Monthly Risk Spotlight: December 2023


A Focus on Territorial Disputes Across the Region
On December 3, a national referendum was held in Venezuela to determine whether the nation should annex Essequibo, an oil-rich region of neighboring Guyana. Although the referendum was non-binding, and the United Nations (UN) has already publicly denounced it as illegitimate, the territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela has the potential to escalate. Moreover, what are other potential territorial disputes brewing in the Americas and how likely are any of these disputes to lead to war?

Excluding disputes over small islands or territorial waters, the Americas have two other major territorial disputes that could lead to armed conflict. The most pressing is the Falkland/Malvinas Islands claimed by Argentina but administered by the United Kingdom (UK). In the 1980s, Argentina attempted to take the islands by force but was subsequently defeated by the British. Although Argentina lost the conflict, they have maintained the claim to the Falkland/Malvinas even today. Most recently, the newly elected president of Argentina has claimed that he intends to get the islands back. It is not unusual for a new Argentine president to claim the Falklands/Malvinas, although it is also well understood that Argentina would likely not use force again to try to claim the islands.

The other major territorial dispute is between Belize and Guatemala. Guatemala claims the entirety of Belize as its territory following what Guatemala describes as the illegal seizure of its land by Britain during colonial times. Although the disputed land claims have varied over time, today the Guatemalan government considers the entirety of Belize to be disputed land. Both states have committed to settling the territorial dispute through international mediation and the International Court of Justice, where the case is still pending a final ruling.

Although both territorial disputes are frozen and there is a low likelihood of armed conflict, the recent example of Essequibo underscores the threat from legacy territorial disputes. As domestic politics change and more nationalistic attitudes become popular, leaders may turn to historical and unresolved territorial disputes to shore up domestic support. Territorial disputes between neighboring states, though now seemingly a non-issue, could change with a new president. As the rise in populist nationalistic candidates on both sides of the political spectrum gains traction in Latin America, legacy territorial disputes may boil over and thus, escalate into a cascade of territorial disputes and saber-rattling in a continent that has historically been able to avoid open warfare between competing states.


West Bank Violence Increases as War in Gaza Continues
Since the attacks of October 7, the world’s attention has almost always been fixed on the Gaza Strip. There has been a significant uptick in violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. Israeli security forces have increased their operations against Palestinian factions in the West Bank, detained many Palestinians in the territory, and allowed Israeli settlers to harass Palestinians in the territory with impunity. Since October 7, more than 242 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces and settlers in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem. Furthermore, the number of Palestinians detained in the West Bank during the 8-day truce/prisoner swap equals the number of Palestinian prisoners, women, and children, released by the IDF.

Before the start of the Israel/Hamas war, Palestinians in the West Bank were being attacked and killed at a far greater rate than in previous years. Now, since the attack, there have been mass arrests of Palestinians suspected of being part of Hamas or other armed militant groups. Additionally, settler violence has significantly increased since October 7, forcing some Palestinians to evacuate their villages.

Leveraging reports published by Haaretz, a prominent Israeli newspaper, young Israeli settlers in the West Bank use social media platforms, mainly WhatsApp, to notify others about the locations of Palestinians harvesting olives so that they harass them. One village reported that Israeli settlers placed leaflets on Palestinian cars saying they would suffer a ‘Great Nakba,’ referring to the 1948 Nakba, an event in which Israeli militias forced the mass displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes. The mayor of another Palestinian village that was attacked in June now says 80% of residents are not going out to harvest olives as they are too afraid of settler violence.

Several nationalist and political organizations, motivated by ensuring rights for the Palestinian people and the protection of their land, reside in the West Bank and Gaza. There is an increased threat that the persistent violence against Palestinian nationals in the territory could aid in the support of armed militant groups in the area, particularly the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, al-Quds Brigade, and Lions’ Den. As the Israeli security forces continue to target Palestinians and turn a blind eye to settler violence, the likelihood that armed groups could gain new members significantly increases. As political and diplomatic avenues aimed at preserving Palestinian rights fail, armed resistance becomes a viable option for many. Thus, exacerbating the already tense situation between Israel and Palestine.


