Ecological threats to food and agriculture are fuelling terrorism

Extracts from expert commentary for the Global Terrorism Index 2023 by David Wells, former head of research and analysis for the UN Counter-Terrorism Directorate.

IN AN insightful essay, global security consultant David Wells writes that “So far, climate change and terrorism have intersected in two important and overlapping ways. Firstly, climate change has exacerbated the drivers and underlying conditions conducive to radicalisation. Secondly, it has also provided opportunities for terrorist actors to exploit extreme weather events or resource scarcity to propagandise, recruit and raise funds.”

The Global Terrorism Index 2023 shows that the ten countries most impacted by terrorism are also experiencing instability, poverty, weak governance and conflict.

Wells writes that “Climate change can aggravate these conditions, and other inter-linked challenges including resource scarcity, and food and energy security. While the relationship between each of these conditions and climate change is not always causal (and in some instances, remains contested), climate change acts as a threat multiplier. In turn, research shows that these conditions – particularly conflict, weak governance and instability – can act as strong drivers towards radicalization to terrorism.

“To take one example of this indirect but powerful relationship, extreme heat, droughts and flooding have impacted both the quality and quantity of water available in many parts of the world. These shortages have negative effects on agriculture, a major provider of jobs in many countries significantly impacted by both terrorism and climate change. This in turn, can act as a incentive for individuals in rural areas to join terrorist groups, who can offer higher wages than those obtainable through legal means.”

He writes that “The indirect nature of this relationship means there is limited data-driven evidence of climate change’s impacts on radicalization so far. However, governments and civil society in various regions – including the Sahel, South Asia and Central Asia – have consistently reported that the impacts of drought, resource scarcity and challenging agricultural conditions have been contributing factors in recruitment by terrorist groups.

“Climate change has also provided an opportunity for terrorist groups to fundraise, propagandise and recruit.

“Terrorist groups have exploited extreme weather events by stepping into the gap left by governments unable to provide humanitarian relief, often in remote locations. For example, in Pakistan, Jamaat-ud-Dawa – the then front organisation of terrorist group Lashkar-e Taiba – provided significant humanitarian relief in the wake of devastating floods in 2010.

“In Somalia, by repeatedly undermining famine relief efforts, al-Shabaab forced the population in areas under its control to rely on them as the sole service provider, undermining the Somali government’s legitimacy and bolstering their own.

“In water-scarce northern Iraq, ISIS captured, controlled, sabotaged and looted water installations – in addition to controlling energy infrastructure – allowing them to “recruit” farmers no longer able to access water and electricity.”

Wells concludes that “Although these examples are not uniquely driven by climate change, the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and increased competition for resources suggests that there will only be greater opportunities for terrorist groups to seek to exploit in the future.”

Read the full essay on page 75 of the Global Terrorism Index 2023

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