136. Future Threats: Climate Change and Islamic Terror

[Editor’s Note:  Mad Scientist Laboratory welcomes back returning guest blogger Mr. Matthew Ader, whose cautionary post warns of the potential convergence of Islamic terrorism and climate change activism, possibly resonating with western populations that have not been (to date) predisposed to listening to their messaging. (Note:  Some of the embedded links in this post are best accessed using non-DoD networks.)]

Source:  NASA

Climate change is increasingly being viewed not only as an ecological or economic concern, but as a direct security threat. It both endangers vital coastal infrastructure through sea level rise and multiplies existing issues of food insecurity and migration. However, in these analyses, one issue in particular is missed – the likely emergence of transnational terrorist networks which fuse climate grievance with Islamic terrorism.

Earth Liberation Front (ELF) logo / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ecologically inspired terrorism is, of course, hardly a new concept. There are tens of ecoterrorist organisations, and some have gained substantial notoriety. The model example of this is the Earth Liberation Front, which was highly active in the early 2000s. However, because they tend to operate in developed nations, these groups generally lack the safe areas and large, disenfranchised recruiting bases which empower terrorists elsewhere.

Ecoterrorism, however, is not limited to the developed world – for example, two years ago, an ecoterrorist group detonated a makeshift bomb in Brazil. As the impact of climate change grows ever more severe in the developing world, it is probable that there will be more direct climate-change inspired terrorism. This is especially likely given that the populations of developing nations are increasingly connected to the international information infrastructure – allowing more widespread comprehension of climate change as a global phenomenon with roots in western nations.

Map of the Earth with a six-meter sea level rise represented in red / Source:  NASA

These threats pose a new dimension to the terrorist threat. But what is more worrying is the potential for the infection of ecoterrorist groups by radical Islamic terrorist organisations.

Islam contains a strong thread of environmental stewardship. This is not a call for violence in protection of the Earth, but it has already been exploited by radical groups – for example, Al Shabaab banning plastic bags or the Taliban’s endorsement of afforestation. This gives the groups legitimacy in their area of operations. As climate change worsens and grievance intensifies, it is highly likely that this vein of stewardship of the Earth will strengthen in Islamic terrorist propaganda – both as a way of reinforcing legitimacy and to gain recruits or support.

If radical Islamic terrorists can harness climate change grievance, then the threat they offer against western interests increases substantially. This is for three key reasons:

Image from Islamic State propaganda video / Source:  Wikipedia

Firstly, Islamic terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or Daesh tend to have relatively developed infrastructure for propaganda and training. While U.S.-led counterterror operations have proven effective in reducing the threat they pose, the carnage in the Bataclan, Manchester Arena, and Nice – to name but a few incidents – clearly indicate that Islamic terrorists can still mount both expeditionary and homegrown terrorist attacks.

Improvised Explosive Device (IED) / Source:  IDF – Wikimedia Commons

Secondly, Islamic terrorist groups have subject matter expertise regarding explosives and strong links with IED supplier networks. The aforementioned Brazilian ecoterrorist group failed to inflict casualties with their crude bomb. If equipped with military-grade high explosive, of the type used by more ‘professional’ terrorist organisations, then the attack could have been much more devastating.

 

Thirdly, the audience for radical, violent Islamic teaching is very small, and much of it is in the Middle East. The audience for climate grievance is far larger – 70% of Americans aged 18-34 worry a great deal or a fair amount about climate change – and global. This is obviously not to suggest that all climate change activists or people concerned about it are putative terrorists.

People’s Climate March 2017 in Washington DC / Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, if even 1 in a 1000 of that American number were willing to take more robust action – such as giving support to terrorists, or even carrying out attacks themselves – it would comprise a support base of approximately 47,200 people. That presents a significant threat, only made worse by the ‘moral fairness’ of climate terrorism – attacking the U.S. for vague oppression of Muslims plays differently in media and politics than attacking the U.S. because of its very real role as one of the world’s largest polluters.

This is of course a brief overview. However, the possibility of a hybridisation of climate change grievance and radical Islamic terrorism is too dangerous to ignore. More research is required, and urgently, to ascertain the extent of the risk and find ways to mitigate it. The world community was practically blindsided by the emergence of Al Qaeda. It would be unacceptably irresponsible to let such a failure happen again.

