In The Media

Reap the whirlwind: Climate change and terrorism

by Hrach Gregorian and Gregory Alonso Pirio

November 11, 2014

The dire predictions contained in the recently released UN climate change panel report are upon us. In Africa, the effects of climate change have stalled — and are reversing — generations of progress made against poverty and hunger.

In its merciless punishment of the poor and marginalized, climate change has created a world of violent extremists — including Boko Haram — and there is no likely end in sight, unless the international community responds vigorously. As Ebola reminded us, it’s far easier to prevent than to cure.

For decades, decreasing and erratic rainfall in a zone stretching from Yemen to the West Coast of Africa has disrupted traditional patterns of economic life for herders and farmers. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, in the Sahel region of West Africa “more than 10 million people, always among the poorest, suffer from food insecurity and more than 1.4 million children are at risk of severe acute malnutrition in the region.” This crisis persists, limiting “the possibilities of rebuilding the livelihoods of affected families.”

And that, in turn, leaves Africa to cope with legions of marginalized young men vulnerable to political manipulation and recruitment into militias. Among the largely Islamic populations of this region that fall victim to climate change, militant groups like Boko Haram have succeeded in casting a precarious existence and the social marginalization of the dispossessed into a narrative of global jihad and a distorted search for social justice. Given a post-9/11 worldview, and the attending concerns about physical security, the international community’s response to jihadists tends to focus on immediate threats rather than on the multitude of human security deficits that give rise to radical movements.

Sometimes the climate change-driven conflicts come in the form of a struggle over scarce resources. In the Jos Plateau region of Nigeria, for instance, Muslim Fulani herders, whose traditional grazing lands have dried up, now encroach into the greener farmlands of sedentary farmers, most of whom are Christian. A corrupt and ineffective federal government has been of little use in stemming growing animosity between Christians and Muslims that now infects other Nigerian conflicts with a sectarian virus.

France’s dispatch of an expeditionary force to Mali in 2013 to contain al Qaida-affiliated jihadists and Malian Islamist rebels — many of whom come from the traditionally pastoralist Tuareg community — is but one link in a chain tied to climate change. In the desert and the arid Sahel savannah land of West Africa, successive droughts drove young Tuareg pastoralists into mercenary activities financed by the late Libyan strongman, Moammar Gadhafi. With his patronage — and later that of the al Qaida affiliate in North Africa — these Tuareg guns-for-hire became the foot soldiers in successive rebellions against the Malian state, most recently espousing an Islamist ideology.

Near-anarchy and misrule by ethnic and Islamist militias turned Northern Mali into an ungoverned space with a largely criminal economy — hosting Latin American drug cartels, regional human traffickers and Islamic extremists. With the capacity to bribe officials and support ‘their’ candidates, these criminal investors have severely undermined democratic institutions and governance capacity — weakening the state so it can no longer provide basic services.

Coming back to Nigeria, Africa’s most populous state, the consequences of climate change may present the global community with one of its greatest challenges. With an elongated dry season due to rising temperatures, the arid savannah lands of northern Nigeria — historically Muslim areas — are unable to support the country’s growing, youthful population. Short of even basic needs, farming families send their boys into northern cities, supposedly for a traditional Islamic education under the Almajiri system. In reality, once there the would-be students mostly beg for food. These boys, hungry and without family guidance, are vulnerable to recruitment by criminal gangs and have been used to foment political trouble. Boko Haram has succeeded in enlisting them in its army of Jihadist fighters.

Climate change and the resulting marginalization of the most vulnerable are leading to increased destabilization of states, and greater penetration by criminal syndicates. In a worst-case scenario, we may see an arc of instability from Yemen to the West Coast of Africa that is reminiscent of lawless Somalia.

A robust response is required — one that goes far beyond conventional counterterrorism strategies. A more promising, and lasting, approach would be to concentrate on fundamental structural challenges — the sources of human insecurity which are linked to sectarian and ideological strife.

Short-term response strategies can include diversification of livelihoods, reduction of the dependency on agriculture, greater efficiency in water and food management, and improved access to markets. Unless remedial measures are accelerated (no mean feat, to be sure) the nightmare of violence and instability that we are witnessing in the Sahel will be repeated, in different forms, in other fragile and conflict-prone regions.

Hrach Gregorian is a CDFAI Distinguished Alumnus and head of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of World Affairs. He is also a member of the graduate faculty at Royal Roads University and the American University. Gregory Alonso Pirio is author of The African Jihad: Bin Laden’s Quest for the Horn of Africa (Red Sea Press, 2007). 

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