As you've never seen them before: The stories that defined our year

The problem from hell

A brutal civil war is carving a country up five ways and giving rise to an entirely new phenomenon: the terrorist organization that thinks it's a state. American leaders called Bosnia the "problem from hell" in the 1990s, but the description is even more apt for Syria today. The war has sucked in the United States, its allies and Russia; spewed out jihadis who have carried out terror attacks in the West; and created the biggest refugee crisis in generations. Half of all Syrians have been killed or have fled their homes. The country's neighbors are hosting 4 million refugees, while Europe is thinking about fundamental changes to its open internal borders after half a million Syrians crossed the Mediterranean this year -- not including an estimated 1,800 or more who drowned trying to make the journey. Two-year-old Aylan Kurdi came to symbolize the entire tragedy when his tiny body washed up on a Turkish shore in September. Meanwhile, the United States, Russia, France and Britain are all bombing, but ISIS is showing no sign it's going anywhere.
    -- Data editor Richard Allen Greene

      #NousSommesParis

      The terrorist attacks on Paris in January and in November were horrific reminders that Europe remains vulnerable to the upheavals wracking the Middle East and to the growing appeal of ISIS among radicalized young men. One of the January gunmen had pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi days earlier. Several of those involved in the November attacks had spent time in Syria training with ISIS. There were other alarming lessons from these attacks: Intelligence agencies are unable to track many would-be jihadists who have traveled to and from Syria; cooperation between European security services remains patchy; and terrorists can acquire high-powered weapons inside Europe with ease. The series of attacks in November was more stunning because of the organization and resources required and the ability of at least two suspects to vanish afterward. And both attacks were a reminder of an ominously familiar pattern: Many of those involved were young men without work, some of whom had spent time in prison for petty crime, had dabbled in drugs and had difficult family backgrounds: marginalized drifters in search of "redemption."
      The gun attacks in Copenhagen, Denmark, in February, whose targets included a synagogue, bore many of the same traits as Amedy Coulibaly's Paris attack a month earlier. Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein had also spent time in jail and had also pledged allegiance to ISIS. The metastasis of ISIS in 2015 -- beyond Iraq and Syria -- was evident in terror attacks in Tunisia and Beirut. But almost as if warning the world not to forget its existence, al Qaeda hit a hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako, killing 21 people, just days after the Paris attacks. A sign perhaps that it and ISIS may seek to outbid each other in inflicting acts of terror on the wider world.
        -- CNN contributor Tim Lister

        Putin the czar?

        Vladimir Putin sits atop the world's biggest country, with virtually unchecked power and a proven willingness to wield it, first in Ukraine and now in Syria. His ordering of massive airstrikes against rebels in Syria this year has significantly bolstered the flagging government of President Bashar al-Assad there, which appeared to have been losing the war. The bombing also sends the West a powerful message: Putin will not tolerate the loss of a key Middle Eastern ally and will fight to keep Russian influence in the region. Putin's rhetoric about fighting ISIS and international terrorism has also won the Russian leader a return to the top table of international diplomacy, ending his isolation after the annexation of Crimea last year. He's also immensely popular among Russians, who see him as a decisive leader, taking strong action against international terrorism and forcing the West -- Russia's old Cold War rival -- to take Moscow seriously once again.
        -- Senior international correspondent Matthew Chance

        Nepal shaken

        I met Maya Gurung in a hospital after the April earthquake in Nepal and knew her future in an impoverished village would be bleak. She was 10, and her left leg had been amputated. But sometimes, even amid tragedy, life takes twists so fortuitous that they seem predetermined. Several weeks after I met Maya, Jwalant Gurung -- no relation -- spotted her father carrying her on his back and decided to help. Gurung, who makes his living organizing tours and treks in Nepal, had Maya fitted with a prosthesis and invited her to stay with him in Kathmandu so she could go to school. Now, as the year comes to a close, I think about Nepal and how the story of the earthquake resonated so much with us. The numbers alone were horrific: Nearly 9,000 people dead, around 600,000 houses flattened. But it was more than that. Perhaps it was because Nepal is a nation of enormous majesty, nestled amid the tallest Himalayan peaks in the world that draw so many foreigners. We received so many responses to a story about Eric Poppleton, a California photographer who returned to Everest Base Camp to retrieve the body of a friend killed with 18 others in a quake-triggered avalanche. And another good Samaritan, Yasmine Habash of Alaska, flew to shattered Langtang to search for her missing mother. It seemed that many of us had some intimate connection to the mountain kingdom through our fascination with Mount Everest or Buddhism or ancient culture. Nepal was a land far away, and yet, it felt close.
        -- Reporter Moni Basu

        Germanwings crash

        The Germanwings disaster affected people on many levels. It hit close to home for anyone who regularly gets on airplanes. It involved a very fundamental fear: "Can I trust the person flying this plane?" And it involved one of the safest airlines in the world missing several red flags and allowing a person with a serious mental disorder to pilot an aircraft. In the short term, the disaster made many people emotional: Seeing the debris on the side of the mountain after the plane hit the Alps at around 435 mph (700 kph), and watching whole communities and families suffer after their loved ones had been killed by a selfish man with depression. There will also be long-term implications. The monitoring of pilots' mental health wi