The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the headlines for much of the past year. Upwards of a million people have died from the disease worldwide — more than 250,000 in the United States alone. Health experts are warning that the situation will turn even more dire as winter and the flu season approach. Already we are witnessing a spike in infections in Europe and the United States, which is forcing cities and states to go back into lockdown.
“In the shadow of the current global health crisis many other worrying trends have been and are continuing to emerge around the world. Largely symptoms of the pandemic, economies are in shambles and unemployment and crime are soaring,” said Global Guardian CEO Dale Buckner. But, he added, “with the pandemic, the decrease in societal interaction and a distracted international press have also served to dampen or stall international conflicts and acts of terror around the world.”
So, what happens next?
As a sponsor of the ISF and OSAC Annual Briefing, Global Guardian hosted a webinar for Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) professionals – a joint venture between the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. private sector, on November 20 to take stock of the situation and look ahead to what to expect in the year ahead.
The discussion featured retired U.S. Army General Pete Schoomaker, who served as the 35th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and former Commander‑in‑Chief, U.S. Special Operations Command; Douglas Wise, a former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency; and Michael McGarrity, Vice President of Global Risk Services at Global Guardian and a former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division. Buckner moderated the discussion. Below the are key takeaways:
The issue: In many countries around the world, there has been what Global Guardian CEO Dale Buckner described as “a very large and loud and violent response” to political unrest. Looking ahead to 2021, he expects issues that dominated headlines in 2019 to become visible once more.
What to watch: Buckner advises keeping an eye on developments in Hong Kong, Chile, Bolivia, Lebanon, and Sudan in the year ahead. “The one common denominator in all of those countries… is that there is massive political unrest in these countries,” he said. Besides the political turmoil, the economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has led to high rates of unemployment, which creates opportunities for violence.
Similarly, in Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Nigeria, the United States, and Thailand, there is plenty of political unrest tied to elections and the inability of the governments to respond properly, and financial destruction, Buckner noted.
In Hong Kong, protests against a draconian national security law passed by China has had a significant impact on the opposition. The law makes it easier to punish protesters and reduces Hong Kong’s autonomy. It criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion.
Douglas Wise, a former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said there is no doubt that the opposition has been weakened in the face of what he described as a “perfect storm” marked by the national security law, the COVID-19 pandemic, a distracted West, and the rise of Chinese nationalism.
Wise said the national security law poses a challenge to OSAC professionals because it applies to foreign nationals as well. “If you are a GSM service provider and you give a SIM card to somebody who is determined to be a member of the opposition, in theory you are in violation of the law,” said Wise. “The impact [of the law] is going to be to continue to keep the security environment in Hong Kong a little on edge.” It is not going to be as safe or as stable, and from a business standpoint, investors would be unwilling to take risks, he said.
Terrorism in Europe
The issue: The challenge of terrorism, while a long simmering one in Europe, is an issue that has abated somewhat since March when the pandemic led governments to shut borders and close airspace. However, there have been some recent incidents of terrorism in Austria and France.
Following the beheading of a teacher in France, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a plan to tackle “Islamist separatism” and “reform” Islam. His controversial plan targets foreign funding for Muslim community organizations and creates a certification program for French-trained imams.
What to watch: Buckner said that as the pandemic abates and a vaccine becomes available the key question will be whether there will be a resurgence of terrorism in Europe. “With the recent attacks in the last 60 days in France and Austria, we’re all starting to think that as we see borders starting to open up when the distribution of the vaccine starts to take hold, we do anticipate that we will see an increase in terrorism in Europe,” said Buckner, adding that he is concerned about attacks on Christmas markets, in particular.
Michael McGarrity, Vice President of Global Risk Services at Global Guardian and a former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, said Europe is facing two threat vectors: global jihad and right-wing extremism.
Following the terrorist attacks in France and Austria, the United Kingdom raised its threat level from substantial to severe. And the United Kingdom’s top counterterrorism officer, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, described right-wing extremism as the fastest-growing threat facing the country.
McGarrity said that some European countries, including Sweden, Belgium, and France, face the additional threat of returning foreign fighters who went to fight with terror groups in Syria and Iraq. Germany, too, is vulnerable, he added.
As COVID-19 travel restrictions are lifted across Europe, the ability of counterterrorism offices to coordinate quickly and on the fly will be paramount to stopping these threats, said McGarrity.
Meanwhile, Macron’s response to the terrorist attacks provoked an angry response from around the world, especially Muslims. Buckner said that with “the rise of the right in Europe, this convoluted element of having both sides activated and very emotional, we do predict that we will see an increase [in acts of terrorism] over the next couple of months into the latter part of 2021.”
Douglas Wise, a former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, acknowledged that Macron’s plan to create a “French version of Islam — Islam of enlightenment is the way they say it in French” is dividing France between the hard left and the hard right. “Most experts would suggest France should address the underlying issues that are propelling Muslim extremists to commit violence in France,” Wise said. “What Macron has chosen to do is to take a very controversial path.” As a consequence, terrorist attacks in France could possibly accelerate, he predicted.
Moreover, Wise said Macron faces a legal challenge as a 1905 French law prohibits the government from engaging in religious matters.
The issue: In October, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned in a report that violent white supremacy is the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland” and that white supremacists were the most deadly domestic terrorists in recent years.
While noting the sharp political divisions currently in the United States, Buckner said he was hopeful that as president, Joseph R. Biden Jr. will “lower the temperature of the country, bring down some of the rhetoric.” Acknowledging that the country cannot be reunited overnight, he said: “There is always going to be an extreme left and an extreme right… the question is can we bring that emotion down a bit?”
