Climate Change and violent Non state actors in the Middle East


In recent years, climate change has become more recognized both globally and in the Middle East and North Africa region. Many countries in the region now bear hotter temperatures, face droughts, decreasing agricultural efficiency, floods and increasing natural disasters such as cyclones and hurricanes.

As such, climate change also has many secondary effects due to its ability to exacerbate problems across the globe. For instance, new research has shown that climate change has the ability to trigger a financial meltdown to the world over.[ii]

Moreover, climate change also has the potential to facilitate the release of deadly pathogens that have until now been preserved in permafrost – which is melting at a faster rate due to longer summers and higher average temperatures.[iii]

This paper looks at one such secondary effect being the effect of climate change on violent non state actors, a category that incorporates insurgency, terrorism and extremism in the MENA region.[iv]

It argues that climate change fundamentally exacerbates various fissures in the existing socio-economic environment that are already plaguing a volatile conflict-ridden region. Consequently, it shows that insurgents and terrorist groups have seized various opportunities provided by these climate change induced cleavages to strengthen themselves.

This paper is divided as follows: First, it theorizes the relationship between climate change and terrorism by drawing on previous instances where insurgent/terrorist groups have been strengthened because of climate change induced issues. As such it comes with a three-step framework that solidifies the nexus between climate change and terrorism/insurgency.

Specifically, it argues that climate change acts as a force multiplier in contexts of conflict, facilitating the growth of terrorist groups. It does so in three ways;

1) Causing shortages in food, water and energy leading to disenfranchised citizens, which in turn facilitates recruitment by insurgent groups to increase.

2) Inducing disasters, allowing for terrorist groups to provide humanitarian aid while also benefiting from the diversion of military resources towards addressing post disaster scenarios as opposed to conducting counter – insurgency operations and.

3) Increasing irregular migration causing structural strains on state resources, thereby reducing resilience and inviting instability within which terrorist groups thrive.

These linkages are not direct but rather overarching in nature. As such, while providing examples of such linkages, this paper also draws on examples from outside the MENA region as well as relying on reports from parts of Africa and South and Southeast Asia, where climate change and environmental effects have led to the strengthening of terrorist/insurgent groups.

This derivation of linkages from regions outside of MENA is essential, since they help provide visualization for end-users of areas that have already undergone such nexuses. Focusing on the MENA region, a study of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and how it has benefitted from climate change issues in Yemen will be presented. Lastly, relevant policy implications for the Middle East will be discussed. 

Briefly, it is important to note that combating climate change is a matter of human security. As defined by the United Nations Human Rights Council, human security is a fundamental right of humans to be free from fear, want and indignity making the notion  far more human centric than traditional state security.[v]

While this normally means deliverance from peace and conflict, it does also refer to issues of poverty, food security and other aspects. As this paper illustrates, many primary and secondary effects of climate change often also lead to increased human insecurity.

However, combating violent non-state actors, while also a matter of human security is largely relegated to traditional security. Therefore, in suggesting the various recommendations for governments in the MENA region, this paper recognizes that it is state security that will be given more importance than human security simply because violent non-state actors threaten the very credibility of governments.

As such, while it is unfortunate that an issue such as climate change is, here, limited to its effects on terrorism and insurgency, it is a hope that this is one small contribution to combatting the problem indirectly.

[i] The author would like to thank Sinan Hatahet and Parvathi Anantha for helping review the paper.

[ii] Adam Tooze, “Why Central Banks need to step up on Global Warming”, Foreign Policy, July 20, 2019,

[iii] Robinson Meyer, “The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change”, The Atlantic, November 06, 2017,

[iv] From here on, the paper will use the terms violent non-state actors, terrorists and insurgents somewhat interchangeably. In the case study of AQAP provided below, the group can be considered as an insurgent group because of its display of organization along insurgent lines.

[v] “What Is Human Security”, United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security,