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Implications of Climate on Extremism

Introduction

Climate is directly linked to the history of human development. Humanity thrives in areas rich in resources and climates conducive to the cultivation of necessities. Changes in climate can cause scarcity of resources. The stress on populations, economies, and governments increases the potential for conflict. Often, these conditions involve emerging or depressed societies that are unable to cope with the negative effects of climate change, leaving room for extremist groups to develop. Climate change can cause regional instability that helps extremist group exploit the misery that follows.

Regional Instability Caused by Climate

The climate-security nexus posits that climate change and kinetic conflict can create a continuous cycle where each impacts the other. Climate change typically intensifies conflicts that are already present, which can limit a population’s ability to relocate from the effects of a changing environment. Because they are unwilling or unable to leave, threat actors can use the scarcity of resources to exert control over vulnerable populations. This combination of environmental stressors and extremism has a significant negative impact on community resilience.[i]

Economists generally recognize three (3) causes of resource scarcity. The first occurs when supply chains are not able to meet an increased demand. Population growth increases demands for food, water, shelter, and medical supplies. The second occurs when the demand remains the same, but there is a decreased availability of resources. The third occurs when human factors cause resource scarcity, such as supply chain disruptions, government ineptitude, or conflict. Climate can be a direct cause of resources scarcity. Most climate adverse areas rely on agriculture, livestock farming, fishing, and trade for their livelihood. Climate change impacts cropping patterns, grazing routes, and planting times for farmers in these communities. Climate variability, coupled with a community’s inability to adapt and an increasing population size, lead to an ecosystem that cannot sustain the people living there. Climate also plays a factor in the strength and increased occurrence of natural disasters, which can disrupt supply chains. The concurrent resource scarcity causes a rise in the prices of essential goods while local economies are already struggling. This leads to a reduction in income and revenue, further impeding a local population’s ability to obtain essential goods and services.[ii],[iii]

Disease is often associated with climate adverse regions. Food scarcity, lack of quality healthcare, and changes in climate create environmental conditions conducive to pathogen vectors that all increase the likelihood of outbreaks in vulnerable populations. The spread of disease can increase the demand for already scarce resources, especially those associated with medical care.[iv]

Climate adverse areas often face high levels of poverty, low socioeconomic development, and governmental neglect. A government’s inability to provide relief leads to tension with the population, which can easily turn into civil unrest. Protests and riots, however justifiable, may elicit a violent response from law enforcement and the military. Extremist groups often emerge from these conflicts and exploit these conditions.[v]

Terrorist Group Exploitation of Climate Crises

Terrorist and other non-state threat actors may exploit the climate crisis by exacerbating resource scarcity and exploiting weak governance structures to gain power and influence. This furthers their goals and makes counterterrorist operations more difficult as local populations become more sympathetic to their ideology.

Eight (8) of the 15 countries most exposed to climate risks have United Nations peacekeeping missions or ongoing special missions. As stated earlier, climate-related issues cause a scarcity of resources, and fragile economies become further depressed. Those who are unemployed or struggling to survive become attracted to extremist organizations, who provide food, shelter, and jobs for their members. Local populations can become radicalized by propaganda, which becomes more attractive under ineffectual local governance. This recruitment and radicalization process often targets the young, who are more likely to be attracted to the zealotry of terrorist organizations.[vi]

Often, five (5) critical tactics are used to undermine trust in local governments: kinetic attacks, propaganda, exploitation of grievances, disruption, and recruitment. Terrorist groups target civil institutions, public officials, or community spaces with violence, instilling fear, and demonstrating the government’s inability to protect its citizens. They disseminate propaganda both online and through traditional media to spread disinformation and highlight government failures. They exploit existing grievances, such as economic inequality or perceived injustices, to portray the government as indifferent or oppressive. Furthermore, they target essential services and/or infrastructure to cause chaos. Lastly, they recruit disillusioned individuals by offering an alternative to the perceived corruption or incompetence of the government.[vii]

Extremist organizations often attempt to gain control of scarce resources, not only for their own use, but also to curry favor with or exert control over vulnerable populations. These actions may increase local support or just delegitimize the government, who may not be able to adequately respond. Some notable examples include:

