Policymakers and emergency managers tend to build a conceptual wall between natural hazards and terrorism. The causes of—and remedies for—these two kinds of disasters are seen as separate and distinct. But, in the era of climate change, the wall between the two is crumbling. As climate and weather patterns shift, the resulting environmental crisis is being leveraged as a tool for terror and political violence.
Around the world, environmental stress due to unpredictable weather catalyzes political violence, further undermining weak governments. And in the United States, the environmental crisis is a “threat multiplier” that could enable terrorism, overwhelm response capabilities, and threaten populations and critical infrastructure.
The emerging threat is not about eco-terrorism—a term used to describe acts of violence in support of ecological or environmental causes. Rather, there is a growing potential for vulnerable ecosystems to be exploited or destroyed as a means to intimidate or provoke a state of terror in the general public for a political, ideological, or philosophical agenda.
Militant organizations including ISIS, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda have openly promulgated a strategy of ecological jihad. In contrast to other methods employed by extremists, environmental tactics, such as contaminating water supplies or starting fires, can be quickly planned, require little technical expertise to execute, and are harder to detect. Water shortages due to shifting weather patterns increase vulnerability to these methods with significant consequences for people, infrastructure, and the economy.
Severe drought as a result of climatic weather shifts raises vulnerability of water systems as reservoirs continue to dry up. As global fresh water supplies become increasingly scarce, extremist groups are stepping up attacks and manipulating supply as a strategic tactic of coercion.
Most analysts suggest that, since water itself would dilute any toxin or pathogen, the quantity of material needed to sufficiently contaminate the supply makes such an attack technically difficult. But, as the level of water in reservoirs continues to fall due to drought, this tactic becomes increasingly feasible. Extremist groups, including Al Qaeda, have expressed interest in contaminating drinking water in the United States. A report by the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness identified 26 specific threats of water contamination in the United States between 1968 and 2008.
Drought also creates tinderbox conditions, increasing the potential for intentionally set fires near populated areas and critical infrastructure. Fire as a tool of warfare is well documented. The Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah, used wildfire as a part of its military strategy, as well as an economic and psychological attack, during its 2006 conflict with Israel. In 2012, an issue of the online magazine Inspire surfaced on jihadi Internet forums detailing how to construct an “ember bomb” to target forested areas of the United States.
The exposure of U.S. communities to wildfire makes wildfire a potentially potent weapon for economic warfare and mass destruction. One military officer wrote in his 2005 thesis: “An opportunistic terrorist can unleash multiple fires creating a conflagration potentially equal to a multi-megaton nuclear weapon.” Wildfires can have a profoundly negative effect on a region’s economy: the damage from California’s 2018 conflagrations is estimated at $400 billion. And wildfires pose a threat to critical infrastructure, especially the electric grid, creating widespread outages and cascading effects.
Current policies to protect critical infrastructure and key resources focus on hardening and monitoring. In addition, sustainability practices and ecosystem management must become part of a cohesive strategy for national infrastructure protection.
First, we need to acknowledge the connection between the natural environment and vulnerability to terrorism by integrating sustainability principles and practices into the National Homeland Security Strategy. The U.S. military recognizes that global competition for finite natural resources is a national security concern and has embraced sustainability as a vital strategic security element and mission enabler.
Second, governments and utilities must fund investments in smaller scale, distributed infrastructure systems. Centralized utilities with large, complex distribution systems are more vulnerable to targeted disruptions with consequences of failure spread across a larger population. Distributed power systems, such as on-site photovoltaics or micro-grid generation, reduce the risk of widespread power failures as well as the cascading effects and economic damage that result.
Decentralizing is important in the water sector as well. New sustainable water technologies are emerging that integrate decentralized systems with traditional, centralized conveyance and treatment networks. Integrating principles and technologies of distributed infrastructure might also enhance the EPA Water Security Initiative.
Finally, we must restore and rebalance ecosystems to mitigate the terrorism threat. Foresters and fire protection experts are increasingly realizing that a century of aggressive federal fire suppression policy has led to uncharacteristically dense forests. Such conditions generate more intense conflagrations, prevent more water from reaching underground aquifers, and reduce the health of the forests.
As part of its mission, the Department of Homeland Security should support efforts by the National Forest Service to develop, test, and demonstrate approaches to ecosystem restoration that are environmentally sound, economically sustainable, and socially acceptable.
In a changing climate, the wall between natural disasters and terrorism is breaking down, creating new vulnerabilities. But a holistic approach offers opportunities to address both problems at once. By integrating sustainable principles and practices into the national homeland security strategy, we can protect valuable natural resources and reduce the potential for the environment to be exploited as a tool of terror.