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.

130. Trouble in Paradise: The Technological Upheaval of Modern Political and Economic Systems

[Editor’s Note:  Mad Scientist Laboratory is pleased to publish the following post by returning guest blogger and proclaimed Mad Scientist Ms. Marie Murphy, addressing how advances in various technologies have the potential to upset the international order and empower individuals and non-state actors.  Read on to learn who will be the winners and losers in this technological upheaval!]

Access to new and advanced technologies has the potential to upset the current power dynamic of the world. From the proliferation of smartphones to commercially available software and hardware, individuals and states that were previously discounted as threats now have the potential to launch sophisticated attacks against powerful international players. Power will no longer remain in the upper echelons of society, where it is primarily held by national governments, multinational corporations, and national news services. These groups are losing their information dominance as individuals, local authorities, and other organizations now have the ability to access and distribute unfiltered information at their fingertips.1

A historical example of technology altering the balance of power are cassette tapes. Ayatollah Khomeini used cassette tape recordings to deliver sermons and direct the Iranian Revolution when exiled in Paris, while the United States observed the use of cassette tapes by the USSR in the spreading of communist propaganda.2 A new technology in the hands of empowered individuals and states allowed for events to transpire that otherwise would not have been possible with the same speed and effectiveness. Adaptation of technology created new agency for actors to direct movements from thousands of miles away, forever shaping the course of history. A more contemporary example is the role of smartphones and social media in the Arab Spring. These new disruptive technologies enabled the organizing of protests and the broadcasting of videos in real time, eclipsing traditional journalism’s ability to report.3

Near-term Analysis:

Technologically sophisticated international actors, such as the United States and the European Union, will maintain the capacity to manage the growth and use of technology within their own borders without adversely affecting governance. However, the increased availability of these technologies may strain civil/government relations in both developing countries and authoritarian systems.4 Technologies such as smartphones and the ability to instantly transmit data may force governments to be accountable for their actions, especially if their abuses of power are recorded and distributed globally by personal devices. At the same time however, “smart” devices may also be used by governments as instruments of social control, repression, and misinformation.

Technology also affords non-state actors new methods for recruiting and executing operations.  Technology-enabled platforms have allowed these groups to network near instantaneously across borders and around the world in a manner that would have been impossible prior to the advent of the digital age.5 A well-known example is the use of social media platforms by terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS for propaganda and recruitment. These groups and others, such as Hezbollah and the political opposition in Venezuela, have deployed drones for both reconnaissance and as lethal weapons.6 The availability of these information age technologies has enabled these groups to garner more power and control than similar organizations could have done in the past, posing a real threat to major international actors.

Distant Future Analysis:

There is an extremely high chance of future political disruption stemming from technological advancement. There are some who predict a non-polar power balance emerging. In this scenario, the world is dominated by dozens of technologically capable actors with various capabilities. “Hyperconnected,” developed states such as Sweden, Finland, and Israel may become greater international players and brokers of technologically backed global power. “Partially-connected” nations, today’s developing world, will face multiple challenges and could possibly take advantage of new opportunities due to the proliferation of technology. Technologically empowered individuals, groups, or neighboring states may have the ability to question or threaten the legitimacy of an otherwise weak government. However, in these “partially-connected” states, technology will serve to break down social barriers to equalize social discourse among all strata of society. Other predictions suggest the dissolution of national boundaries and the creation of an “interconnected state” comprised of different national laws without borders in a virtual space.7

Democracy itself is evolving due to technological innovation. Increasing concerns about the roles of privacy, big data, internet security, and artificial intelligence in the digital age raise the following questions: how much does technology influence and control the lives of people in democratic countries, and what effect does this have on politics? Algorithms control the advertisements on the internet based on users’ search history, the collection and sale of personal data, and “fake news” which affects the opinions of millions.8  While these technologies provide convenience in the daily lives of internet-connected citizens, such as recommending items for purchase on Amazon and other platforms, they also lead to an erosion of public trust, a pillar upon which democracy is founded. Democracies must remain vigilant regarding how emerging technologies influence and affect their people and how governments use technology to interact with its citizens.

The changing geopolitical dynamics of the world is inextricably linked with economic power, and increasing economic power is positively correlated with technological advancement. Power is becoming more diffused as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (i.e., the BRICS states), the Philippines, Mexico, Turkey, and others develop stronger economies. States with rising economic power may begin to shun traditional global political and economic institutions in favor of regional institutions and bilateral agreements.9 There will be many more emerging markets competing for market share,10 driving up competition and forcing greater innovation and integration to remain relevant.

