August 20th, 2014

Potential Future Risks

Posted at 1:00 AM ET

The spillover of violence from Syria to other Middle Eastern countries is a clear risk in 2014 and beyond. The conflict, and the sectarian tensions that underpin it, could destabilize a number of countries that share borders with Syria and be a catalyst for further violence in countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has already exploited conditions in Syria to its advantage in Iraq, where the level of violence is at its highest for a number of years. The group has also made significant territorial gains in Iraq recently, advancing its aim of creating a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq.

Worsening violence in Lebanon, the threat of attacks in Turkey and the proxy involvement of several other Gulf states in the Syrian conflict (such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran) are likely to exacerbate sectarian hostilities across the Middle East and play an important part in determining the terrorist threat to Western interests around the world.

The situation in Egypt is also volatile following the ousting of democratically-elected President Mohammed Morsi by the army in 2013 and the banning of his Muslim Brotherhood party. Violent clashes have continued between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and police in 2014. Militants are using the removal of Morsi to call for a holy war against security personnel, especially in the Sinai region. It has also persuaded some to take up arms rather than participate in the political process. This has culminated in an increasing number of terrorist attacks in Egypt, including an assassination attempt in Cairo on the country’s interior minister and a failed attack on a vessel passing though the Suez Canal. Such attacks reflect the highly unstable situation in Egypt and the growing desire and intent of groups to target government and commercial entities that have strategic or economic importance.

Cyber terrorism and cyber security also have the potential to threaten countries’ national security. Critical infrastructure, including nuclear plants and other industrial facilities, is increasingly being targeted by cyber hackers intent on causing damage, disruption and potentially loss of life. Nevertheless, terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda are currently seen as lacking the necessary sophistication and capability in this area to successfully disrupt a major facility. The risk is more related to state-sponsored cyber activity such as the Stuxnet virus that targeted Iranian nuclear plants in 2010.

The recent leaking of government secrets by Edward Snowden, a former US government contractor, has also exposed new potential cyber vulnerabilities after classified material was released in newspapers. A number of intelligence officials in the United States and United Kingdom said the leaks damaged their counter-terrorism efforts as terrorist groups reacted to the disclosures and reassessed the way they operate and communicate.

The leaks have consequently heightened fears about cyber security. The Snowden case has also focused minds on how a relatively low ranking employee was able to download and ultimately leak such classified material. Both government and commercial entities are therefore using the case to assess the potential vulnerabilities it has exposed, the impact such occurrences can have on national security and how (re)insurance can help provide protection against such events.

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