18th December 2015 – This Year in War

NORTH AFRICA

  • The Malian government signed a peace deal with Tuareg-led rebels in a deal brokered by Algeria. Despite this deal, Mali still faces a northern expanse rife with extremism as Islamist militants ramp up attacks. (This article breaks down the geography of different militant groups operating in Mali.) The negotiations appear to have failed to stabilize the situation and experts warn that militant groups are reorganizing.
  • Mali’s north has become a “vast, lawless expanse at the centre of west Africa; a crossroads for drugs, people and arms that links territories held by Boko Haram in Niger and Nigeria to the bases of veteran jihadists in Libya and Algeria.”
  • Last month, the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako, was taken over by gunmen. 170 people were taken hostage, and nineteen people were killed. Many questions remain unanswered about the source of the attack. It has been claimed by Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and by the extremist group Al Mourabitoun (an Al Qaeda-linked group operating in North and West Africa, formed in 2013 in a merger of two other groups) Northern separatists groups in Mali say that the real target of the Radisson attack was the peace process between the government and the north.
  • The leader of Al Mourabitoun, Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was claimed killed by a US airstrike in eastern Libya, but AQIM have said he is alive and well.
  • Algeria’s long-serving intelligence chief, General Mohammed Mediene, was pushed into retirement after 25 years in office. Algeria’s former counter-espionage chief, Abdelkader Ait Ouarabi, is facing a military tribunal on charges of destroying documents and breaching orders.
  • The Islamic State has gained significant ground in Libya, a foothold for the group in North Africa. Here, a citizen chronicles life caught between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in the city of Derna. An airstrike in the city of Derna in November reportedly killed Abu Nabil, the Islamic State’s leader inside Libya.
  • Libya after the fall of Gaddhafi is in “factional chaos,” finding itself yet again in a civil war as multiple groups and governments vie for power and territorial control. There is currently the internationally-recognized, Libyan National Army-backed “Tobruk” government, a Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Tripoli and its Libya Dawn coalition of Islamists, the Islamic State, and Salafist militant organization Ansar al-Sharia. Not to mention a host of smaller players and the ever-present shadow of foreign interference. It is not just a highly volatile situation, but a highly confusing one. Oddly enough, one of the most detailed and updated explanations out there for what’s currently going on exists at the Wikipedia page for “Libyan Civil War (2014 – present).”
  • This month, the two rival parliaments in Libya initially rejected a UN-brokered deal as foreign intervention but have just signed a unity agreement in Morocco..
  • There were two major attacks on foreign tourist targets in Tunisia. In March, 23 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. 20 of the dead were foreign tourists. In June, 39 people were killed in an attack on beachgoers in the Tunisian resort city of Sousse. Analyst Aaron Zelin writes that the Sousse attacks represent a longstanding and strengthening relationship between Tunisian and Libyan militants.
  • The group Sinai Province, which swore allegiance to the Islamic State at the end of last year, has been waging an(other) insurgency in the Sinai since current president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s coup against his predecessor, Mohammed Morsi.
  • In October, a Russian passenger jet carrying 224 people crashed on the Sinai Peninsula, with all on board dying. Russia concluded it to have been the result of terrorism, though Egypt disagrees.
  • Egypt’s top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, was assassinated this summer at the outset of a series of militant assaults. He is the most senior official to be killed in the ongoing militant insurgency.
  • Egypt has responded to the heightened threat level by widening government powers and enacting harsh new anti-terror legislation. Its repressive and heavy-handed crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters is thought to be driving radicalization and terror, rather than stemming it.
  • The US unfroze military aid to Egypt in the spring. Aid and arms transfers had been halted as a consequence of the 2013 coup.
  • As of June, the UN was saying that as many as 200,000 civilians had been forced to flee violence in Darfur. Human Rights Watch has collected evidence that the government of Sudan used cluster munitions in civilian areas of South Kordofan.
  • This fall, Human Rights Watch released a report on the devastating consequences of two military operations led by Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces: Operation Decisive Summer (late February – early May 2014) and Operation Decisive Summer II (January – June 2015). RSF reportedly displaced entire communities, destroyed sources of water and food, murdered and tortured civilians and carried out mass rapes in areas of Darfur with the aid of proxy militias and the Sudanese Air Force.
  • The latest round of peace talks for conflict-ridden Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile held in Addis Ababa have failed – now Sudan is bracing for renewed fighting as the rainy season ends.