  • After the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and again after floods that killed approximately 1,600, Pakistani militant Islamist groups provided relief aid including food and water to locals. These actions came amid criticism of the Pakistani government’s slow and inadequate response.[viii]
  • In 2015, ISIS seized the Ramadi Dam in Iraq, allowing them to control water flow down the Euphrates River. ISIS reduced the flow as much as 50% at times to demonstrate their capability and use it as leverage in the region. Had ISIS decided to destroy the dam, the resulting floods could have caused significant damage and loss of life.[ix]
  • In 2017, after Typhoon Kai-tak killed at least 32 people in the Philippines, Maoist rebels attacked a Philippine Army convoy carrying relief aid to rural parts of the country. The attack highlighted the difficulty of the government to secure rural areas and provide aid.[x]

Case Study: Boko Haram Exploitation of Lake Chad

Over the last few decades, declining water levels, warmer temperatures, drought, decreasing rainfall, and diminishing pastureland have cultivated conditions that exacerbate conflict and violence in the Lake Chad Basin’s area. Lake Chad’s area decreased from more than 26,000 km2 to 1,350 km2 from the 1960s to 2014, depleting much of its wildlife. Furthermore, the Sahel region’s temperatures are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average, while the area is experiencing decreasing average annual rainfall and water levels in the two (2) major rivers that flow into Lake Chad. While the lake’s resources have diminished and the region suffers reduced livestock production and crop yields, the area is experiencing a significant population surge. Lake Chad currently supports over 30 million people in Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, but population growth predictions estimate that 80 million livelihoods could depend on the lake by 2030. The rapid demand for water for drinking, sanitation, cooking, and other activities, combined with climate change’s impact on the lake, has exacerbated environmental degradation, poverty, food insecurity, and unemployment. As of March 2024, there are four (4) million food-insecure individuals and 499,000 severely malnourished children in the region.5,[xi],[xii],[xiii]

Research surrounding the humanitarian crisis suggests that Boko Haram capitalizes on the environmental instability and competition for scarce resources in the Lake Chad region. Boko Haram, which uses the name “Jama‘atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da‘awati wal-Jihad” (JASDJ; Group of the Sunni People for the Calling and Jihad) and the “Nigerian Taliban,” was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department in November 2013. While the group operated in various forms since the late 1990s, Boko Haram slowly started to gain operational capabilities when the former second-in-command, Abubakar Shekau, claimed leadership of the group in July 2010. In 2014, the group gained increased international attention after kidnapping 276 schoolgirls in Borno State, Nigeria, and engaging in frequent attacks against Christians, security and police forces, the media, schools, and politicians. In March 2015, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).[xiv],[xv]

Boko Haram takes advantage of social unrest and conflict by recruiting disenfranchised people who encounter obstacles with climate-induced adversity and competition for resources. Water scarcity from population surge and lake degradation, combined with population migration, has led to violence and tensions between communities, migrants, farmers, and ethnic groups throughout the Lake Chad Basin. Boko Haram exploits these tensions by offering financial incentives, offering a sense of belonging, taking advantage of weakened local governance and security apparatuses, and perpetuating violence in vulnerable areas. For example, Boko Haram recruits young people suffering from poverty and unemployment to engage in drug and human trafficking operations and smuggle small arms and light weapons. These illicit activities further sustain the group’s operations and perpetuate violence in inter-ethnic and farmer-herder conflicts.11,12,14

A study published by Marine Corps University Press titled “Changing Hydrography, Violent Extremism, and Climate-Conflict Intersection” highlights the relationship between conflict and environmental changes in the Lake Chad Basin area. Data collected by Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED), a nonprofit that gathers reported information on internal conflict, and NASA satellite imagery around Lake Chad highlight armed conflict events in places previously submerged by the open water of Lake Chad. According to the study, almost two (2) dozen ACLED incidents from 2009 and 2019 would have been located on open water had they taken place in 1973. The study also illustrates increasing conflict activity within 100 miles of Lake Chad’s open water between 2009 and 2019.[xvi]

Outlook

Extremist organizations will continue to take advantage of the geopolitical conditions created by resource scarcity caused by changing climates. Research shows increases in radicalization and recruitment across climate adverse regions worldwide. To gain power and influence, extremist organizations will fill power vacuums left by governments unable to provide basic necessities and control scarce resources. Perhaps, in time, it will be possible to predict shifting climates, understand the effects, and provide support to vulnerable populations before resource scarcity enables extremist organizations to thrive. RMC’s Intelligence and Climate Analysis Division will continue to monitor relevant climate and geopolitical developments in order to analyze potential impacts to client assets, personnel, and operations.