A New Turn in Korean Peninsula Politics
The recent launch of a reconnaissance satellite by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK; ‘North Korea’) significantly transcends the realm of space exploration. Thus, marking a critical juncture in the complex geopolitical narrative of the Korean Peninsula. This event is not merely an advancement in aerospace technology but a strategic maneuver with profound implications for the regional balance of power and global geopolitics.

Historically, the Korean Peninsula has been a focal point of international tension and strategic maneuvering, particularly since the division of north and south following the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953. Today, the division is characterized by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a symbol of the enduring ideological and political rift between the two nations. Thus, North Korea’s satellite launch, which adheres to its enduring pursuit of technological and military capabilities represents a significant escalation. The development of such technologies has long been viewed as essential by the North Korean high command to counter perceived threats, primarily from the United States (U.S.) and its allies. Considering recent engagements, the possible facilitation by Russian technological assistance presents an uncomfortable geopolitical reality on the Peninsula.

In response to the satellite launch, the Republic of Korea (ROK; ‘South Korea) suspended several key elements of the 2018 inter-Korean military agreement, including aerial surveillance along border areas. This agreement, historically, had become a beacon of hope for reduced military tensions on the Peninsula, via the dismantling of certain guard posts and establishing no-fly zones. The incident signals a dramatic shift in the region’s security dynamics. South Korea’s resumption of aerial surveillance near the border emphasizes its heightened concerns. This could lead to an increase of troops positioned on the already heavily fortified border.

For observers, particularly those unfamiliar with the intricate history of the Korean Peninsula, it is essential to recognize that this development extends beyond a bilateral conflict. The ramifications of North Korea’s actions are far-reaching, affecting major global powers including the U.S., Russia, and prominent regional powerbrokers. The satellite’s launch, amidst speculations about its capabilities and true objectives, serves as a testament to North Korea’s aspirations to assert itself as a nuclear power on the global stage. Regardless, of its legality.

This incident reflects the ongoing challenges of strategic alliances, diplomatic engagements, and rivalries in the region. The Korean Peninsula, often perceived as a regional issue, is a critical intersection in the complex web of geopolitical issues, with each development having the potential to influence the course of global politics outside of the region.

In conclusion, the launch of North Korea’s reconnaissance satellite is a pivotal moment in the region, with implications that could affect beyond the immediate region. It underscores the delicate balance of power and the continuous interplay of strategic rivalry and diplomacy. For stakeholders and observers, understanding the historical, geopolitical, and strategic dimensions of such developments is crucial in comprehending the multifaceted nature of international relations on the Korean Peninsula.


Conflict in the Sahel Creating Alliances
Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger are joining forces to combat insecurity and create stability in the Sahel as they distance themselves from traditional diplomatic ties. In recent times, following a series of coup d’états that have swept the region, prompting sanctions and worsening relations with international partners. In direct response to these nations’ recent coups, there has been significant withdrawal of military aid. The prevailing condemnation led to the signing of a mutual defense pact, or “The Alliance of Sahel States”. Which promises to support each other against domestic and international threats. Although this pact may have deterred military intervention from other African states in the wake of their coups, it has not curbed the significant uptick in attacks by Islamist militants. All three countries have remained destabilized while struggling to conduct counter-terrorism operations. Despite their efforts to regain control, insecurity in the tri-border area continues to increase, prompting closer ties with other international partners. In more formal diplomatic terms with Russia, but privately with private military companies (PMCs), such as the Wagner Group.

On December 1, officials from the newly formed alliance met in Bamako, Mali, to discuss creating a similar confederation of West African states. The foreign ministers from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger focused on creating a federation that ensures diplomacy, defense, and development “to consolidate political and economic integration”. Additionally, finance ministers from each country have proposed linking their economies and creating a stabilization fund, investment bank, and a joint economic committee. Their recommendations will be submitted to the heads of state, who will meet again in Bamako. As the heads of state take steps towards integration, they also legitimize their military rule, as well as secure economic recovery in the aftermath of sanctions.

