Climate change will fuel terrorism, report warns

A new report from a German think tank cautions that climate change will increase terrorism recruitment.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Hussein Malla. File
CREDIT: AP Photo/Hussein Malla. File

Climate change-fueled natural disasters and resource shortages will strengthen recruiting efforts of terror groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, according to a new report commissioned by the German government.

“As the climate is changing, so too are the conditions within which non-state armed groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS operate,” the report, issued by the think tank Adelphi, said in its executive summary. “Climate change contributes to creating a fragile environment in which these groups can thrive.”

Terror groups, according to the report, are increasingly using natural resources — like water — as a “weapon of war.” In 2015, for instance, ISIS closed the gates of a dam to more easily attack enemies downtstream. ISIS has also used water to flood areas to force people to leave their homes, making an area more susceptible to territorial control. Climate-fueled resource scarcity, the report argues, will likely only contribute to the power of non-state armed groups that control a particular resource.

The report also points to diminishing natural resources as fueling an environment ripe for terror recruitment. Africa’s Lake Chad, for instance, provides economic livelihood for nearly 80 percent of the population that lives in its basin. As the lake shrinks, economic opportunities for people in that area also decline, making the population susceptible to recruitment by Boko Haram.

“Livelihood insecurity and lacking economic opportunities seem to provide a fertile ground for non-state armed groups,” the report said. “While a direct causal link between unemployment and participation in violence is disputed among scholars, there is research showing that precarious situations with little socio-economic prospect, including situations of unsteady or underpaid employment, can drive people to join armed groups.”


The report also concludes that climate change contributes to an environment of fragility, by exacerbating conflicts around natural resources and food security. That environment, in turn, creates a kind of environment where terror groups can operate more easily. Sometimes, when a government appears slow to respond to a natural disaster, a terror group will capitalize on perceived state weakness, or corruption, and move to fill the void left by a state government.

In Syria, for instance, prolonged drought beginning in 2007 had a devastating impact on farmers and the state’s agricultural sector. Widespread food shortages caused mass migration from rural Syria into its cities, forcing an overcrowding that only served to further exacerbate existing resource shortages and grievances with the Syrian government.

“Amongst the chaos and instability brought about by fighting between the government, the Free Syrian Army and rebel groups, terrorist groups such as ISIS were able, later in 2014, to easily gain control over large parts of contested territory,” the report found. “Although ISIS had already been present in Iraq, it could only expand its influence to Syria when the country was pulled into a civil war.”

This report is hardly the first to note the connection between climate change and the creation of environments that fuel terrorism. Scholars from the Center for Climate and Security argued in 2012 that human-caused climate change made the drought in Syria more likely, contributing to the unrest that eventually sparked the Syrian Civil war. And for years, the U.S. Department of Defense has formally classified climate change as a “threat multiplier,” noting that it will only exacerbate conflict by creating resource scarcity.


President Donald Trump, however, does not accept the scientific consensus on climate change. His CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, refused to talk about the connection between climate change and national security during his confirmation hearing, arguing that his role would be “so different and unique from that.”

At least one member of Trump’s cabinet accepts the national security risks associated with climate change, however. In written testimony provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee after his confirmation hearing, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that climate change “is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today,” and noted that it is important for military operations to take climate change into account in their planning.

In his March 28 executive order rolling back U.S. climate policies, however, Trump did away with an Obama-era executive order directing federal agencies to take climate change into account when crafting national security plans and military operations.