SUBSAHARAN AFRICA

  • The Ivory Coast’s former president, Laurent Gbagbo, and his deputy, Charles Ble Goude, will stand trial this coming year for crimes against humanity over their role in 2010’s electoral violence.
  • Sectarian violence has punished the Central African Republic since 2013, when President François Bozizé (himself a former rebel leader who took power in 2006) was ousted by (mainly Muslim) Seleka rebel coalition. About 6000 people have died in the resulting sectarian conflict.
  • Though rival fighting groups signed a peace agreement in May, violence continues. The country is still unsafe and politically precarious. The UNHCR reports “insecurity and human rights abuses remain rife” with high rates of sectarian violence, and criminal enterprise continues to fuel armed groups. As the peace process progresses, refugees returning home are struggling to reassert the normalcy of everyday life. Many, like the Muslim population of the PK5 district of Bangui, the country’s capital city, are in forced isolation in sectarian enclaves and unable to move safely and freely.
  • New agitation and unrest is stirring in the lead-up to new CAR elections on December 27th. The Constitutional Court recently rejected Bozize’s bid for presidential candidacy, causing protests and gunfire in Bangui.
  • The UN’s handling of a string of child sex abuse allegations against MINUSCA peacekeeping forces in the CAR has been called “seriously flawed” by an independent review panel.
  • Newly-elected Nigerian President Buhari has made crushing Boko Haram’s insurgency his top priority. Though Boko Haram remains incredibly deadly and dangerous, especially to civilians, its hopes of creating a territorial caliphate like the Islamic State have been significantly disrupted by Buhari’s regional military coalition, which has successfully taken back much of the group’s territory.  (Documentary: “The War Against Boko Haram,” Kaj Larsen for VICE News.)
  • The campaign against Boko Haram is not without its own major problems. One being corruption, and the other human rights violations. Amnesty International reported that 8,000 prisoners have died in detention during the Nigerian military’s campaign against Boko Haram.
  • The five-year-old group, which pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State, has not limited itself to attacking Nigeria – but has conducted deadly attacks in Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
  • The conflict in South Sudan is now two years old and has a death toll in the tens of thousands. Most of the dead are civilians. More than 2 million have fled their homes – more than 1.5 million left displaced inside the country while 650,000 have crossed into other countries as refugees. Human Rights Watch released a report this month detailing the lives of the thousands of child soldiers in South Sudan and naming some of the commanders who have used them.
  • In February, a ceasefire was agreed to between rivals Riek Machar and Salva Kiir, but fighting has gone on. In May, the UN sounded the alarm about reports from South Sudan’s Unity state of extreme violence: burning villages, killing civilians and abductions and rapes and abductions of children. More such horrifying reports continued to come out over the summer. The UN says that the high volume flow of weapons into South Sudan has been a critical factor in ongoing violence.
  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo, pre-election human rights violations are on the rise as incumbent President Joseph Kabila, barred from seeking a third term by the 2006 constitution, attempts to extend his stay in power.
  • The DRC launched an offensive in the east in February against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebel group in February. This offensive recently captured a longtime fugitive hiding with the FDLR – Ladislas Ntaganzwa – on the run for the past 21 years for his role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
  • The country has been persistently under the shadow of conflict for decades, and, as this Council on Foreign Relations analysis puts it, the east “continues to defy efforts at pacification” as local insurgent groups dig in.
  • At the beginning of April, the extremist group Al-Shabab attacked Garissa University in northeastern Kenya. 147 people were killed, mostly students, in the group’s deadliest attack so far. (“Al Shabaab: from al-Qaeda rejects to a fighting force of thousands,” by David Smith in The Guardian)
  • Al Shabaab (who has allegiance to Al Qaeda) is trying to push back against Islamic State expansionism in east Africa and has been swift and unmerciful with any signs of caliphate sympathies within the ranks.
  • Chad’s former dictator and US ally Hissène Habré went on trial in Dakar and was forced to face some of his victims.
  • When Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza began to look as if he was going to run for a third five-year term, tensions began to climb. In May, General Godefroid Niyombare attempted a coup against Nkurunziza, but failed.
  • As protests turned violent ahead of elections in June, tens of thousands of Burundians fled to Rwanda. Ongoing electoral unrest in Burundi caused a delay in the elections, but did not sway Nkurunziza from seeking, and ultimately winning, a third term in office. After some high profile assassinations of Nkurunziza allies following his victory, regime paranoia and resulting political murders and repression are causing fear of possible genocide and return to ethnic violence. (Burundi’s civil, which ended in 2005 and took 300,000 lives was fueled by the same interethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis that gave rise to genocide in neighboring Rwanda.) Hundreds have died this year, and just this month 87 people died in some of the worst violence since the failed coup. Intervention in the conflict is complicated because the African Union relies on Burundi’s presence in Somalia.
  • Niyombare wasn’t the only African general whose big plans went awry. In Burkina Faso in September, General Gilbert Dienderé – commander of the presidential guard – attempted his own coup against interim President Michel Kafando. It failed miserably, resulting in the dissolution of the presidential guard and charges of crimes against humanity for Dienderé. The guard was a feared entity, and Burkina Faso is now debating what to do with its headquarters – a notorious site of torture.

