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  • 01 дек 2021

Climate Change and Recruitment into Terrorist Organizations


In this research, I propose that terrorist groups can use climate induced economic, social, and humanitarian hardships for recruitment purposes. Findings from this study suggest that climate induced hardships have been widely used in Syria and Iraq by various Islamic militant groups to recruit and exploit local populations. Militant groups are able to achieve their recruitment goals by creating shadow government where official state governance structures have been diminished.


Political scientists and policy makers have not extensively looked at the correlation between the effects of climate change and recruitment into militant Islamic groups. Many states already recognize climate change as a potential threat to their national security (U.S. Department of Defense 2015, 8; Presidential Executive Office of the Russian Federation 2015, 6; U.K. Prime Minister’s Office 2015, 21). The main objective of this research is to find causal links between the effects of climate change and recruitment into Islamic militant groups. In 2015, Bernie Sanders famously stated that the climate change has the potential to fuel terrorism by destabilizing regions affected by droughts, floods, and other natural disasters. He further added: “Well what happens in, say, Syria… is that when you have drought, when people can’t grow their crops, they’re going to migrate into cities. And when people migrate into cities and they don’t have jobs, there’s going to be a lot more instability, a lot more unemployment, and people will be subject to the types of propaganda that al Qaeda and ISIS are using right now” (Richardson 2015).

2015 report on national security implications of climate change furnished by the U.S. Department of Defense (2015), affirms their earlier assessment that climate change will have the greatest impact on areas and environments that are already prone to instability. Climate change serves as a threat multiplier. Conflict torn Syria, Yemen, and Iraq are all under the high risk of severe droughts and extremely high temperatures, which makes the region economically and politically volatile. Drought is defined as a prolonged and widespread deficit in naturally available supply of water, whether if it was caused by natural or human-induced factors (Crausbay et. al. 2017, 2546). People in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and number of other states in the Middle East heavily rely on agriculture. Any disruption to agricultural process (e.g. crop loss due to a severe drought) can lead to negative socioeconomic and political outcomes.  

United Kingdom’s latest National Security Strategy states that Middle East and North Africa region will be particularly sensitive to forecasted effects of climate change, considering the current level of water stress and high rates of population growth (U.K. Prime Minister’s Office 2015, 21). The water availability is going to be a major regional issue. It has been already observed that droughts can impose great level of economic and social constraints to agriculturally dependent societies. As available evidence will further reveal, climate change related anomalies can be effectively used by radical Islamist groups for recruitment and propaganda purposes. For example, if the government fails to provide alternative source of income for a farmer affected by the drought, a terrorist group can substitute government’s role by offering income alternative. As my research will show, farmers in drought affected areas of Iraq were approached by recruiters from Islamist terrorist groups.

Research Questions:

Can climate change induced factors facilitate recruitment into terrorist organizations?

Research Hypothesis:

Immediate and long-term effects of climate change enable recruitment into Islamist terrorist groups.


A general accepted definition of recruitment is a set of methods through which various groups seek to gain new members into their organizations. In the context of this research, recruitment is defined as the link between radicalization and the active pursuit of violence. Danish researcher Michael Taarnby (2005, 6) proposed that recruitment is the bridge between personal beliefs and violent activism. He further defines radicalization as the progressive personal development from a law-abiding Muslim to militant Islamist (Taarnby 2005, 6). These two definitions fit the scope and objectives of this research. Scholars argue that recruitment is a top-down process, where the new members are recruited by the existing members of the organization (Neumann & Rogers 2007). It is also possible that recruitment process can be a bottom-up process, where the new members of the group are attracted to join the organization due to various ideological reasons. Radicalization and recruitment are often confused. In a way they are similar. However, conceptually they significantly differ from each other. Radicalization is an ideological phenomenon, while recruitment is a systematic method of new-member enlistment.

Climate Change

What is climate change? Is it possible to use it as a tool of recruitment and radicalization? In our conventional understanding of radicalization and recruitment process into Islamic militant groups, climate change is largely ignored as one of the potential sources of radicalization. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines climate change as a change in the state of the climate that can be identified [e.g. using statistical tests] by the changes in the mean (temperature) or variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period of time, typically decades or longer (IPCC). In pursuant to this definition, any change in the climate over time, whether due to the natural causes or human induced factors is considered climate change. According to the series of Special Reports on Emission Scenarios, a global average surface air temperature warming of 0.2 °C per decade is expected to take place throughout this century (IPCC). The global averaged land and ocean surface temperature shows the warming of 0.85 °C over the period from 1880 to 2012 (IPCC). Further, an analysis of sedimentary rocks, coral reefs, and ocean sediments revealed that current warming is occurring roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age recovering warming (NASA; NOAA 2008).


