The Impact of Natural Disasters on Terrorism: Mozambique and Philippines as Case Studies

Critical to international security, is a question that is posed by RAND and several other scholars recently, as to how national disasters impact the fluctuation of terrorism around the world, specifically in developing countries. It is speculated that there tends to be a substantial increase in terrorist-related deaths in countries that have experienced natural disasters of a certain destructive degree, according to RAND. Using this concept, how can we identify where these increases in terrorist activities will occur? Philippines in particular, has seen devastating disasters in 2018, and has also begun to see an increase in terrorist activity, piracy attacks, and will likely continue to grow given these natural disaster concepts and ISIS' loss of their Syrian strongholds. Meanwhile, Mozambique has been hit with exceptionally devastating cyclones that have left the country in the most crippling of conditions in recent memory.

Of course, it is difficult to claim that natural disasters alone will contribute to an uptick in terrorist-related activity. There are many nuances, independent factors, and isolated considerations that need to be taken into account, but there are several weaknesses that are exposed following disasters which have the potential for these countries to be targeted more than the norm. The European Union asked the same question a few years ago in a study titled “NDTERROR - Can Natural Disasters Incite Terror?” In many developing countries, there are often many structural components that are already fragile and vulnerable. When a natural disaster is presented, these vulnerabilities are multiplied and exploitation emerges as a common byproduct for jihadi and terror groups.

On April 28, 2019, Cyclone Kenneth was the second cyclone to pummel Mozambique and the east African coast in a matter of weeks. In the days leading up to Kenneth, government officials expressed concerns not only with managing the security of their citizens, but also with the presence of armed militias in the area who would pose an additional threat. Tens of thousands were relocated to refugee camps, well over 1,000 people died as a result of the two cyclones, aid provisions were inefficient, crops were obliterated, Cholera and other diseases have been widespread, and the local governments have been incapacitated and overwhelmed by the storms. These conditions have proved to be fruitful for terrorist and militant groups that are seeking to feed off these community weaknesses. It is not so different even in the US, where police forces and National Guard units are all on increased vigilance during times like these to prevent violence, chaos, and looting in the streets.

Mozambique is a hotbed for increasing Islamist militant activity, and the recent natural disasters have only overlapped with the heavy jihadi action currently plaguing the country. For the first time, the Islamic State has claimed a presence in the north. During the past year, over 1,000 people have been forced from their homes on behalf of IS. Additionally, as international IS affiliates grow, a link has recently been discovered between local militants and transnational jihadist groups. Since April, according to the Atlantic Council, there has been an excessive advancement of terrorist activity and counterterrorism responses in Mozambique and other regional countries like Uganda. One Islamist insurgency group, called Ahlu Sunna wa-Jama” or “Swahili Sunnah,” has been steadily advancing their emergence, ideology, and development throughout northern Mozambique. Compared to Boko Haram’s emergence story, this group could pose significant danger in the near future.

In this April-to-present time frame, there have been over a dozen terrorist attacks by Swahili Sunnah alone, compared to their five total attacks from January-May. As a result, there are increased efforts to establish police presence and counterterrorism military training among partners. Only a couple weeks ago, the UK and the US both issued travel warnings to the northern part of the country near Cabo Delgado. Just hours from when this was written, 11 people were killed by Islamic militants in northern Mozambique along the Tanzania border. The report states that militants regularly target villages like this in Cabo Delgado and kill people and burn houses despite increased police presence. Rural oil-rich and Muslim majority communities in this part of the country have been the targets and victims of over 250 deaths since late 2017. The interesting connection here, is that many of the terrorist-related activities in the country are originating in this part of the country, the exact path of destruction Cyclone Kenneth whipped through after seeing severe damage already from Cyclone Idai.

Meanwhile, the Philippines is a country that is exceptionally vulnerable to the concepts being posed in this article. The South Pacific nation is one of the most volatile regions on the planet. Directly on the Ring of Fire with 53 active volcanoes, is also an island nation, meaning floods, mudslides, typhoons, monsoon rains, and earthquakes are all points of worry for emergency management and security personnel. In late December 2018, the country experienced its second most deadly weather-related disaster of the year, only to be hit by a 7.2 earthquake days later. Thousands of people, dozens of times per year, are forced to relocate, “brace for impact,” or board up their homes in an attempt to survive these concerning conditions. Living in this uncertainty and volatility creates an opportunity for groups like ISIS to successfully take hold in parts of the country where disasters affect populations the hardest.