TURKEY, SYRIA AND IRAQ

  • The coalition air war against the Islamic State inside Syria and Iraq has grown significantly this year. A number of countries have joined the US strikes inside Syria this year. Canada began airstrikes in Syria on April 8th, Turkey on August 26th, Australia on September 15th and France on September 27th. Britain joined in on December 3rd, after a controversial parliamentary vote. This month, Germany’s parliament voted to provide non-combat military support to the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.  Airwars.org monitors international coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State and other armed groups in Iraq and Syria.
  • Hundreds of civilians have died in coalition airstrikes, though virtually none have been acknowledged.
  • The Pentagon is now investigating whether or not intelligence assessments about the American fight against the Islamic State in Iraq were skewed and distorted to present a falsely optimistic evaluation of US progress.
  • US SOF raids, expeditionary forces. Roughly 100 Special Operations Forces are being deployed to Iraq to target the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, though Baghdad is not necessarily so happy about that. In fact, many Iraqis are now so distrustful of US motivations that they believe America to be working in concert with the terror group.
  • The $500 million program to train the Free Syrian Army ended in acknowledged failure, abandoned in favor of a program to equip moderate rebels with ammunition.
  • The FSA is on “the verge of collapse,” struggling with morale and facing desertions and distrust among the ranks.
  • Jaish el Fatah (Army of the Conquest), a coalition of primarily Islamist rebel groups fighting Assad’s forces, has found a number of successes this year, taking Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour. The coalition is showing cracks, though. A hardline member of the alliance, Jund al-Aqsa, quit the group publicly and lobbed accusations at their compatriots that verged on charges of apostasy. This splintering is evidence of some of the potentially irreconcilable differences among the various participants.
  • A recent Saudi-sponsored conference in Riyadh was “the most successful attempt to date to unify Syria’s fractious opposition and ultimately produce a negotiated solution to the Syrian civil war.”
  • Russia began conducting its own strikes inside Syria in September. These strikes were supposedly targeting the Islamic State, though the State Dept in October said the vast majority of Russian strikes have been aimed at non-Islamic State targets (especially Jaish el Fatah). The Russian air campaign has given new confidence to Assad and his supporters.
  • Much of Russia’s international and domestic rhetoric around its war in Syria are being seriously questioned as a false narrative, using the war against extremism to justify supporting the Assad regime and pursuing bigger strategic interests.
  • As of December 9th, the US had conducted a total 8,783 strikes in Iraq and Syria since the start of its air campaign in 2014. These strikes have taken out 13 senior and mid-level Islamic State leaders over 15 months. The Long War Journal explains that this hardly represents a “decimation” of leadership:

“While US airstrikes have killed some top leaders in the Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other organizations, this tactic has not stopped the spread of jihadist groups across Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. Nor have airstrikes denied these groups territory, which is crucial for the group to train fighters, maintain local insurgencies, and plot attacks against the West. Despite years of airstrikes against al Qaeda and its allies, and more recently the Islamic State, the groups still control territory in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, and they are waging active insurgencies in Nigeria, Mali, Egypt, the Caucasus, and elsewhere. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State control territory and have a deep bench of leaders and operatives who are willing to step in for those killed in the air campaigns.”

  • The Islamic State opened 2015 with series of gruesome executions, many theatrically carried out on camera. Two Japanese citizens, Haruna Yukawa and reporter Kenji Goto were both beheaded in propaganda films. A Jordanian pilot, Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, was burned alive. In response, Jordan executed Sajida al-Rishawi, convicted of participating in a deadly 2005 bombing in Amman, and Al Qaeda in Iraq operative Ziad al-Karbouli.
  • The debate over US hostage policy continued this year. The families of hostages like James Foley have expressed frustration at the consequences of official policies, as has the family of missing journalist Austin Tice. American hostage Kayla Mueller died in Islamic State captivity. The terror group claimed her death was the result of a Jordanian airstrike. British photographer John Cantlie remains a hostage.
  • The wealthy group, which leaves mass graves in its wake and deploys IEDs on an unprecedented scale, has also spent the year dedicated to the destruction of the cultural, artistic and architectural history of Iraq and Syria. They ransacked Mosul’s libraries, the ancient Iraqi city of Khorsabad, and executed Khaled Asaad, the 82-year-old head of antiquities in th Syrian city of Palmyra. The trade in looted Syrian artifacts is funding multiple sides of the Syrian conflict.
  • Up to 30,000 foreign fighters, coming from 86 countries, have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight for the Islamic State since 2011.
  • Even though the group has shown serious resilience, there were notable victories on the ground against the terror group. Kurdish forces liberated the Syrian town of Kobani, and retook the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad. Iraqi forces wrested Tikrit from IS control in spring and have made gains in Ramadi.
  • The Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was seriously injured in an airstrike in March. His deputy, Abu Alaa al-Afri, was killed not much later. In August, Baghdadi’s senior deputy – Hajji Mutazz – was killed by a drone strike in Mosul. A recent drone strike is said to have killed the group’s finance minister.
  • How the Islamic State is motivated, how it operates and how (or if) it can be defeated have been at the center of investigative reporting, and strategic and policy analysis over the course of this year. In March, Graeme Wood’s cover story for The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants,” delved into some of the group’s messianic ideology. The piece was hotly debated and generated many responses.
  • The Guardian obtained a leaked 24-page internal manual, exposing some of the architecture of the Islamic State’s state-building efforts. The handwritten papers of Haji Bakr –– the terror moniker of the Islamic State’s architect, a former Saddam-era military officer –– reveal an organization built on strategic calculation as well as bloodthirsty fanaticism. A lot of reporting and discussion returns to this dichotomy – the mix of strategic rationality and murderous, ideological radicalism that seem to make the group so formidable.
  • The Pentagon has recently proposed establishing a string of new bases in Africa, Southwest Asia and the Middle East to play a role in the fight against the Islamic State.
  • The fight against the Islamic State is taking precedence over opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule. This is despite the fact that, while the Islamic State has killed a great number of Syrians, the Assad regime has killed far more.
  • While the US still rhetorically adheres to the line that Assad must go for peace to be had in Syria, other transitional arrangements are being suggested and the dictator is holding on to power, even though his army is showing signs of strain. The regime’s plan to stay in power doesn’t just include relying on Hezbollah and Shi’a militias, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps advisors and Russian airstrikes – it also includes some level of coordination with the Islamic State. Assad is also a main buyer of the Islamic State’s oil.
  • Between 2011 and 2013, a former Syrian army photographer, known pseudonymously as Caesar, smuggled out copies of thousands of his photographs of detainees who had been tortured to death by the Assad regime. Those photographs were displayed at the UN in New York this year and Caesar told his story to the Guardian.
  • Even though the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile was declared all but destroyed by the OPCW, there have been reports of regime use of chlorine and poison gas bombs dropped on civilians. In June, Syrian doctors presented evidence of chemical weapons use and the consequences of the regime’s use of barrel bombs to Congress.
  • Iran, and their Lebanese proxies, Hezbollah, are heavily involved on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian conflict. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has a presence inside Syria, but Iran is also recruiting hapless and desperate Afghan Hazara refugees to fight as mercenaries.
  • In late November, Turkey shot down a Russian Sukhoi-24 fighter jet after it failed to heed several warnings and violated Turkish airspace. The fallout between the two nations has been considerable, exacerbating pre-existing tensions over Syria. Turkey is also seeking to calm relations with Iraq after a recent deployment of Turkish forces to northern Iraq. Turkey has said troops are there to train Iraqi counterparts, while Baghdad has demanded a withdrawal.
  • Turkey is in the middle of a two-front war – engaged not only in strikes against the Islamic State but in a fight with Kurdish armed groups (who are themselves battling the Islamic State). Expanding cooperation between the Kurds and the US has Ankara worried. The situation is maybe best summed up by this appropriately bewildered-sounding BBC headline from August: “Turkey v Islamic State v the Kurds: What’s going on?”
  • Turkey continues to hold freelance journalist Mohammed Rasool, arrested while working as a fixer for VICE. Sign the Committee to Protect Journalists’ petition to President Erdoğan in support of his release here.
  • Armenia marked the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, when 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Even a century later, Turkey remains obstinate in its refusal to acknowledge the genocide and the centennial riled old arguments and angers. The Guardiancollected first-hand recollections and family stories of persecution from those who experienced the mass slaughters and deportations.
  • The Chilcot Inquiry, a long-awaited and much-delayed British report on the Iraq War, will be published in June of 2016. It is expected to be in excess of two million words.
  • One former Blackwater contractor received a life sentence and three of his compatriots were handed thirty-year sentences for the 2007 Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad in which 14 civilians were killed.

