2016 in review: Terror, turmoil and the rise of Trump

2016 was a tale of the unexpected yet depressingly familiar with its violence, terror and suffering, write Christopher Marshall and Stephen Paul

Omran, a four-year-old Syrian boy covered in dust and blood, in an ambulance after being rescued from the rubble of a building hit by an air strike in  Aleppo. Picture: Getty Images
Omran, a four-year-old Syrian boy covered in dust and blood, in an ambulance after being rescued from the rubble of a building hit by an air strike in Aleppo. Picture: Getty Images

When the CIA last week suggested Russian cyber attacks had helped win the US presidential election for Donald Trump, the world simply gave a collective shrug and moved on.

A claim which 12 months ago would have been met with shock and incredulity now warrants merely a footnote in what already feels like a truly momentous year in the history of the early twenty-first century.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

From the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Syria and the election of a man once considered an eccentric outsider as the US Commander in Chief, 2016 has been seismic.

In a year which has at times felt like one long celebrity obituary, historians will also note the passing of two of last century’s most important figures: Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro.

The year began in grim fashion with the execution of five hostages by the group calling itself Islamic State (IS), although claims the men were British spies were later rejected by the UK government.

It set the tone for 2016, a year – like the one before it – plagued by terror attacks and rising tensions across Europe and the Middle East.

Just days after the execution of the foreign hostages, IS claimed responsibility for an attack on a Baghdad shopping centre and a car bombing in the town of Muqdadiya which killed more than 50 people between them.

The violence and barbarism of IS continued to inspire lone wolves in Europe, including an apparent attack by a man on a Parisian police station on 6 January, the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

French police shot dead the man, who was reported to be shouting “Allahu Akbar” and had a piece of paper which “pledged allegiance” to IS as well as vowing revenge for French “attacks in Syria”.

In March, more than 30 people were killed and dozens injured following twin attacks at Brussels international airport and a city metro station. Belgium declared three days of national mourning following the attacks, for which IS once again claimed responsibility.

And the bloodshed was not to end there.

Attacks on the Atatürk airport in Istanbul on 28 June, and Bastille Day celebrations in Nice on 14 July, left 131 people dead and 664 injured in total. IS claimed responsibility for the latter in which Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian man, drove a lorry into a packed crowd watching a fireworks display.

There were a number of attacks in Germany, too, the deadliest of which saw an 18-year-old Iranian-German go on a shooting spree, killing nine.

Police later said Ali David Sonboly had no links to Islamic extremism but had been “obsessed with mass shootings” and inspired by Anders Breivik, the white supremacist who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011.

The tragic loss of life and scale of the terrorists’ actions cast an air of fear over Europe.

Turkey teetered on the verge of political collapse, France extended its state of emergency and Germany elected to take a new, tougher approach towards asylum seekers.

The attacks in Europe repeatedly succeeded in averting the world’s eyes from the humanitarian crisis in Syria where the bloody civil war entered its fifth year, with some estimates putting the death toll as high as 400,000.

What began as a popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad has now evolved into an intractable conflict, where Russian airstrikes and Iranian-supplied weapons have helped bolster the government’s position.

Haunted by the disaster of Iraq, the West’s response has been paralysed by indecision and a United States unwilling to become involved in another foreign intervention.

Despite continued media coverage, the catalogue of horror has often failed to garner the concern it deserves in a wider world consumed by its own troubles and sadly inured to a tragedy which those in the West seem powerless to do anything about.

All that was shattered in August, however, with the publication of a photograph which shocked the world.

The image of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting bloodied and stunned in the back of an ambulance gave the briefest of glimpses into the horrors unfolding in the besieged city of Aleppo.

Footage of the boy covered in dust and staring into the distance was circulated by a group of activists following a government airstrike on the rebel-held Qaterji neighbourhood.

In November, government forces began taking back control of much of the city from rebel fighters as thousands of civilians attempted to flee to safety.

Backed by Russian airstrikes, the government has now regained control of around 90 per cent of the city while the local population endures not only the fighting but shortages of food and fuel.

The West’s response to the crisis in Syria was further undermined by growing political uncertainty in Europe.

In June, the UK voted to leave the European Union, a surprise result which sent shockwaves through the 27 other member states.

While the full implications of Brexit are yet to be fully understood, there have already been signs elsewhere of the further unravelling of the European project.

Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, announced his decision to step down earlier this month after losing a referendum on the country’s constitution.

Ostensibly a vote on strengthening the central government and limiting the power of the Senate, the referendum was seen by many Italians as an opportunity to reject establishment politics.

The No camp was led by the Five Star Movement, which harnessed growing unhappiness over economic stagnation and problems caused by the arrival of migrants from Africa, some of whom set up camp in Calais.

In Austria, Norbert Hofer lost this month’s presidential election to his “pro-European” opponent, Alexander Van der Bellen, below, by 348,231 votes, preventing the election of the first far-right European national leader since World War Two.

In July, a faction of the Turkish armed forces attempted to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government by targeting strategically important state buildings in Ankara, Istanbul and elsewhere.

More than 300 were killed and 2,100 injured during the failed coup – which was partly thwarted by internal disorganisation and pre-emptive Russian intelligence.

The international community condemned the military mutiny, and called for Turkey’s democratic institutions to be respected. In the aftermath, more than 100,000 people were purged, including soldiers, state officials, police officers, judges and teachers.

In the United States, gun violence continued to dominate the headlines despite not being a defining issue during the presidential campaign. In the deadliest terrorist attack in the US since 9/11, 29-year-old Omar Mateen killed 49 people and injured 53 more at a gay nightclub, Pulse, in Florida.

During the attack on 12 June, Mateen swore allegiance to IS. Widespread civil unrest followed the deaths of two black men at the hands of US law enforcement officers.

On 5 July, Alton Sterling was held down by Baton Rouge police officers in Louisiana, then shot dead. The next day, a St Anthony, Minnesota, officer fatally shot Philando Castile as he allegedly reached for his ID – Castile’s girlfriend streamed the ordeal live on Facebook. In retaliation to Sterling and Castile’s deaths, an anti-white gunman opened fire at the end of a protest in Dallas, Texas, killing five police officers and injuring nine others. Another three officers were killed in Baton Rouge ten days later.

In November, Americans went to the polls following the most bitter and divisive presidential campaign in recent memory. Trump’s bid was undermined when a video surfaced in October in which he could be heard making lewd comments about women in a conversation dating from 2005.

But Hillary Clinton’s (above, right)campaign also suffered a blow when the FBI re-opened a probe into her emails just 11 days before the vote. Investigators later said they had found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, but the damage had been done.

Trump’s subsequent victory was the culmination of a campaign which saw him move from an outside choice for the Republican nomination to the White House. He will be sworn in as the 45th American president on 20 January.

Sadly, the year ended as it began, with more death and disaster.

A plane carrying the Brazilian football team Chapecoense, along with club staff and journalists, crashed on 28 November in Colombia, killing 71 of the 77 people on board. Of those who survived, there were three Chapecoense players, two crew members, and one journalist.

In Yemen, around seven million people are now thought to be on the brink of starvation.

Plunged into civil war in early 2015, the country’s main airport is closed and land and sea blockades have prevented vital supplies getting to those who need them.

The past 12 months have seen huge political change and upheaval across the globe, yet there’s no indication that will stop in 2017.

We live in interesting times, although many of us would settle for something a bit more prosaic next year.