An Unexpected Cause of Terrorism in the African Sahel: Climate Change

 /  March 9, 2020, 6:33 p.m.

Niger Army
Soldiers of the Niger Army training.

On February 17, gunmen attacked a Protestant Church in northern Burkina Faso, killing twenty-four people and wounding many more. The attackers were believed to have been motivated by jihadi ideology, making the tragedy the latest in a pattern of rampant militant attacks in the region. 

The last three years have seen an exponential increase of terrorist attacks in the West African and Sahel regions of Africa, culminating in over 4,000 victims of terrorism in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso in 2019. In Burkina Faso alone, the number of terrorist attacks jumped from eighty in 2016 to 1,800 in 2019. Militant groups sponsored by both ISIS and Al-Qaeda have found footing in the Sahel, a pattern propagated in large part by the Sahel region’s outsized vulnerability to climate change. 

In the last few weeks, those focused on fighting terrorism in the Sahel have become increasingly concerned that the United States is planning to reduce its military presence in the region. After a meeting with France’s Defense Minister on January 27, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “My aim is to free up time, money and manpower around the globe, where we currently are.” 

The pending decision would come weeks after Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), warned the UN Security Council of increased terrorist threats to the Sahel states of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Chambas argued the ongoing malnutrition crises across the Sahel had weakened state authority and helped extremist groups rise: “In those places, extremists provide safety and protection to populations, as well as social services in exchange for loyalty.” In other words, these terrorist groups have exploited poverty and hunger to find a foothold in the Sahel by promising social services that the state cannot afford. Chambas urged, “Counter-terrorism responses must focus on gaining the trust and support of local populations.”

How Climate Change Helps Extremist Groups

Extremist attacks have led to humanitarian crises across these three nations, propelling people en masse to abandon long-held farms and creating an epidemic of malnutrition that experts warn could threaten an entire generation. Last November, the World Food Programme reported a “three-country crisis” in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso that so far has left nearly one million people displaced and an estimated 2.4 million in need of food assistance. In Burkina Faso, the level of severe acute malnutrition has reached 7.8 percent of the population, over three times the UN-designated emergency threshold. Deutsche Welle reported last year that health care centers across the region have been forced to close by the increased violence, leaving millions unprotected and further exacerbating the crisis.

Several variables have contributed to the recent spike in attacks, including weak state authority in the Sahel region and widespread hunger and poverty. But one prominent factor may be surprising: climate change. Indeed, extensive research demonstrates that climate change is not a third variable that can be completely separated from state weakness and hunger, but rather contributes to them. In other words, climate change is a “threat multiplier,” compounding the effects of a number of other variables. 

In the Sahel region, the desertification and extreme weather events that result from climate change have exacerbated hunger and malnutrition, due to its outsized reliance on agriculture. Since the 1970s, floods and droughts have become both more severe and less predictable in the Sahel region. Eighty percent of families below the poverty level in the Sahel region rely on their land for sustenance and are thus severely impacted by irregular weather patterns. 

Furthermore, the inability of these Sahel states’ governments to provide sufficient aid in the face of climate change and widespread malnutrition has consistently weakened public perception of the state, as the crisis becomes more and more widespread. Regional conflicts have compounded the existing perception issues. According to a 2018 study, the states most at risk of violence resulting from climate change are those with a history of conflict, those in which at least 40 percent of the population rely on agriculture, and those where at least 20 percent of the population is excluded from politics. Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso all meet these three criteria.  

Within these states, extremist groups take advantage of the many young people who are uprooted from their land and have lost faith in their government. Militant groups see this displaced and disenfranchised population as more likely to be tempted by terrorist ideology. The devastating ripple effect of climate change in the Sahel region has led to greater instability, creating a power vacuum that extremist groups have filled. The World Food Programme declared a Level 3 emergency—their highest emergency level—in the Sahel region, stating: “The Sahel is a tragic masterclass in how violence and extreme weather feed into each other.”

A Need For Climate-Focused Solutions

While extensive research has identified climate change as an accelerating factor in violence and geopolitical instability, none of the efforts to confront terrorism in the Sahel region have addressed climate change in their potential solutions. In the meantime, the droughts that are cyclical to the Sahel region have grown worse in recent years. The upcoming droughts will likely increase the number of attacks.

It would be unreasonable to expect three of the poorest nations in the world to confront this spike in extremism alone, as perpetually higher percentages of their national budgets are devoted to counterterrorism. In the case of Niger, counterterrorism takes up between 15 and 30 percent of the national budget, a massive expense that has diverted resources from sustainable development projects. Burkina Faso has called for international coordination in confronting the terrorism crisis, with the support of nations inside and outside of the Sahel region. 

However, international efforts have largely ignored the crucial factor of climate change. In 2014, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad formed the G5 Sahel, a regional partnership cented on counter-terrorism efforts. The countries of the G5 Sahel have attempted to fight terrorism directlyby assembling a joint army to guard their borders, while also providing humanitarian aid and programs to restore state authority. The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2359, approving the deployment of troops to aid the G5 Sahel in 2017 without mentioning climate change at any point.

Instead, the G5 Sahel organized their strategy around confronting two other main causes of regional terrorism: state authority, and widespread hunger and poverty. First, they organized their soldiers around the borders of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali in order to strengthen state presence and authority. Second, they included humanitarian aid and public service programs aimed at combating hunger and poverty. However, even after the implementation of these measures, the region has continued to see sharp increases in terrorist attacks. The inefficacy of considerable financial support in lowering the rate of terrorist attacks implies that in order for a strategy to win, it must involve more than just military and humanitarian aid. 

The governments of Sahel states have not regained significant authority since the fighting began, nor have their initiatives to protect their borders prevented the influx of foreign fighters. The malnutrition crisis has grown exponentially, despite humanitarian aid programs. These data suggest that a third, unaddressed variable—that of a global climate emergency—is critical to the success of counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel region. Solutions that do not address the challenges of climate change will inevitably fall short of their aim of preventing future terrorist attacks. 

In the last year, Sahel governments have begun investing in adaptive social protection programs to prepare and support their states as they continue to face worsening climate-related weather events. These programs include a system of cash transfers to families who are reliant on agriculture and thus particularly vulnerable to climate events. Cash transfers over time decrease the likelihood that poor families will sell their assets in exchange for urgently needed goods, including baby formula. While the implementation of these programs is promising, much more will need to be done in order to adequately confront the threat at hand.

The focus of international aid on military rather than climate intervention has undermined the efficacy of the sizable global investment in fighting terrorism in the Sahel. The tragic rise of extremist attacks in the region is clear evidence of the necessity for global action directly confronting climate change. The link between climate change and terrorism is becoming undeniable, just as its consequences become irreversible.

The photo used in this article is in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law. The original photo was taken by Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Klutts of the US Army and can be found here.

Adele Malle


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