What to watch: Looking ahead, Buckner is hopeful that with a Biden administration taking office there will not be a spike in right-wing activities and what he described as “the conflict of race, religion, sexuality, and politics” can be calmed.
Over the past year, cities across the United States have been roiled by protests—some of which turned violent—in response to police shootings of Black men and women. McGarrity said the Biden administration’s actions to review policies and provide proper training to police officers before shooting incidents occur will be critical.
When unrest does occur, “the question is what can you do to stop all the people that want to come in and use that event, to either end of the political spectrum, and exploit it,” said McGarrity, noting that foreign states also seek to exploit such incidents on social media.
McGarrity said far-right groups and militias pose a risk to domestic business operations, as do lone actors acting in furtherance of an extremist ideology. He backed up his argument with a number of recent examples, including that of Cesar Sayoc, a Florida man, who in 2018 shipped pipe bombs to critics of U.S. President Donald J. Trump, endangering the mail service; and the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas; a shooting at a garlic festival in Gilroy, California; and a shooting at a bar in Dayton, Ohio, all in 2019. Far-right groups and lone actor extremists tend to go after symbolic locations like government buildings, but also places they associate as being against policies they oppose, McGarrity said.
McGarrity said when far-right and far-left groups come into the inner city when they know another group is protesting , as they did in Washington, DC, in Minnesota, and in Portland, they may be looking for a fight. That is not good for downtown businesses, he said. “Commercial real estate is going to take a hit… and that is going to have a detrimental effect on business operations,” McGarrity said. “As these groups look to feed off each other… the strategy has to be to deescalate.”
McGarrity recommends that federal law enforcement look at intelligence when it goes beyond just a protest and aggressively prosecute the violent actors that are looking to agitate.
Competition in the Eastern Mediterranean
The issue: A competition is underway in eastern Mediterranean to control and exploit gas reserves. The players include Greece, Turkey, France, the European Union (EU), and Cyprus. “Turkey’s objective, we believe, is to replace Russia as the primary gas station to Europe,” said Buckner. Turkey’s actions have led to an increase in hostilities with Greece. The situation is complicated by the fact that both Turkey and Greece are NATO members.
Noting that this is an issue that has been flying below the radar, Bucker said: “It is important and it is very complex and it could have second and third-order effects as we are looking toward Europe in 2021 and beyond.”
What to watch: Buckner believes the Biden administration will take a tough stand with respect to Turkey; this could create friction in the region.
What are the second-order implications for companies that have operations in Europe and Turkey? Wise believes that a flare-up in the region could divide both the EU and NATO, draw Russia into a military confrontation, and have a detrimental effect on maritime trade.
Arab Normalization with Israel
The issue: In 2020, three Arab countries — Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan — normalized relations with Israel. Bucker described this development as good news. “This was a major accomplishment” for which the Trump administration deserves credit, he said.
“This was a significant foreign policy accomplishment,” acknowledged Wise. It gets “Israel out of its isolation and [allows] it to have the opportunity to discuss how it interacts with the Arab world more openly.”
Wise said this development shifts the balance of power in the Middle East. “The reality is that Israel and the Gulf Arab states are now in a better position to interact and to provide for mutual defense in the face of a very militaristic and aggressive Iran,” he explained. Further, Wise added, “it also puts Iran’s foreign policy back on its heels” and is part of the Trump administration’s containment policy against Iran.
Wise thinks Sunni Arab states, in particular, would welcome normalization of ties with Israel. “It will truly create a Mideast containment of Iran,” he said, adding, “It’s our allies and friends in the region that bear the greatest risk of an aggressive Iran, not so much the United States.”
Former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and former Commander‑in‑Chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, General Pete Schoomaker, U.S. Army (Retired), said that in light of the United States’ much-publicized pivot toward the Pacific and its withdrawal from many parts of the world, it is not surprising that countries in the Middle East are motivated to work with each other to address their security concerns, particularly the growing threat posed by Iran. “Remembering that nations act in their own interest, it is logical that people would look for friends in the area. And enduring power in the area right now happens to be Israel,” he said.
Meanwhile, many experts believe a Biden administration will take a tougher stand toward Saudi Arabia — a nation with which the Trump administration has had warm ties.
What to watch: Wise said it will be interesting to see which other Arab Gulf states choose to normalize ties with Israel. Oman, which has close ties to Iran, could be part of this agreement, he said.
Wise expects an increase in trade and tourism between Israel and the Arab states, which would have a significant effect on all of their economies.
“We are very hopeful that this is the beginning of something that creates a positive momentum and a generational shift,” Buckner said.
These developments could create challenges for the Biden administration. They could result in threats to U.S. institutions and travelers in the Middle East as Iran seeks opportunities to respond asymmetrically to U.S. and regional pressure, said Wise.
Wise predicted Iran will continue to leverage Hezbollah, the Quds Force, and conduct cyberattacks. “We need to be prepared for Iran to take the path of playing to their strengths and what they perceive to be our weaknesses,” he said.
The Biden administration would also be faced with the question of how much of a guarantor it would be to the agreement, said Wise.
Another complication, Wise noted, is that the Biden administration has committed to returning to the nuclear deal with Iran, which the Trump administration pulled out of early in its term.
As for the potential for a strained U.S.-Saudi relationship under a Biden administration, Schoomaker said stability of the kingdom is critical considering the tough internal and external pressures that currently exist. He believes that as difficult as it may be, the Biden administration will “work to maintain this relationship, understanding how critical Saudi Arabian stability is to the region.”
“If you are doing business there it is going to be important to continue to watch your six and to be very situationally aware,” Schoomaker said.