'Greening the desert': What drives militants' environmentalism?

'Greening the desert': What drives militants' environmentalism?
Analysis: Propaganda or genuine concern? From al-Qaeda to the Taliban, armed groups have long been pushing demands for environmental protections, while they slaughter civilians, writes Austin Bodetti.
6 min read
05 March, 2019
Who knew Osama bin Laden was an environmentalist as well as a mass murderer? [Getty]
Though al-Qaeda would appear to have little in common with the likes of the Earth Liberation Army and the Earth Liberation Front, it apparently shares their concern for the state of the natural environment.

In fact, the Middle Eastern armed group's notorious founder said as much several times.

Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda's media-savvy ideologue, remained preoccupied with climate change for much of his career as the world's archetypal terrorist. In 2002, bin Laden wrote an open letter to Americans criticising them not only for backing Israel and building military bases throughout the Middle East - al-Qaeda's perennial grievances - but also for polluting the natural environment with "industrial waste and gases" and refusing to join the Kyoto Protocol, a landmark treaty on environmental protection.

"The fact that bin Laden's public concern about protecting the environment is also reflected in his private communications with other Qaeda and jihadi leaders suggests that he took this issue seriously," said Dr Nelly Lahoud, a senior fellow at the New America think-tank and author of The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction.

When American commandos raided bin Laden's compound in Pakistan in 2011, they discovered he had intended to publish another open letter that called on Americans to support United States President Barack Obama's environmental policy and "save humanity" from global warming, suggesting that Americans launch "a great revolution for freedom" if environmentalism demanded it.

One headline later joked that "bin Laden cared more about climate change than most politicians".

"In some of his letters, bin Laden warned against cutting trees for commercial purposes, particularly in Somalia," Lahoud told The New Arab. "He believed that this would have adverse effects on the climate, causing dry seasons or floods. He thus encouraged large agricultural projects that involved planting trees suited to the soil; this would both serve the environment and enhance poor Muslims' living conditions while developing their skills.

"He also encouraged planting trees for other, operational reasons: the trees would - eventually - provide cover for jihadis as they sought to evade their enemies."

While bin Laden seemed to have an unparalleled zeal for the fight against climate change, a handful of his disciples have adopted the mantle of fighting environmental issues in the years since his death.

Al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda's Somali affiliate, announced last year that it was banning plastic bags in territory under its control - because they presented "a serious threat to the wellbeing of humans and animals alike". Al-Shabaab had already moved to outlaw music, television, and even the internet - despite using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube - but it surprised many Somalis and Westerners that militants known for suicide attacks were making common cause with the environmental movement.

On Twitter, foreign news agencies responded by mocking the Somali armed group's bizarre declaration.

"My estimate is that al-Shabaab has an interest in the natural environment prompted by its belief in respecting the creations of God, but that respect does not run very deep, and it will give way to income-generation issues if al-Shabaab is pushed," Dr Stig Jarle Hansen, an associate professor of international relations at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and author of Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, told The New Arab.

Despite a professed commitment to environmentalism, al-Shabaab has continued to contribute to deforestation by harvesting charcoal throughout Somalia, then exporting it to black markets in the Gulf.

Whereas al-Shabaab just talks about environmental issues, the United Nations has taken substantive steps to stop the Somali group from harming the natural environment with this practice.

Militants in Central Asia, meanwhile, appear to share the UN's enthusiasm for saving forests. The rhetorical effort to reverse environmental degradation extends all the way to the Taliban, al-Qaeda's military ally in Afghanistan during the 1990s and another insurgency that cares about deforestation.

In 2017, Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada used a "special message" to encourage Afghans to "plant one or several fruit or non-fruit trees for the beautification of Earth and the benefit of almighty God's creations".

"The Mujahideen and beloved countrymen must join hands in tree planting," he said. Later that year, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued a statement claiming the insurgents had developed "the perfect plan for environmental protection through planting trees" while another spokesman, Qari Muhammad Yousuf Ahmadi, extolled reforestation's "many benefits".

"I very much doubt that this statement had anything to do with al-Qaeda, which has virtually no influence on the Taliban," posited Dr Barnett Rubin, associate director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University and author of Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror.

"I would speculate that it is part of the Taliban's larger effort to portray itself as a legitimate political force able and qualified to participate in ruling the country."

The Taliban has a significant economic incentive to promote environmental protection. The War in Afghanistan has hindered agriculture, devastating orchards throughout the country and in particular in the countryside surrounding Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city. Kandahar functioned as the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban's headline-grabbing insurgency two decades ago, and the insurgents' historical heartland still holds strategic and symbolic value for them.

The Taliban also relies on taxes from agriculture, which employs more than 80 percent of Afghans, to fill much of its war chest.

"The United States has destroyed many orchards in Kandahar, which is a Taliban stronghold," Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghan Analysts Network, told The New Arab. "I would not exclude that there is also some genuine concern about this destruction on the part of the Taliban."

The extent of the connections between these militants' environmental policies and the reasons behind them remain a mystery. While al-Shabaab and the Taliban have expressed support for addressing plastic pollution and deforestation, the militants dedicate most of their resources to political violence and do far less for the environmental movement than have the Afghan and Somali governments.

Bin Laden, meanwhile, lost much of his practical influence when he went into hiding after 9/11.

Al-Qaeda and other Middle Eastern armed groups may see environmental degradation and global warming as an opportunity to drive recruitment and establish ties with locals. The Islamic State group blamed water scarcity in Iraq on the country's Shia-led government, a strategy that boosted the militants' appeal among Sunni farmers harmed by drought.

In Yemen, another country affected by water scarcity, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, repaired wells for impoverished residents of the cities it controlled in an effective bid to cultivate relationships with the country's tribes.

These endeavours' success depended on the exploitation of long-standing environmental issues whose root causes AQAP and IS did little to stop. Likewise, al-Shabaab and the Taliban may only care about environmental degradation insofar as it can strengthen their propaganda.

While bin Laden died in 2011, four years before Obama signed the Kyoto Protocol's successor, the Paris Agreement, the ideologue likely would have had a similar opinion of the newer treaty.

"Bin Laden did indeed display genuine concern about the environment," said Lahoud.

Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. 

He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.