IRAN

  • Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter detained in Iran for over 16 months, was sentenced to an unspecified prison term in a closed door trial for charges including espionage.
  • Seventeen days of virtually uninterrupted negotiations in Vienna over the summer led to a nuclear deal with Iran, ending a dozen-year diplomatic stand-off. The deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was met with outright joy on the streets of Iran, where Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was given a hero’s welcome on his return. There are a raft of “key points of the Iran nuclear agreement” articles, but the deal is – in a nutshell – comprehensive sanctions relief in exchange for guarantees that Iran’s nuclear program will remain exclusively peaceful.  Harvard’s Belfer Center has one of the most detailed guides to understanding the fine points of the agreement.
  • Sanctions monitors say that a missile test launch by Iran in October violated a UN resolution. This could mean Iran faces further sanctions.

REST OF THE MIDDLE EAST

  • A double suicide bombing by the Islamic State killed 43 people and wounding 200 in a predominantly Shi’a neighborhood of Burj al-Barajneh in southern Beirut. Many more would have lost their lives had it not been for the quick-footed self-sacrifice of Adel Termos.
  • Lebanon has been unable to elect a president for 19 straight months.
  • A UN inquiry placed the blame with Israeli security forces for seven attacks on Gazan schools being used as shelters during summer 2014. Hundreds of thousands of Gazan children are traumatized by the violence they’ve experienced, especially the intense bombardments of that summer offensive.
  • Palestine formally joined the International Criminal Court, and are building a case against Israel.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected for a fourth term in a difficult election, forming a coalition of conservative, far right and ultra-Orthodox parties to achieve a bare minimum of a majority. Netanyahu and the White House had many tense moments in 2015, over nuclear negotiations with Iran and over statements made by Netanyahu during election season.
  • There has been a deadly wave of violence, the worst since the Second Intifada, between Israel and Palestine over the last few months. So far, 117 Palestinians and at least 18 Israelis have died in a series of attacks, retaliations and crackdowns– the UN warning that an average of one person is dying per day. Israeli crackdown tactics are being condemned, since 13,500 Palestinians have been injured during the surge in violence. The unrest was in part triggered by disputes over a entry restrictions for the contested al-Aqsa mosque/Temple Mount holy site. The Gush Etzion junction in the occupied West Bank has become a symbol of this continuing strife.
  • Jonathan Pollard, a former US Navy analyst who was arrested in 1985 for spying for Israel, was released on parole after 30 years in prison.
  • Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who had ruled since 2005, died and was succeeded by his half-brother Salman.
  • In early 2015, Yemen was teetering on the brink of civil war. As we wrap up 2015, it is the site of an internal civil war, a broad regional intervention and a terrorist vs. terrorist power struggle.
  • Houthi rebels took over the country in February, capturing the capital city of Sana’a and establishing their own government. In March, Saudi Arabia intervened on behalf of ousted President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Haddi, leading a coalition of nations in Operation Decisive Storm against the Iran-backed Houthi rebellion inside Yemen. This turned a long-running civil conflict inside Yemen into a regional proxy war. Amnesty International says that all sides in the conflict have committed war crimes.
  • At this point, Yemen has become so difficult for reporters to access that the conflict is going severely underreported. Citizen journalists and activists are struggling against electrical outages and limited internet infrastructure to get information out themselves.
  • Save the Children released a report in November detailing the endangerment of Yemen’s children. Saudi Arabia has reportedly used cluster bombs in Yemen.
  • The US has agreed to sell Saudi Arabia $1.29 billion worth of smart bombs (the UK has similarly lucrative arms relationships with the monarchy), because Riyadh is using up its stockpile over Yemen at such a rapid rate.
  • Amid all of this, of course, Al Qaeda’s operations in Yemen continue and the Islamic State’s have developed to rival it. In the same month as the Saudi intervention began, IS-claimed coordinated suicide bombings of Zaydi Shi’a mosques in Yemen killed more than 130 people.
  • Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, the mufti (Islamic scholar) of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in a drone strike in eastern Yemen in April. His death was cause for debate over whether a cleric like Rubaish was legally or morally a legitimate target. In June, AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi was also killed in a drone strike, and replaced by Qassem al-Rimi.
  • An investigation into US drone strikes in Yemen by the Open Society Justice Initiative concluded that the program is not abiding by rules about avoiding civilian casualties.
  • The family of two drone strike victims killed in Yemen in 2012, one an anti al-Qaeda cleric and the other a police officer, has filed suit to have the strike declared unlawful.