If you enjoyed this post, please also:

Read Mr. Ader‘s previously published blog posts:

War Laid Bare

Decision in the 21st Century

– See Dr. Gary Ackerman‘s presentation and slide deck on “Non-State actors and their uses of emerging technologies” from the Mad Scientist Robotics, Artificial Intelligence & Autonomy Conference, facilitated at Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), on 7-8 March 2017.

– Review the following additional blog posts:

Trouble in Paradise: The Technological Upheaval of Modern Political and Economic Systems, by Ms. Marie Murphy, and

Emergent Threat Posed by Super-Empowered Individuals.

Crank up Neil Young‘s Mother Earth!

Mr. Matthew Ader is a first-year undergraduate taking War Studies at King’s College London.

Disclaimer: Mr. Ader is not affiliated with U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. Government. This piece is meant to be thought-provoking and does not reflect the current position of the U.S. Army.

94. The Wide Range of Competition

[Editor’s Note: Mad Scientist tracks convergence trends that are changing the character of future warfare. The democratization of technologies and the global proliferation of information is one of these trends that has expanded the arena of high-end threat capabilities beyond nation-states to now include non-state actors and super-empowered individuals. Today’s post illustrates how the democratization of one such capability,  biotechnology, affects the Future Operational Environment.]

As discussed during the Mad Scientist Bio Convergence and Soldier 2050 Conference, co-hosted with SRI International at Menlo Park, California last Spring, the broad advancement of biotechnologies will provide wide access to dangerous and powerful bioweapons and human enhancement. The low cost and low expertise entry point into gene editing, human performance enhancement, and bioweapon production has spurred a string of new explorations into this arena by countries with large defense budgets (e.g., China), non-state criminal and terrorist organizations (e.g., ISIS), and even super-empowered individuals willing to subject their bodies to experimental and risky treatments or augmentations.

China has invested billions of dollars into biotechnology – including in several U.S. biotechnology firms – and plans on focusing on their own bio revolution. Gene editing is one of the areas where China has sought to leapfrog the United States through ambitious Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) projects, editing the genes of 86 individuals, while the United States is just now approaching human trials. Additionally, Elsa Kania, an expert on Chinese emerging technology from the Center for the New American Security (CNAS), noted that China is now seeking to build its own innovation base rather than focusing on intellectual property theft and technology transfers.

Listen to Ms. Kania’s discussion addressing technological priorities and how they overlay on the Chinese government’s strategic objectives in the  China’s Quest for Enhanced Military Technology podcast, hosted by our colleagues at Modern War Institute.

Non-state actors – mainly terrorist organizations – have focused more on weaponizing biotechnology. A personal laptop belonging to ISIS that was captured in Syria, was found to contain lessons on making bubonic plague bombs and the employment of various weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The possession of this dangerous information by the most notorious terrorist organization across the globe is a testament to the worldwide proliferation of information. This challenge of weaponized biotechnology is exacerbated by the relative ease of obtaining material to carry out such attacks.

Watch Dr. Gary Ackerman‘s presentation on Non-State Actors and their Uses of Technology from the Mad Scientist Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, and Autonomy: Visioning Mult-Domain Battle in 2030-2050 Conference at Georgetown University, 7-8 March 2017.

There is a growing community of individual biohackers and “do it yourselfers” (DIYers), super-empowered individuals pushing the boundaries of DNA editing, implants, embedded technologies (embeds), and unapproved chemical and biological injections. One of the most prominent biohackers, Josiah Zayner, a former NASA employee with a biophysics PhD, who livestreamed his self-injection of CRISPR and has even started a company selling DIY CRISPR kits ranging from several hundred to over 1000 dollars, effectively enabling biohackers to cheaply change their physiology, alter their appearance, and go beyond human biological norms. None of these treatments and augmentations are approved by regulatory agencies and DIYers run the serious risk of harming themselves or unleashing destructive and disruptive biological agents upon an unwitting population.

Read our Mad Scientist Laboratory blog post on the Emergent Threat Posed by Super-Empowered Individuals .

Biotechnology is just one example of how potentially game changing capabilities that were once only within the purview of our strategic competitors will be democratized via the global proliferation of information.  In the Future Operational Environment, we can also expect to see artificial intelligence, multi-domain swarming, and space capabilities in the hands of non-state and super-empowered individuals.