Devastating Flooding in East Africa: A Terrorist Recruiting Hotspot

Flooding in East Africa in recent months has drastically impacted lives and livelihoods in a region already heavily impacted by insecurity. As of December 2019, an estimated 2.5 million people have been impacted, with at least 250 people reported to have been killed. Flash floods and landslides have been a result of increased rainfall in the region due to global warming, which is nearly 300 percent above average in the Horn of Africa, hitting Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya the hardest.[1] Terrorist organizations are able to exacerbate existing tensions and environments, allowing terrorism to flourish when natural disasters occur. The risk of terrorism increases immediately after the occurrence of a natural disaster.


Flooding has increased the spread of waterborne and vector borne diseases, such as cholera and malaria.[2] Higher population displacement increases the risk of infection, specifically if drinking water sources are compromised, which is likely with damaged local infrastructure. Additionally, standing water can lead to increased breeding grounds for mosquitos, exposing anyone within the region to infections such as dengue, malaria, and West Nile fever. While flooding initially washes away mosquitos, it returns when the flood waters recede. Malaria epidemics following flooding in areas already prone to malaria epidemics are extremely common.[3] It can be expected that an increase in the occurrence and spread of these diseases will result through recent flooding, especially regarding malaria which has been an ongoing issue in Eastern Africa, and cholera, which is likely due to people drinking the flood waters.


Local infrastructure, especially in rural areas, has been damaged or in some cases lacking. Tens of thousands of livestock have been killed, and homes and property have been destroyed.[4] This has resulted in a drastic increase in internally displaced people and refugees, and impacted the host communities where they live. More than 3 million people in Ethiopia alone were in need of humanitarian assistance before the heavy rains even began, which is expected to continue to increase due to damage to arable land and crops, and the deaths of livestock.[5] A sharp increase in food insecurity and malnutrition can be expected in East Africa as people attempt to rebuild their lives with little resources.



Figure 1: Map of Africa showing countries affected by flooding. Map adapted from BBC.

Terrorist organizations such as Islamic State, al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram are expected to strengthen recruiting efforts following these natural disasters. By exploiting food and water shortages[6] that are anticipated to occur in East Africa, and as early as January in South Sudan,[7] terrorist organizations are able to recruit individuals more easily and operate more freely within local populations. This gives them more leverage over local populations, and the ability to undermine the government. Terrorist organizations are expanding their use of natural resources as a weapon, controlling access to it, and increasing resource scarcities. By increasing insecurities, terrorist organizations are able to increase their power. This is especially true in regions that rely more on natural resources for their livelihoods.[8] Ultimately, the terrorist organization is able to control food scarcity increasing the vulnerability of local populations, but is also able to offer alternative means of living and economic incentives.


Often, governments do not have the funds or resources to rebuild following natural disasters. In many of the locations affected by this flooding, infrastructure has been damaged or completely destroyed. This makes access to some communities difficult. Whole villages remain underwater or have become swamps.[9] Without access to adequate roads, it is difficult to receive much needed resources as they become available. With possessions and livelihoods washed away, little hope remains for locals, making them susceptible to exploitation. Widespread popular unrest threatens stability when government responses are inadequate or too slow. Terrorist organizations are able to fill in the gaps left by an inadequate government response by providing necessary resources and establishing infrastructure. Additionally, this strategy creates a sense of belonging and organization in an otherwise chaotic environment. These organizations are often viewed as being able to provide a better quality of life.


Many African countries and international organizations have responded to the need for aid in Eastern Africa, however, the humanitarian sector has been stretched thin responding to constant flooding. With the rise of global warming, this type of extreme flooding is anticipated to become a more frequent problem, and access to basic needs will continue to be compromised. Investments are needed to address the infrastructure needed to contain floodwaters. In Ethiopia’s highlands, floodwaters caused levees to burst down the line in other areas in the region. Community-based projects in Somalia have focused on digging boreholes and wells.[10] Adequate prevention measures have outgrown local resources and are needed to shift to accommodate evolving demands. Systems to collect and store water from heavy rain seasons are needed to address dry seasons. With proper systems in place, flooding can be minimized and used to benefit local populations all year.


