It's time to bring in climate change when talking about terrorism

A report on extremism in Africa's long-suffering Sahel region lays bare how ecological damage acts as a 'threat multiplier'

Senegalese soldiers on patrol in 2019 as part of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, one of the Sahel countries that has struggled against terrorist groups for years. AFP
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One of the most alarming aspects of climate change is the pervasive nature of the crisis. There is nothing that global warming doesn’t touch, from the economy and agriculture to migration and disease. A report released this week includes another issue where ecological damage is exerting its malign influence – terrorism.

The Global Terrorism Index found that deaths linked to extremist activity in Africa’s long-suffering Sahel accounted for more terrorism deaths in 2022 than South Asia and the Mena region combined. Deaths related to extremist violence in the Sahel constituted 43 per cent of the global total last year, compared to just 1 per cent in 2007.

Compounding the situation is the effect of climate change on terrorism in the Sahel countries, with this week’s research describing global warming as a “threat multiplier”. This calls for fresh thinking about violent extremism which, although it has been scrutinised intensively since the rise of critical terrorism studies after 9/11, is only beginning to be examined through the lens of climate change.

The Global Terrorism Index authors are right to downplay a causal link between climate change and terrorism. Other countries, particularly in the developing world – such as Bangladesh and the Philippines – are vulnerable to climate-linked drought, storms and flooding but they do not have a terrorism problem on the scale as that seen in sub-Saharan Africa.

But what climate changes does is exacerbate economic and societal problems. Heatwaves and a lack of water can undermine the agriculture that provides food and employment for millions of people. When this collapses, the salaries offered by terrorist groups in the Sahel to their fighters can become an enticing proposition.

The problems that trouble much of the Sahel – conflict, ethnic and religious divisions, poor governance, weak economies and weapons trafficking – are all issues that can be made worse by climate shocks and environmental damage. Competition for resources, energy and land can be weaponised by terrorist groups, and grievances among the people can be fuelled by violent and undisciplined police and military responses.

This report makes clear that current counterterrorism strategies need to be re-evaluated. Military responses on their own are not enough. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace founder and executive chairman Steve Killelea: “We've got to address a lot more than just the terrorist acts themselves or the terrorist groups themselves."

The consequences of failure will be felt far outside the region. Dangerous and irregular migration from the Sahel to North African countries and Europe will continue if climate change, terrorism, corruption and intercommunal conflict are not tackled. Migrants are already risking their lives to escape, and often find themselves vulnerable and exploited along the journey and at their eventual destination.

In June last year, UK academics Andrew Silke and John Morrison, writing in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence, found that although many countries recognised climate change as a “strategic security threat”, many had not explored the “potential role it can play in igniting, facilitating or exacerbating terrorist conflict”.

Now that climate change is top of the global agenda, there is an opportunity to explore and develop our understanding of how the damage it causes can drive desperate people towards the siren song of extremism. In time, the literature on climate change will recognise it as much of a security threat as poverty and alienation. If we are to be ready, then that understanding must be developed now, before regions such as the Sahel face even greater dangers from terrorism.

Published: March 15, 2023, 3:00 AM