ISIS uses control of water as a tool of war

Ramaswami writes that ISIS “has acquired a significant portion of their power in the region through a troubling phenomenon: water terrorism. ISIS has the power to influence the lives of millions of people through their strategic acquisition of control over water resources…. Unlike other terrorist groups, ISIS emphasizes the seizing of territory and important infrastructure, particularly those involving water and energy resources.”

Other scholars agree. Control of regional water sources is critical to ISIS’ vision for a Caliphate. “When it comes to creating an Islamic state, it is not just about the control of geographic areas in Syria and Iraq. In order to form a viable state, one must control the state’s most vital infrastructure, which in Iraq’s case is water and oil,” said Matthew Machowski, a research fellow at Queen Mary University.

The Iraqi regime had no qualms about using control of scarce water for its purposes. Earlier this year, for example, Iraqi army soldiers in Anbar province took control of the Haditha Dam and flooded the areas where ISIS insurgents were present. Al-Monitor noted that the move flooded some residential areas, while cutting off water to other areas of the province.

The use of the control of scarce water as a strategic tool in political disputes has been on the rise. With global warming causing Himalayan snow caps – the major source of water for the river systems which feed Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh — to form later and melt sooner, the three countries have been engaged in an escalating tensions over dwindling water resources (see “Former world leaders say global water crisis must be addressed,” HSNW, 2 June 2011; “Pakistan charges India with ‘water terrorism’,” HSNW, 9 June 2011; and “Tensions simmer between India and Bangla Desh over dwindling water sources,” HSNW, 26 October 2009).Regional terrorists have noticed: The leader of the Pakistan-based Islamist Lakshar-e-Taiba’s Jamaat-ud-Dawah front recently threatened India with “water Jihad.”

There are growing water-related tensions in north-east Africa, where Ethiopia is leading a group of countries which claim that colonial-era arrangements have given Egypt rights to a disproportional share of the Nile River water. To remedy the situation, Ethiopia has launched an ambitious project of building a massive dam – calledthe Renaissance Dam – on the Blue Nile River.At 6,000 MW, the dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa when completed, as well as the eighth largest in the world.The reservoir at 63 billion cubic meters will be one of the continent’s largest. Egypt vehemently opposes the dam construction, which it views as giving Ethiopia the ability to turn off the spigot at will, dooming Egypt and its population (see “Egypt adopts a conciliatory approach toward Ethiopia’s massive Nile River dam,” HSNW, 27 May 2014; “Egypt warns of disaster if Ethiopia completes Nile River dam,” HSNW, 30 May 2013; and “Egypt asks Saudis to mediate in the intensifying Egypt-Ethiopia conflict over Nile River water,” HSNW, 10 March 2014).

Somali-based al-Shabaab is also aware of the importance of water control. The group has seized control of multiple water sources in its fight against the Somali government. In 2011, the Somali government retook control of major cities and ports from al-Shabaab, but earlier this year, the terrorist group buried the main borehole that supplied the city of Garbaharey in water. “Al Shabaab has changed tactics and started to cut off liberated cities from their water source so that they can demonstrate some kind of power and presence,” says Abdilatif Muse Noor, a member of the Somali parliament. Access to the closest water source, the Juba River, is controlled by al-Shabaab, and the group has banned residents in government-controled areas from fetching water in al-Shabaab controlled areas. Today, a significant number of residents in Somali-government controlled areas rely on humanitarian air drops for water.

Ramaswami says al-Shabaab’s tactic of cutting water to specific populations as a lesson from the ISIS playbook. “ISIS has established a blueprint that can be used by other entities to take advantage of drought and water scarcity — especially in nations with poor governance — a common theme throughout the developing world,” he writes, and concludes: “For all the conversation about ISIS taking control of oil refineries, one could argue that their control of water is even more significant, as it deprives the population of a resource necessary for daily sustenance and gives the militant group significant leverage over local governments and populations.”