Sources

[i] Beauregard, J. (2020, September 19). Understanding the Climate Change-National Security Nexus: The Three Faces of Climate Security. Modern War Institute at West Point. Retrieved from https://mwi.westpoint.edu/understanding-the-climate-change-national-security-nexus-the-three-faces-of-climate-security/.

[ii] Master Class Staff. (2023, January 18). Resource Scarcity: Three Causes of Resource Scarcity. Master Class Articles. Retrieved from https://www.masterclass.com/articles/resource-scarcity.

[iii] North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (2024, January 30). Resource Scarcity and the Shifting Dynamics of Global Security. NATO. Retrieved from https://www.act.nato.int/article/resource-scarcity-and-shifting-dynamics-of-global-security/.

[iv] U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. (2021, March). Climate Change and the Developing World: A Disproportionate Impact. U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. Retrieved from https://www.usglc.org/blog/climate-change-and-the-developing-world-a-disproportionate-impact/.

[v] Center for Preventative Action. (2024, February 14). Violent Extremism in the Sahel. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/violent-extremism-sahel.

[vi] United Nations Security Council. (2021, December 9). People, Countries Impacted by Climate Change also vulnerable to terrorist recruitment, violence, Speakers Tell Security Council in Open Debate. United Nations. Retrieved from https://press.un.org/en/2021/sc14728.doc.htm.

[vii] Ndebele, L. (2022, May 03). ‘A New, Despicable Turn in Violence’ as Insurgents Attack Water Sources in Burkina Faso. News 24. Retrieved from https://www.news24.com/news24/africa/news/ a-new-despicable-turn-in-violence-as-insurgents-attack-water-sources-in-burkina-faso-20220503.

[viii] Zaidi, S. A. (2010, September 29) Pakistan After the Floods. Carnegie Endowment. Retrieved from https://carnegieendowment.org/posts/2010/09/pakistan-after-the-floods?lang=en.

[ix] Lossow, T. (2016, January). Water as a Weapon: IS on the Euphrates and Tigris. German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.swp-berlin.org/publications/products/comments/2016C03_lsw.pdf.

[x] Reuters staff. (2017, December 18). Philippines says Maoist rebels attacked soldiers on typhoon relief duty. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSKBN1EC0JB/.

[xi] Frimpong, O. B. (2020, July). Climate Change and Violent Extremism in the Lake Chad Basin: Key Issues and Way Forward. Wilson Center. Retrieved from https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/ climate-change-and-violent-extremism-lake-chad-basin-key-issues-and-way-forward.

[xii] Center for Preventative Action. (2024, February 14). Violent Extremism in the Sahel. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/violent-extremism-sahel.

[xiii] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (2024, March 13). Lake Chad Basin Humanitarian Snapshot. OCHA. Retrieved from https://www.unocha.org/publications/report/ nigeria/lake-chad-basin-humanitarian-snapshot-13-march-2024.

[xiv] Fah, H. (2023, May 15). A Catastrophic Correlation: How Climate Change Influenced Terrorism Around Lake Chad. ASIS International. Retrieved from https://www.asisonline.org/security-management-magazine/articles/2023/05/climate-change-and-security/lake-chad-terrorism.

[xv] National Counterterrorism Center. (n.d.). Boko Haram. DNI. Retrieved from https://www.dni.gov/ nctc/groups/boko_haram.html.

[xvi] Griffin, T. E. (2020, July 27). Lake Chad: Changing Hydrography, Violent Extremism, and Climate-Conflict Intersection. Marine Corps University. Retrieved from https://www.usmcu.edu/Outreach/ Marine-Corps-University-Press/Expeditions-with-MCUP-digital-journal/Lake-Chad/.

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