One of the major factors of the changing economic landscape is the growth of robotics use. Today these technologies are exclusive to world economic leaders but are likely to proliferate as more technological advancements make them cost-effective for a wider range of industries and companies. The adaptation of artificial intelligence will also dictate the future success of businesses in developed and emerging economies. It is important for governments to consider “retraining programs” for those workers laid off by roboticization and AI domination of their career fields.11 Economically dominant countries of the future will be driven by technology and hold the majority of political power in the political arena. These states will harness these technologies and use them to increase their productivity while training their workforce to participate in a technologically aided market.

The Winners and Losers of the Future:

Winners:

  • Countries with stable governments and emerging economies which are able to adapt to the rapid pace of technological innovation without severe political disruption.
  • Current international powers which invest in the development and application of advanced technologies.

Losers:

  • Countries with fragile governments which can be overpowered by citizens, neighbors, or non-state actors armed with technology and authoritarian regimes who use technology as a tool of repression.
  • Traditional international powers which put themselves at risk of losing political and financial leverage if they only work to maintain the status quo. Those systems that do not adapt will struggle to remain relevant in a world dominated by a greater number of powers who fall into the “winners” category.

Conclusion

Modern power players in the world will have to adapt to the changing role of technology, particularly the influence of technology-empowered individuals. Technology will change how democracies and other political systems operate both domestically and on the world stage. The major international players of today will also have to accept that rising economic powers will gain more influence in the global market as they are more technologically enabled. As power becomes more diluted when states gain equalizing technology, the hegemony of the current powers that lead international institutions will begin to lose relevancy if they do not adapt.

If you enjoyed this post, please also see:

… and Ms. Murphy‘s previous posts:

… and crank up Bob Marley and the Wailers Get Up, Stand Up!

Marie Murphy is a junior at The College of William and Mary in Virginia, studying International Relations and Arabic. She is a regular contributor to the Mad Scientist Laboratory; interned at Headquarters, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) with the Mad Scientist Initiative during the Summer of 2018; and is currently a Research Fellow for William and Mary’s Project on International Peace and Security.


1 Laudicina, Paul A, and Erik R Peterson. “Divergence, Disruption, and Innovation: Global Trends 2015–2025.” Strategy, A T Kearney, www.middle-east.atkearney.com/strategy/featured-article/-/asset_publisher/KwarGm4gaWhz/content/global-trends-2015-2025-divergence-disruption-and-innovation/10192?inheritRedirect=false&redirect=http://www.middle-east.atkearney.com/strategy/featured-article?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_KwarGm4gaWhz&p_p_lifecycle=0&p_p_state=normal&p_p_mode=view&p_p_col_id=column-2&p_p_col_count=1.

2 Schmidt, Eric, and Jared Cohen. “The Digital Disruption.” Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs Magazine, 27 Oct. 2010, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2010-10-16/digital-disruption.

3 Duffy, Matt J. “Smartphones in the Arab Spring.” Academia.edu – Share Research, 2011, www.academia.edu/1911044/Smartphones_in_the_Arab_Spring

4 China is a unique case here because it’s a major developer of technology and counter-technology systems which block the use of certain devices, applications, or programs within their borders. But Chinese people do find loopholes and other points of access in the system, defying the government.

5 Schmidt, Eric, and Jared Cohen. “The Digital Disruption.” www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2010-10-16/digital-disruption.

6 “Drone Terrorism Is Now a Reality, and We Need a Plan to Counter the Threat.” International Security: Fragility, Violence and Conflict, World Economic Forum, 20 Aug. 2018, www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/08/drone-terrorism-is-now-a-reality-and-we-need-a-plan-to-counter-the-threat.

7 Schmidt, Eric, and Jared Cohen. “The Digital Disruption.”  www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2010-10-16/digital-disruption.

8 Unver, Hamid Akin. “Artificial Intelligence, Authoritarianism and the Future of Political Systems.” SSRN, EDAM Research Reports, 2018, 26 Feb. 2019, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3331635.

9 Laudicina, Paul A, and Erik R Peterson. “Divergence, Disruption, and Innovation: Global Trends 2015–2025.”

10 Stowell, Joshua. The Emerging Seven Countries Will Hold Increasing Levels of Global Economic Power by 2050. Global Security Review, 26 Apr. 2018, www.globalsecurityreview.com/will-global-economic-order-2050-look-like/.

11 Laudicina, Paul A, and Erik R Peterson. “Divergence, Disruption, and Innovation: Global Trends 2015–2025.”