To the Last Drop: Climate Change and Water Terrorism

Climate change seems to have become an issue for the general public since the President of the US decided to pull out of the Paris agreement. By 2050 the consequences of climate change will be irreversible and one of them is doubtlessly water shortage, especially in those areas which are already water-stressed. Terrorists seem to have figured out the connection between climate change and water scarcity and they are ready to benefit from its side effects, such as frequent droughts and high temperatures to support their cause. Here is one reason more why we should be more concerned about what we are doing to our planet.

When we come across the term “terrorism”, the first idea we come up with is a violent attack upon a person’s life which may cause death or serious injuries, but a definition of “terrorist crimes” is much wider: although there is no universally agreed-upon definition of terrorism under the International Law and the UN, both international and European attempts to provide with one can be considered very effective. The EU directive 2017/541[1] provides a thorough list of terrorist offences and crimes which include the act of destroying an infrastructure facility in order to endanger human life or result in major economic loss, causing floods or explosions and, in particular, the act of “interfering with or disrupting the supply of water, power or any other fundamental natural resource, the effect of which is to endanger human life[2]: this can be easily referred to as “water terrorism”, even though the picture is not black and white.

Water has always been considered as a source of life: without it, no human activity such as agriculture is possible, nor surviving itself. About two weeks ago, we read in the newspapers that an armed group blew up a pipeline pumping crude oil in Libya and the international market was severely affected by it: while in Western countries oil still represents the “Holy Grail” which can now be purchased, in some regions of the Middle East and Africa water may have just stolen this status, especially when it comes to poor citizens and farmers.

It would not be the first time that water is used as a weapon: during World War II German dams were bombarded, marshes in Iraq were drained in compliance with Saddam Hussein’s orders to punish the supporters of the rebellion… Though, in the past water was not used systematically and especially it was never exploited by non-state actors such as Al-Nusra, ISIS (in Syria  and Iraq) and Al-Shabab (in Somalia). The Islamic State in particular has been the first terrorist group to adopt this coercive strategy, which played an essential role in acquiring power in some regions. The strategic control of water resources is just another evidence of the fact that ISIS has brought terrorism to a whole new level: besides “lone-wolf” terror, scenic propaganda and their use of the Internet and social media, they differ from other terrorist groups due to the acquisition of infrastructure, water and energy resources and the leverage over both the government and local populations.

The strategic control of water resources is just another evidence of the fact that ISIS has brought terrorism to a whole new level.

Iraqi bodies of water (NG STAFF SOURCES/ INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF WAR/FAO/CIA)

In arid desert regions, if terrorist groups take over dams or other water infrastructure, it can mean the difference between victory and defeat. In May 2014, Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda which merged for a brief period with ISIS, cut off water to Aleppo, the Shia-dominated Syrian city; three months later the Mosul Dam, under the control of ISIS, had to be regained by the Kurdish forces supported by the Iraqi troops and the US airstrikes. Had the group controlled the dam longer, two serious scenarios could have been deployed: the militant group could have tampered with or even destroyed the dam, unleashing a flood which could have killed millions of civilians; otherwise, maintaining their influence over a major hydropower source both in Iraq and in the Middle East could have implied either having a leverage over the government or extorting money to civilians for terrorism financing in exchange of returning water.

Mosul Dam was not an isolated case: a similar fate could have been deployed, had the attempt to seize the Haditha Dam (the second in Iraq, after the Mosul Dam) been successful and it actually happened and affected the lives of Christian, Kurdish and Shia minorities when the Fallujah Dam was taken in June 2015.  This strategy has been by other terrorist groups and it will reasonably become a dangerous outcome when it comes international conflicts: we have all been taught that resources are scarce and wants are unlimited and the main principle of economics can actually contribute to shed some light on long-term disputes, potentially future ones and how they may evolve. Everybody is a little bit familiar with the Israel-Palestine conflict, which could easily escalate in the future considering that Israel runs the water resources of Palestine. Also Syria, Turkey and Iraq were involved in some water-confrontations in the past and since the three countries do have the Euphrates River as their common denominator, this may create instability in such exposed countries and be one of the real motives behind the casus belli.

Thus, water may become a tool of terror to finance it and to weaken the enemy, usually the government or the minorities in a region. However, the terrorist crime of gaining control of water resources or other essential infrastructure is not easy to achieve and, even when such terrorist operations turn out to be successful, an external intervention may soon redress the geopolitical, financial and strategic balance of the territory. Though, water terrorism is still a threat which should not be underestimated, especially since it can occur as a silent shadow and in different ways.

The jihadists have been taking advantage of climate change and its tangible and concrete effects to recruit novices.

A different though parallel trend has been recently highlighted since 2009 approximately: the jihadists have been taking advantage of climate change and its tangible and concrete effects to recruit novices. At the beginning they showed up with tempting promises that poor farmers found hard to refuse, later they almost did not need to. Sometimes they offered gifts, goods and food, sometimes even money. They reappeared after every flood or drought bringing dark hope with them that only desperate souls could buy and bitterly swallow. Little by little, the situation escalated and got worse and while small landowners could still turn down their proposals, the same was not for their employees who were soon laid off out of necessity. Poverty, unemployment and frustration triggered radicalization and pushed them into the arms of the jihadists. The most devastated and environmentally-damaged villages and regions turned out to be the most promising and fertile ground for radicalization and recruitment, especially the centre and the north-west rural areas of Iraq.

The current situation is on one hand the result of poor management of agricultural and environmental national policies which have always prioritized oil refining and export, far more profitable than the primary activity of Iraqi people. On the other hand, climate change and international indifference to the topic are making some countries pay more and sooner than the rest of the world. Right now though, climate change is not on the top of the list of farmers and agricultural laborers who have to deal with the rage of the IS retreat, who does not even spare water canals, pipes, tractors and even the fertile soil; furthermore, most fertilizers are being blocked by the government since they could be converted and used to make bombs.

ISIS is not a threat anymore – its ideology and followers still are and always will be. The strategic use of natural calamities to recruit terrorists or the constant threat that a militant group could take control over essential infrastructure and that this, due to water scarcity, could reverse the outcome of a conflict, these fears will always be an issue and there is very little we can do about it.


[1] DIRECTIVE (EU) 2017/541 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 15 March 2017 on combating terrorism and replacing Council Framework Decision 2002/475/JHA and amending Council Decision 2005/671/JHA (L 88/6 Official Journal of the European Union, 31.03.2017).

[2] Directive (EU) 2017/541, art. 3 (h).

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