Security forces are often used to assist following natural disasters due to the size and impact of devastation, which tend to overwhelm local resources. Military training for natural disasters is often found to be inadequate, especially in less developed countries.[11] Training is needed to accommodate growing and evolving needs, focusing on self-sufficiency and best practices for coordination between government resources and humanitarian aid. It has been reported[12] that resources have not been adequately utilized in the recent flooding in East Africa, resulting in duplication of efforts and wasting valuable time.


Additionally, we must pay attention to the early stages of the conflict cycle and take preventative measures, decreasing susceptibility to terrorist recruitment. Following natural disasters, fast, adequate, and reliable responses to the victims is essential to deterring terrorist recruitment and acceptance within local populations. Displaced persons and refugees have shown to be excellent for recruiting, especially as time spent in camps increases. This is largely due to increased grievances and lack of economic opportunities. Recruitment of these individuals greatly benefit terrorist organizations, as local knowledge of languages and geography is incredibly important to organizations looking to operate in those locations. With Islamic State and al-Shabaab competing for territory in East Africa, especially in Ethiopia, it can be expected that these organizations will increase activity, offering assistance where the government and local resources fail.


By acknowledging and understanding the causes behind natural disasters and anticipating areas with weaknesses to be exploited, the international community and local governments are able to address concerns related to terrorist activity. Natural disasters are anticipated to increase with global warming, giving terrorist organizations additional means with which to recruit members and expand their influence. Disease, food insecurity, and grievances are all easily manipulated and controlled by organizations looking to undermine local governments, impacting the dynamics that affect regional security.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is closely monitoring terrorist activity worldwide through Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). The AFRICOM team is following the efforts of both local governments and the international community to detect increased terrorist activity in East Africa where flooding has impacted these populations, making them more susceptible to terrorist recruitment and activity. CTG is committed to detecting, deterring, and defeating terrorism worldwide.

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[1] East Africa Floods Persist, Killing at Least 250, The Weather Channel, December 2019.

https://weather.com/news/news/2019-12-03-africa-flooding-deaths-kenya-somalia-sudan-ethiopia

[2] Heavy Flooding Devastates Lives and Economies in Horn of Africa, Voice of America, November 2019. https://www.voanews.com/africa/heavy-flooding-devastates-lives-and-economies-horn-africa

[3] Flooding and communicable diseases fact sheet, World Health Organization, n.d.

https://www.who.int/hac/techguidance/ems/flood_cds/en/

[4] Heavy Flooding Devastates Lives and Economies in Horn of Africa, Voice of America, November 2019. https://www.voanews.com/africa/heavy-flooding-devastates-lives-and-economies-horn-africa

[5] Ibid.

[6] Climate change will fuel terrorism recruitment, report for German foreign office says, The Guardian, April 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/20/climate-change-will-fuel-terrorism-recruitment-adelphi-report-says

[7] After floods, an early ‘lean season’ awaits South Sudan, The New Humanitarian, December 2019. https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news/2019/12/11/floods-hunger-food-South-Sudan-Indian-Ocean-Dipole

[8] Climate change will fuel terrorism recruitment, report for German foreign office says, The Guardian, April 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/20/climate-change-will-fuel-terrorism-recruitment-adelphi-report-says

[9] After floods, an early ‘lean season’ awaits South Sudan, The New Humanitarian, December 2019. https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news/2019/12/11/floods-hunger-food-South-Sudan-Indian-Ocean-Dipole

[10] Humanitarians challenged in response to flooding across East Africa, DevEx, November 2019. https://www.devex.com/news/humanitarians-challenged-in-response-to-flooding-across-east-africa-96112

[11] Natural disasters, the rise of terror, and how the military can help, Risk Advisory, March 2019. https://www.riskadvisory.com/news/natural-disasters-the-rise-of-terror-and-how-the-military-can-help/

[12] Humanitarians challenged in response to flooding across East Africa, DevEx, November 2019. https://www.devex.com/news/humanitarians-challenged-in-response-to-flooding-across-east-africa-96112

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