As ISIS seeks new havens around the world, the Philippines, especially the southern islands, create a new breeding ground where many of the people have continuously suffered from an “inexhaustible number” of deadly natural disasters over the past decade. These catastrophic events, compounded by growing effects of climate change, have established a weakened and volatile region of the country that is easy for militant groups like ISIS to grab hold of. After continual years of weather-related destruction, the southern islands are where Abu-Sayyef and ISIS are seeking to create a new Muslim homeland. This is seen through an exorbitant number of kidnappings for ransom, bombings, piracy, and other violent attacks through the area.

Recent attacks in Jolo and church bombings earlier in the year only skim the surface of the fertile activity and development that is taking place in the south of the country. While police and counterterrorism forces are increasing and re-upping their security efforts, this seems to only be enticing these militants to inflict more damage on the local Christian-majority population. An apparent issue is that this area is not new to armed insurgency groups. For decades, these groups have been trying to create a Muslim homeland in the south through violent conflict, but only now do they have the power and human resources to potentially begin that path towards sustained control as hoards of individual fighters continue to make their way east from Syria. While the growth and power of these groups is undoubtedly being aided by an influx of foreign fighters, one can’t help but wonder if their recent excess of attacks and seeming reverberation of power is influenced by the devastating spread of natural disasters that have been plaguing the region and weakening communities for years.

This dangerous influx of fighters and the heightened dedication to their cause in the region, can best be examined through the increase of suicide bombings throughout the Philippines. With the July 2018 van bombing in southern Basilan Island, the devastating Catholic cathedral bombing in January of this year, and the recent deadly suicide bombing on Jolo Island a few days ago, the frequency of these attacks are concerning to locals and experts. Security analyst, Sydney Jones, says there is a new lethality in ideology emerging with these attacks, and is a sign of increased radicalization, reports Zachary Abuza, Southeast Asian security expert at the National War College. The natural disasters that thwart the stability of this country create an avenue of exploitation for ISIS members, but also provide them with an opportunity to act as champions to local grievances on behalf of the seemingly constant natural devastation they face. An archipelago nation of over 7,600 islands creates an appealing operating zone for piracy and maritime kidnapping where government counterinsurgency capabilities are overwhelmed.

The recent issues that we see unfolding both in Mozambique and the Philippines are developing quickly, and need to be seriously considered and combated by local and international partners in order to ensure safety, security, and sustained well-being in these communities. The work at CTG is utilizing a series of cross-team collaboration to monitor the development of local crises. However, it is important to understand the impact that natural disasters have on these local communities and appreciate the dangerous link that has been outlined with terrorist-related activity. CTG’s PACOM, AFRICOM, CENTCOM, HAZARDS, and EXTREMISM teams will be discussing ways in which we can track the development of these risks and influence our expertise and knowledge to appropriate entities of change. Two concluding points: it is critical that we work with our regional teams, especially CENTCOM, to determine the travel patterns and resurgence of extremist militant groups as they continue to spread and exert their ideologies to new areas of the globe. Secondly, we must not underestimate the power that natural disasters provides for these terror groups who seek to assist and recruit in times of hardship, devastation, and economic instability.

1. Earthquakes, Hurricanes, and Terrorism: Do Natural Disasters Incite Terror?, RAND, December 2019

2. The Link Between Natural Disasters and Terrorism, European Comission, July 2015 3. Weeks After Deadly Storm, Cyclone Kenneth Hits Mozambique, New York Times, April 2019 4. Mozambique and SA Investigate Border Shootings, BBC, June 2019 5. Islamist Terror in Mozambique: An Emerging Threat?, The Atlantic Council, June 2018

6. 11 dead in Mozambique in insurgent attack near Tanzania border, The Citizen, June 2019

7. Tropical Storm Usman Becomes Philippines’ 2nd Deadliest Weather Disaster in 2018, Insurance Journal, December 2018

8. Philippines: A country prone to natural disasters, Deutsche Welle, October 2013

9. The Philippines: Extremism and Counter-Extremism, Counter Extremism Project, March 2018

10. Philippines: ISIS claims bombing that killed five on Jolo Island, The Guardian, June 2019

11. Suicide attacks emerge in Philippines under Islamic State influence, Channel News Asia, June 2019

12. Where Will ISIS Seek to Establish its Next Safe Haven?, RAND, February 2019

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