believe that terrorism is “on the rise” although it is far from clear that this is true. Nevertheless, terrorism still gets a lot of attention and drives a lot of fear, and that is not likely to change in the near future.
What, then, can we expect in 2o17? I do not believe in predictive analysis as much as others do and given that my crystal ball is in the shop I do not pretend to know what will happen next year. Still, the following issues do cause me concern and it would be very surprising (at least to me) if none of them registered on our conscience for all the wrong reasons. In no particular order then, here are my top worries:
- The continuing collapse of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is indeed a good thing but we would be foolish to see this as an end to anything beyond the group itself (and even that is not assured). Remnants of IS will go elsewhere, either to other jihads or home to possibly wreak havoc, and other groups in the region, of which there are many, will fill the vacuum
- Nigeria will continue to struggle in its fight against Boko Haram, despite its repeated claims of imminent victory, and neighbouring states will likely continue to be affected.
- The Saudi incursion into Yemen, justified through a largely fictitious fear of Iranian actions and influence, will not only lead to greater civilian casualties and the near annihilation of the Yemeni state but give more oxygen to the IS and Al Qaeda affiliates in the region
- Should Israel choose to maintain – and increase – its shortsighted settlement expansion into the occupied territories we will see a rise in terrorist attacks both within Israel and in the West Bank. Not that the Palestinian leadership is doing a good job of reigning this anger in. As many have said: “a pox on both their houses”
- India and Pakistan seem intent on escalating the violence in disputed Kashmir. What had been a conflict on low simmer for years spiked alarmingly this year and will likely worsen in 2017.
- Western countries will see a trickle of attacks carried out by homegrown terrorists and returning foreign fighters in 2017 and many will take advantage of these incidents to call for controls on immigration and Muslim communities, all of which will make things worse. The rise in xenophobic populist parties in the US and much of Western Europe could up the tempo of right-wing terrorism aimed at foreigners.
- Turkey is facing a huge terrorist crisis, some of which it brought to the fore itself with stupid policies towards its Kurdish population. In any event, a return to talks between the government and the long-suffering Kurds is unlikely as long as President Erdogan is around.
- Egypt, Libya and Tunisia are also being hit by Islamist extremists on a daily basis. I really worry about Tunisia, not because it is the provenance for the largest number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria but because it is also home to 8,000 wannabe jihadis who were STOPPED from leaving. These people pose a serious threat.
There are other wars out there in which jihadis are playing a role (cheap self promotion: my third book The Lesser Jihads should be out later in 2017), but I want to end on a positive note. In all my travels across Canada and around the world in 2016 I was heartened to see all the efforts being made at government and grassroots levels to confront terrorism. There are a lot of well-intentioned individuals and groups dedicated to challenging the terrorists’ lies and distorted worldviews. 2017 should also see (fingers crossed!) the appearance of the Office of the Coordinator of Counter Radicalisation and Community Engagement in Canada, an initiative I highly applaud and one in which I have cautious confidence.
We must remind ourselves that terrorism is not an existential threat. We need to confront it on multiple levels but we cannot give in to narrow policies and laws that undermine our overwhelming strength: the fact that our ways of life and societies are far superior to whatever the terrorists can offer. Should we react in unhelpful manners we essentially hand victory to the extremists. And I don’t think we want to do that.
With all the challenges facing us, this is still a damn good planet on which to live. May you all have a joyous 2017.