SOUTH ASIA

  • The Taliban regained control of significant portions of Afghanistan this year. One of the most recent struggles has been for Kunduz, a city that has spent a bloody fourteen years since the US invasion.
  • It was also revealed this year that the enigmatic Taliban leader and founder Mullah Omar has been dead since 2013. He has been succeeded by Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who is probably not dead at the moment. A Taliban splinter group contests Mansour’s leadership.
  • Perhaps in a bid to compete with the Islamic State, the Taliban stepped up its brutal persecution of Hazaras. The Islamic State has presented the Taliban with one of its biggest challenges in 2015 -– with the newer extremist group not only poaching recruits but actively attacking the Taliban. The Islamic State in Afghanistan at the moment is “operational, effective and positioned to expand.”
  • Civilian casualties in Afghanistan are at their highest since 2009 and desertion rates from Afghan forces are at their highest in a long time as well.
  • Old names from Afghanistan’s turbulent recent past have reemerged. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former warlord, is now the country’s vice president and is seeking to accrue power, especially in the north. Another warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is also making efforts to reassert himself.
  • The UN released a report detailing findings of widespread abuse and torture of detainees by Afghan police, security and intelligence forces.
  • $1.3 billion worth of reconstruction aid shipped to force commanders in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2014 cannot be accounted for. Another report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq reconstruction showed that the Pentagon managed to spend $43 million dollars on one gas station.
  • The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan has been halted – troops will now stay into 2017.
  • In early October, a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz was shelled by an American AC-130 gunship, killing 42 people. Doctors Without Borders and the Pentagon have both released reviews of what happened in that tragic half hour, with the US citing both profound human error and technical failures as causes. (“The Man on the Operating Table” by Andrew Quilty for Foreign Policy)
  • The 2012 beating death of an Afghan detainee by Navy SEAL Team 2 members was apparently covered up in closed door disciplinary hearings by SEAL command
  • Pakistan established a parallel military court system for trying Islamist militants at the beginning of this year. In December of 2014, a horrific attack on a school in Peshawar killed 149 people. Since then, Pakistan has doubled down on its fight against internal extremism. The result has been a dramatic rise in executions, with 300 (and counting) so far this year as thousands more sit on death row.
  • The Pakistani government says that 3400 militants and 500 soldiers have died in the Zarb e-Azb offensive in North Waziristan begun in June 2014 and escalated this year. Over the course of this offensive, thousands of detainees have disappeared (and dozens died) inside a network of 43 military internment centers.
  • In January, an American drone strike in Pakistan killed two Al Qaeda hostages – an American named Warren Weinstein and an Italian named Giovanni Lo Porto. Another American was also killed in the strike, an Al Qaeda leader named Ahmed Farouq. There is concern that a surveillance lapse by the CIA fumbled a valuable chance to save Weinstein because of the agency’s terrorist targeting mission overtook efforts at finding hostages.
  • California-born Adam Gadahn was killed in a separate strike that same month. Gadahn was a convert to Islam who played a key role in Al Qaeda’s propaganda operations.
  • Pakistan and India have agreed to resume dialogue after years of tension over the terms of any potential negotiations.
  • In August and September, 45 people were killed during violent protests over the new Nepali constitution. Human Rights Watch has compiled evidence of both unprovoked killings of police officers by protesters and vice versa.
  • The process of post-war reconciliation continued in Sri Lanka under a new president. The UN has recently called for a special tribunal to handle the prosecution of war crimes committed during the country’s civil war, which ended in 2009.
  • Four secular bloggers in Bangladesh were hacked to death, beginning with well-known Bangladeshi-American Avijit Roy in February. His death was followed by the murders of Washiqur Rahman Babu, Ananta Bijoy Das and Niloy Chatterjee.
  • A group identifying itself with the Islamic State carried out an attack on Shi’a mosque in which one died in Bogra, Bangladesh at the end of November. The organization has claimed a series of attacks on foreigners over this fall.