Temperature warming has been directly linked to human-led activities. Earth’s climate change responds to changes in greenhouse gas levels. Rapid industrialization of 19th and 20th centuries prompted the biggest temperature drives across the world since the end of the last ice age (NASA). Climate change will likely induce ecosystem shifts, extreme temperature anomalies, sea level rise, decrease of arable land, and water scarcity. These changes can negatively impact billions of people across the world by disrupting economies, undermining food security, and triggering displacement of population. Assessment of many studies covering wide range of regions and their agricultural output show that negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts (IPCC 2007). The same analysis revealed the link between the rapid food price increases in key producing regions following the extreme climate events [e.g. droughts]. Scientists claim with high confidence that the period from 1983 to 2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 800 years in the Northern Hemisphere (IPCC).

Figure 1. Source: "Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers.” IPCC, 2014, https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/AR5_SYR_FINAL_SPM.pdf.

IPCC estimates with high confidence that there will be more frequent hot and fewer cold temperature extremes over the most land areas on daily and seasonal timescales throughout this century as global mean temperature increases (IPCC). Climate change will reduce renewable surface water and groundwater resources. Rural and agriculturally depended regions of the world are more likely to experience major impacts of the decreasing water availability.

Climate Change in the Middle East:

Global mean temperature rise is expected to have negative effects on socioeconomic and political environment of Middle Eastern countries. According to the World Bank, 70% of Middle East’s agricultural sector is rain-fed, which makes it extremely vulnerable to anticipated fluctuations in temperature as well as precipitation decrease (World Bank). The region will likely experience more frequent droughts and longer periods of hot weather throughout the course of this century. According to estimates by World Resource Institute (WRI), fourteen of 33 most water-stressed countries in 2040 are located in the Middle East (Maddocks et al. 2015). Arab countries will be withdrawing more water than available supply within the course of next two decades (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Source: Luo, Tianyi, Robert Young, and Paul Reig. “Country Level Water Stress in 2040 Under the Business-As-Usual Scenario.” Water Resource Institute, August 2015, http://www.wri.org/sites/default/files/aqueduct-water-stress-country-rankings-technical-note.pdf.

Countries with ongoing conflicts such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan are especially sensitive to the effects of climate change projections. These states are currently engaged in large-scale combat operations against militant Islamic groups. In some cases (e.g. Syria), radically motivated anti-government groups were able to establish full control over significant parts of these states’ territories. Preservation of territorial integrity has been the main priority for the governments of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan for many years. They have been devoting significant portion of their resources for operations against militant Islamic groups at the cost of developing their national economies. In the result, their social services, education, and employment sectors sustained considerable damage. Secondary factors such as population growth and rapid urbanization will only worsen the effects of the climate change. 2°C increase in global mean temperature will result in a 40% decline in rainfall (World Bank). Under projected climate change, the region’s capacity to provide water for agricultural as well as human needs will become considerably difficult. United Nations estimates that Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and Iraq are likely to experience moderate to severe water shortages by 2050 (FAO 2002). According to number of scientists, drought frequency has increased during the last 20- 40 years in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Syria, and changed in Morocco from an average of one year of drought in every five-year period, before 1990, to one-year drought for each two-year period (Karrou, 2002. Abbas, 2002. Mougou and Mansour, 2005).  From 2006 to 2011, Syria has experienced series of multi-year droughts, which contributed to massive agricultural failures and prompted internal population displacement (DoD 2015, 4; Kaniewski et al. 2012). Besides direct effects on agricultural sector, negative impact of climate change will carry on to social and political structure of the state.

Link between the Climate Change and Recruitment into Terrorist Organizations

Research from German Foreign Office suggests that economic deprivation and essential resource shortage caused by extreme weather events such as droughts considerably weaken states that are in active state of war (Adelphi 2016). The window of opportunity for non-state armed actors [such as ISIL] is created when states become weak and incapable of meeting their citizens’ basic needs (DCAF 2015, 10). They [non-state armed actors] provide public services and goods with the goal of substituting the government’s role. In the Mexican city of Laredo, a transnational drug cartel called Zetas installed a 16-foot banner (see figure 3) in downtown as part of their recruitment campaign with the following message: “We’re offering you a good salary, food and medical care for your families” (Roig-Franzia 2008; Davis 2010).