On December 2, Burkina Faso and Niger announced that they are withdrawing from the G5 anti-terror task force, which is heavily backed by France. Both Burkina Faso and Niger stated their primary motivations for leaving were because it had failed to meet its objectives in making the Sahel a zone of security and development. Previously in May 2022, Mali left the organization citing suspicions that France was leveraging it to further its interests over the sovereignty and development of African countries.

For over a decade, France has played a key role in battling militants aligned with al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) in several of its former colonies in the region. To date, the conflict killed more than 17,000 civilians and soldiers, further displacing around 4.2 million people. Despite extensive international military support and humanitarian aid, the crisis has only continued to increase across the region. Since 2020, there have been six coup d’états in former French colonies. Largely prompted by wider regional insecurity and failings by civilian elected governments to improve the situation.

Considering the time surrounding the coup in Burkina Faso, in September 2022, roughly 40% of the country was controlled by militants. Moreover, the motivation behind the coup in Mali was to improve security and establish sovereignty by distancing itself from France and providing its own defenses.

The three military-led governments may face the same internal dissatisfaction and radicalization if they too do not show a significant amount of progress in dealing with terrorism. The withdrawal of French troops and departure from the G5 has left these countries looking elsewhere for military aid and stability. This new strategy to face a legacy issue has led to a proposed regional federation and formal bilateral agreements with non-traditional powerbrokers, such as Russia. Moreover, increased diplomatic engagement prompts avenues for more informal solutions such as leveraging PMCs such as the Wagner Group to tackle the overwhelming insecurity prompted by terrorism. Although Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali are forming new partnerships to succeed where predecessors have allegedly failed, this is expected to be a major setback in the overall mission of combating militants aligned with AQ and IS. Thus, prompting a worsening of the situation in the near term.


Underlying Grievance Can Escalate a Risky Situation
When an incident occurs that presents a risk to the public there is a need for increased security awareness. On November 23, three children and a woman were attacked with a knife at 1330 hrs. local time (GMT) outside of a school in Dublin, Republic of Ireland (ROI). What followed was an unprecedented large-scale civil unrest in central Dublin, provoked not by the incident at the school, but by the assumption that the perpetrator was a migrant. Fueled by anti-migrant sentiment and right-wing media groups, the unrest experienced in Dublin was unlike anything seen in the city for decades.

Unconfirmed reports that the attacker was an Algerian migrant began circulating over social media soon after the incident. Researchers who specialize in extremist movements reported that the influx of unconfirmed reports and calls for unrest was divulging, particularly in anti-immigration and far-right groups. Notably, Gript, a right-wing news platform in Ireland was one of the first platforms to suggest the perpetrator was a migrant. At this time, Irish security services declined to comment on the background of the suspect, while the hecklers ignored the fact that a Brazilian migrant stopped the attack.

By the evening of November 23, the calls to gather in protest resulted in over 500 people gathering in central Dublin and proceeded to clash with security services, loot several stores, and set cars on fire. In total 34 people were arrested, many in association with vandalizing hotels and hostels under the assumption that they were housing migrants. The following day, On November 24, the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, made a public address following the unrest. In his address, Varadkar condemned the disorder and said, “Those involved have brought shame on Dublin, brought shame on Ireland and brought shame on their families and themselves…this is not who we are. This is not who we want to be, and this is not who we will ever be.”

The unrest in Dublin came as a shock, however; leveraging analysis of the current political and social climate of Ireland, there may be further explanations for continued threat of unrest. Throughout 2023, the Irish population has experienced an increased cost of living and remains amidst a housing crisis. Throughout the year, several groups on social media have attested their frustrations to migration issues, particularly citing that this past year reached a sixteen-year high of immigrants settling in Ireland. As stated earlier, the frenzy generated from information published on social media platforms, particularly amongst the anti-immigrant and far-right groups. These groups have grown in significance in recent times and now present a major threat to public safety in Dublin.

The incident unearthed a deeper understanding of the current underlying tensions in Ireland. Due to this unrest escalating so quickly, coupled with the underlying public grievances, there is a heightened threat of further unrest within Ireland in the near term.


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