EAST AND SOUTHEAST ASIA

  • China’s president Xi Jinping is aiming to modernize the country’s military and has moved to speed up that process by cutting 300,000 troops.
  • Tensions increased over this year in the South China Sea, which has for years been the subject of territorial dispute among a number of countries. To China’s displeasure, the US Navy has been sailing past the Spratly Island chain, the site of controversial Chinese expansion, to assert freedom of navigation.
  • Japan marked the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • Japan’s parliament passed controversial security laws that marked the most significant military and foreign policy change for the country since World War II. The bills could see Japanese soldiers go abroad, something that has not happened in 70 years. The measures, since criticized by China, were protested by tens of thousands of Japanese citizens and even caused a brawl inside parliament during the vote.
  • A bungled police raid in the Philippines in January, in which least six American counterterrorism personnel were involved, resulted in the deaths of 44 officers and endangered a potential peace deal. The target of the raid, a Malaysian terrorist known as Marwan, was also killed. A subsequent investigation into the operation deemed it “defective from the very beginning.”
  • North and South Korea have recently ended high-level talks with no breakthroughs.
  • The UN human rights chief is urging the Security Council to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court.
  • Satellite photos show that North Korea is building a nuclear test tunnel.
  • Government troops in Myanmar launched an offensive in January against rebels in Kachin state, continuing to expand it over the next months despite peace talks. This November, the government signed a peace agreement with eight rebel groups.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won Myanmar’s first openly contested elections in years in a landslide. Confronting ethnic conflict will be a major challenge for Suu Kyi and her party.

EUROPE AND RUSSIA

  • Europe marked the 70th anniversary of V-E Day.
  • The Minsk agreement reached in fall of 2014 to end fighting in eastern Ukraine crumbled nearly as soon as it was made and then collapsed utterly in January, with separatists taking the Donetsk airport. Minsk II was agreed on in February, yet eastern Ukraine’s situation has been fragile, violent and anxious all year, with the reality of the ceasefire essentially nonexistent, interrupted as it was by shellings and violence. 105 civilians were killed between mid-May and mid-August. A for-real-this-time all out ceasefire set to start September 1st to coincide with the beginning of school in Ukraine, was broken in three days. Fighting is reported to have picked up yet again in November. The fighting has gone on for 21 months and has taken more than 9,000 lives and wounded more than 20,000. Both sides have used cluster munitions.
  • Ukraine’s military has undergone some dramatic expansion – it is now among the largest in Europe. Despite this, Ukrainian soldiers still face serious technological capability gaps.
  • The trial in Russia of Ukrainian helicopter pilot Nadia Savchenko is underway. Savchenko, a national hero in Ukraine, who alleges she was kidnapped by separatists and transferred to Russia, stands accused of the deaths of two Russian journalists in a mortar shelling. She ended a three month hunger strike earlier this year.
  • The Dutch Safety Board released the results of a fifteen-month investigation into the downing of the Malaysian Airlines jet over Ukraine in 2014. The flight was downed as a result of “the detonation of a warhead outside the airplane above the left-hand side of the cockpit.” The report did not place blame for the missile, though nothing was inconsistent with separatists having shot it down with a Russian Buk surface-to-air missile launcher. Meanwhile Russia has steadfastly refused this version of events, offering up differing explanations for the deadly incident and vetoing a UN resolution to set up a tribunal to investigate and prosecute those responsible. Citizen journalism website Bellingcat has been hard at work providing evidence and comparing notes on the crash – coming up with an analysis earlier this year that showed Russia had faked satellite imagery in an attempt to disprove the leading international theory.
  • In Russian-controlled Crimea, detentions and torture are common – as Anna Nemtsova puts it: “the real threat for those living under ‘Putin’s fortress’ comes from the inside.”
  • Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in Moscow in February.
  • The report he was working on before his death was finished and released by his friends and colleagues. The report –– which is simply titled “Putin. War.” -– is an investigation into the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine.
  • Ultranationalism is finding its foothold in Russia.
  • Russia has been regularly conducting naval exercises and buzzing military planes in and over the Baltic Sea. Baltic and Nordic states are feeling the pressure of potential Russian aggression.
  • The US planning to pre-position heavy military equipment in the Baltics and Eastern Europe in response to Russia and NATO is establishing six new command centers in Eastern Europe.
  • The slaughter of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II, was remembered at its 20 year anniversary. RFE/RL put together a seemingly endless scroll of around 2400 photographs of the victims.
  • In Serbia, war crimes prosecutors have charged 8 people for their roles in Srebrenica – the first time Serbia has charged anyone over the 1995 massacre.
  • Britain held hearings, with testimony from 64 witnesses, in the second stage of the inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, an outspoken Putin critic and former spy who was poisoned by polonium-210 while living in exile in London. The lawyer for Litvinenko’s family accused the Kremlin of direct involvement in his death, as did Scotland Yard.
  • 10 weeks worth of crisis talks in Northern Ireland saved the power-sharing deal among nationalist and unionist parties. The political crisis was triggered by the murder of Kevin McGuigan, a former IRA operative, over the summer – likely by former paramilitary comrades. The apparent presence of IRA activity caused political upheaval in unionist quarters that required significant negotiation to solve. An independent panel has now been appointed to assess the ongoing activity of paramilitary groups. The Ulster Defense Association, for one – once the largest loyalist paramilitary organization around – has proclaimed it persists and will not disappear.
  • An ongoing Bloody Sunday investigation by Northern Ireland’s police resulted in the arrest of a former British soldier.
  • On January 7th, gunmen entered the headquarters of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, murdering twelve people – including the editor and two police officers – and then escaping, triggering a three-day manhunt that ended in two simultaneous hostage/siege situations.
  • On November 13th, several gunmen equipped with suicide vests carried out coordinated attacks in Paris at the Stade de France, at a restaurant and at the Bataclan theatre. 130 people were killed and hundreds were wounded. The attacks, which were organized rather than inspired by the Islamic State, represented a strategic shift (or maybe progression) for the group. The architect of those attacks was subsequently killed in  a raid in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis. France is under a state of emergency until late February.
  • One persistent and repeating question that arises with new terror attacks is how and why the process of radicalization occurred in the first place. How did Mohammed Emwazi transform into “Jihadi John”? How did Tashfeen Malik, once a pharmacy student in Pakistan, end up as one of the San Bernardino mass shooters? At what point did Chérif and Said Kouachi become terrorists? Why does Belgium seem to produce such a high number of extremists?

