Terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram have been dominating the headlines since 2013. Both groups have gained international notoriety for their ruthless brutality and their rise is posing new challenges for national, regional and international security. Such non-state armed groups (NSAG) are not a new phenomenon. Today, however, we can observe an increasingly complex landscape of violent actors with a range of hybrid organizational structures and different agendas that set them apart from ‘traditional’ non-state actors and result in new patterns of violence. At the same time, there has been increasing acknowledgement within the academic literature and among the policy community of the relationship between climate change and security. However, most research on climate change and security only touches upon the topic of non-state armed actors and does not specifically and comprehensively spell out the links between climate change, fragility and non-state armed groups.
The report “Insurgency, Terrorism and Organized Crime in a Warming Climate. Analyzing the Links Between Climate Change and Non-State Armed Groups” tries to address this gap. Four case studies on Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region, ISIS in Syria, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and urban violence and organized crime in Guatemala span the whole spectrum of NSAGs and explore in depth the specific role NSAGs play in the complex dynamics of climate change and fragility.
“As the climate is changing, so too are the conditions within which non-state armed groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS operate. Climate change contributes to creating a fragile environment in which these groups can thrive.”
These case studies show that as the climate is changing, so too are the conditions within which NSAGs operate. The complex risks arising from climate change, fragility and conflict can contribute to the emergence and growth of non-state armed groups. This does not imply that there is a direct link between climate change and NSAG-related violence and conflict. However, large-scale environmental and climatic change contributes to creating an environment in which non-state armed groups can thrive and opens spaces that facilitate the pursuit of their strategies.
For example around Lake Chad climate change contributes to resource scarcities that increase local competition for land and water. This competition in turn often fuels social tensions and even violent conflict. At the same time, this resource scarcity erodes the livelihoods of many people, aggravates poverty and unemployment, and leads to population displacement. Non-state armed groups, in particular Boko Haram, thrive in this fragile environment. In this context of contested authority and legitimacy, Boko Haram can operate more easily and engage not only in acts of violence but also in transnational organized crime. At the same time, as climate change degrades yields from agriculture, cattle rearing and fisheries, many people are left unemployed, with few economic opportunities and low levels of education. This makes them extremely vulnerable not only to negative climate impacts but also to recruitment from terrorist groups such as Boko Haram.
We concluded that climate change is interacting with non-state armed groups in three major ways:
- Climate change is increasingly contributing to fragility, mainly by exacerbating conflicts surrounding natural resources and livelihood insecurity. NSAGs proliferate and can operate more easily in these fragile and conflict-affected environments.
- Climate change is having increasingly negative impacts on livelihoods in many countries and regions, e.g. through food insecurity. This makes the affected population groups more vulnerable not only to negative climate impacts but also to recruitment by NSAGs. These groups can offer alternative livelihoods and economic incentives and often respond to political and socio-economic grievances. Another interesting finding is the way non-state armed groups leverage the fragile environments arising from compound climate-fragility risks:
- NSAGs are increasingly using natural resources as a weapon of war. The case studies show that in resource-scarce and fragile environments, NSAGs can use natural resources such as water as a weapon of war. This in turn further compounds and exacerbates resource scarcities. These dynamics might be exacerbated as climate change increases the scarcity of natural resources in certain regions of the world: the scarcer resources become, the more power is given to those who control them.
In the political realm, there is a tendency to frame NSAGs primarily in the context of the war on terrorism. However, these actors are much more complex and diverse. Broadening the perspective and understanding the hybrid and complex nature of NSAGs, the motivations that drive them and the context in which they thrive is indispensable for adequately responding to the security challenges they pose. A broader perspective will help to better address the root causes of the rise and growth of NSAGs: While economic, social and political factors remain important, the environmental dimension of fragility and conflict cannot be separated from the other three dimensions. A narrow perspective on NSAGs and the misuse of the concept of ‘violent extremism’ risks downplaying other sources of fragility, delegitimizing political grievances and stigmatizing communities as potential extremists.