REFUGEE CRISIS

  • One out of every 122 people are displaced by war, violence and persecution. At the end of 2014, nearly 60 million people were living exiled from their home, nearly 20 million of whom were refugees.
  • The conflicts in Syria and Iraq have pushed the displaced toward desperate measures, taking extreme and dangerous journeys to Europe. For many, the attempt has ended in tragedy. But 920,000 have arrived in Europe this year after crossing the Mediterranean. This has led to crises and closed borders, especially as acts of terror have driven up xenophobia.
  • Life as a refugee is a special kind of hell, but especially so for LGBTQ Syrians and Iraqis escaping brutal fates at the hands of the Islamic State.
  • Thousands of Syrian refugees are currently held in limbo at Jordan’s border, barred from entering.
  • You can attempt to plot your own virtual escape route, as thousands have done in real life this year, from Syria into Europe.
  • The war in Ukraine has created its own volume of refugees for Europe to contend with.

NORTH AMERICA

  • Canada’s Conservatives passed C-51, new anti-terror legislation that expand powers given to the police and to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
  • Ashton B. Carter replaced Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.
  • Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver became the first women to earn the prestigious Ranger tab. Army Ranger School then opened to all regardless of gender.
  • Following that, the Pentagon opened all combat roles to women, overruling the Marines’ request for exemption. Special operations forces are not happy, but expected resistance and naysaying aside, the move is a historic one and a victorious acknowledgment of the incredible accomplishments and potential of female service members.
  • Improvements still need to be made – the system continues to fail female veterans when it comes to healthcare.
  • The military is also paving the way for open service for transgender men and women.
  • The US changed its longstanding policy of refusing to confirm or deny whether or not people prevented from boarding commercial planes are on the no-fly list.
  • Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was found guilty of espionage charges for leaking information to New York Times reporter James Risen. He was then sentenced to three and a half years in prison. (The Intercept, “The Whistleblower’s Tale: How Jeffrey Sterling Took on the CIA –– and Lost Everything,” Peter Maass.)
  • David Petraeus, former CIA director and high-profile wartime general, was sentenced to two years probation and a $100,000 fine for leaking classified information to his then-mistress Paula Broadwell.
  • Current CIA director John Brennan is planning a broad restructuring of the organization, including an expansion of its cyber-espionage capabilities.
  • Congress passed a reform bill ending the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records.
  • Season 2 of the incredibly popular investigative journalism podcast Serial has begun – and this time is an investigation into the case of Bowe Bergdahl. Bergdahl was charged with desertion this year.
  • Cuba was removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism as relations were re-established and normalized.
  • An international panel of human rights experts found the US and Mexico to be jointly responsible for the ongoing drug war. According to data released by the Mexican government, the drug war, which has stifled journalistic freedoms in Mexico, claimed 164,000 lives between 2007 and 2014.
  • Even a year on from the mass killing of 43 students in Guerrero, their families have no justice and no answers.

CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA

  • A Honduran journalist recounted her experiences as an investigative reporter in a country where 51 journalists have been murdered since 2003.
  • Colombia is in the process of bringing to an end half a century of conflict with the FARC rebel group. Laying down their weapons and joining civilian life is not an easy move for rebels, especially in rural areas, but major breakthroughs have been made at the negotiating table this year. One in particular is an agreement on justice and reparations for the war’s victims and their families.
  • Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman alleged that top officials, including President Cristina Fernandéz de Kirchner, took part in a conspiracy to cover up Iran’s part in 1994 suicide bombing of a Jewish cultural center. Nisman was found dead on the eve of his testimony before lawmakers. Foul play was immediately and widely suspected
  • Warring gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 have plunged El Salvador into extreme levels of violence. The country of 6.3 million averaged 30 murders a day in August and roughly 700 or more people are killed a month.

TERROR AT HOME/THE GLOBAL WAR ON TERROR

  • The Global Terrorism Index 2015 reports that 2014 saw an 80% increase in terrorism deaths from 2013, with 32,600 deaths. 78% of those deaths occurred in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq and Syria.
  • US arms manufacturers are feeling the strain of high demand for smart bombs.
  • The threat of “freelance terrorism” was a major feature of 2015 the United States. Sometimes the result of domestically-sourced motivations, as with the racially-motivated murders of 9 people in a church in Charleston, and other times overlapping with international extremism as with the recent killing spree in San Bernardino, CA, where 14 people died. In any year, these attacks and those in Paris would spur serious and long-ranging questions about domestic and international policy, but this is an election season. The resulting rise in xenophobia and xenophobic policy suggestions as a result of Paris and San Bernardino has given strength to far right movements.
  • Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found guilty on 30 counts, from using a weapon of mass destruction to bombing a place of public use. He was later sentenced to death by lethal injection.

TORTURE AND DETENTION POLITICS

  • Guantánamo Bay inmate Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s memoir, Guantánamo Diary, was published in January on the heels of the late-2014 release of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s report on the US use of torture.
  • After 14 years in Guantánamo, British citizen Shaker Aamer, never charged with any crime, has been released. He gave an interview to the Daily Mail chronicling his abuse and his joy at his freedom.
  • A still-classified internal CIA review, known as the Panetta Report, found that the agency exaggerated the effectiveness of torture techniques and overstated the worth of intelligence obtained from them.
  • The American Psychological Association collaborated with the Bush administration to justify post-9/11 torture practices. Psychologist Jean Marie Arrigo, who warned of the APA’s role in the program and was the subject of collective disbelief and a smear campaign, has been vindicated.
  • The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has painstakingly profiled the 119 prisoners who went through the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.
  • A Guardian investigation into Chicago police abuse uncovered a domestic CIA-esque “black site” run by the Chicago PD at Homan Square, an off-the-books interrogation center where people were subjected to beatings, prolonged shackling, and denial of counsel. Those who were brought there were not booked, or officially logged in any way. Further investigation revealed that 7,000 people were disappeared inside the facility between 2004 and 2015 – about 6,000 of whom were black.
  • The Guardian also reported, in a two-part story, that Chicago detective Richard Zuley, who went on to be involved in torture at Guantánamo, began those brutal techniques on poor and minority Chicagoans to extract confessions.
  • Omar Khadr, who was put in Guantánamo in 2002 at age 15 and transferred to his home country of Canada in 2012, walked free this year. The Toronto Starprofiles him.
  • The US is now admitting that Mustafa al-Aziz al-Shamiri, who has been in Guantánamo for 13 years, was never a courier or trainer for al-Qaeda but a low-level Islamist foot soldier.
  • Another of the facility’s “forever prisoners,” Zahir Hamdoun, held since 2002 – is seeking release from the national security parole board.
  • There have been a number of repatriations this year as the Pentagon moved quickly against Congress’s plans to shut down transfers. In November, the Senate passed a defense authorization bill that included provisions restricting transfers abroad and banning relocation of the prison’s detainees to prisons inside the US, for residency or for trial.
  • Here, as of mid-September, is a list of who is still held at the Guantánamo facility.
  • Once again, the Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg has provided us with the best, most comprehensive and solidly reported journalism on the goings on at Guantánamo, from transfers to trials.

Good war and conflict long-form for 2015:

  • “The Hezbollah Connection” by Ronen Bergman in The New York Times Magazine (on the investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri).
  • “Lost in Syria” by Nicholas Schmidle in The New Yorker (on the death of Eric Harroun, an Army vet who died fighting Assad in Syria).
  • “Why Jihadists Write Poetry” by Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel in The New Yorker.
  • “The Ties that Bind Jihadists” by Ursula Lindsey in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • “The “Gang of Girls” Risks Their Lives to Report from Inside a War Zone” by Christina Asquith in Elle.
  • “Destroyed by the Espionage Act” by Peter Maass at The Intercept (on the sentencing of State Dept. employee Stephen Kim for talking to reporter James Rosen).
  • “Ghost Students. Ghost Teachers. Ghost Schools” by Azmat Khan for BuzzFeed (on false US claims of success over empty Afghan schools).
  • “Fugue State” by Sarah Topol in Harper’s (the struggle for national identity in wartime Ukraine).
  • Retro Report’s “Anatomy of an Interrogation.” (Video)
  • “Fighting ISIL From City Hall” by Ibrahim Hirsi in Politico.
  • “Inside Assad’s Syria” on Frontline PBS (Video)
  • “The Agency” by Adrian Chen in The New York Times Magazine (on Russia’s army of Internet trolls)
  • “The Road to Damascus” by Sonia Smith in Texas Monthly (on the disappearance of Austin Tice).
  • “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape” by Rukmini Callimachi in The New York Times.
  • “ISIS Women and Enforcers in Syria Recount Collaboration, Anguish and Escape” by Azadeh Moaveni for The New York Times
  • “Christie’s Conspiracy: The Real Story Behind the Fort Dix Five Terror Plot” by Murtaza Hussain at The Intercept
  • “From Afghanistan, With Love” by Mujib Mashal for Matter (on a radio call-in show helping Afghan citizens with modern love in time of ongoing conflict).
  • “To Catch the Devil” by Trevor Aaronson in Foreign Policy (on the FBI’s vast and tricky use of informants as part of their post-9/11 counterterrorism apparatus).

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