Searing Sahel: Climate Crisis Fueling Terrorism

The Sahel is a region in Western Africa that is home to 400 million people. Representing Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, The Gambia, Guinea-Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal, the area is rich in mineral resources and economic possibilities. However, the region has been hard hit by climate change-related events and has been continuously racked by organized terror groups. 

As climate change develops in the Sahel, namely the lack of rainfall and desertification, increasing segments of the population of this region will have their food security taken. As people migrate to arable land to raise crops and livestock, increased competition over diminishing land will lead to conflict. As regional governments are struggling to maintain institutional control of these regions, terror groups have grown in size in the ensuing power vacuum. 

Terrorism in the Sahel by the Numbers (Credit: Institute for Economics and Peace)

What You Need to Know

According to Frontiers in Psychology, one of the five major reasons that individuals join terror groups is due to social marginalization. According to the Civil Liberties Union for Europe, social marginalization is when a group or individual is unable to access basic services or opportunities.

A key impact of climate change stems from its deeply negative impacts on the agrarian sectors of societies in the Sahel. From smaller crop yields to a lack of water, climate change directly impacts socio-economic conditions. The ensuing food insecurity can lead to individuals seeking other sources of income to support themselves and their families.

According to a paper published by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, “Climate change—in particular, rising temperatures and decreased rainfall—has placed further strain on the Tuareg population and has contributed to increased hostility against the Malian authorities, who have consistently neglected this essential dimension of Tuareg cultural and economic life.” Although this paper focused on the Tuareg population within Mali and their struggles, the impact of climate change in the region is not bound by borders.

Many civilians depend on their livestock and their crops to live. Climate change increasingly hampers food security in a region that has a “burgeoning humanitarian crisis,” according to the United Nations (UN). The UN also wrote that key drivers behind regional insecurity stem from “environmental crises” and “terrorism, armed rebellion, [and] organized crime.”.

In Nigeria, for example, expanding desertification in the north of the country led to a loss of grazing land. As herders migrated south, violence soon erupted between them and local farmers over the utilization of the land. Agriculture employs 70% of Nigeria’s labor force, according to the International Crisis Group.

Behind the Numbers

The Sahel ecological zone has shifted from 31 to 124 miles (50 to 200 kilometers) southward over the last three decades, resulting in biodiversity and arable land losses, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

In the Sahel, “Temperatures are climbing at a rate 1.5 times faster than in other parts of the world, with projections indicating a rise of 35.6-39.74 Fahrenheit (2-4.3°Celsius) by 2080.” Niger loses 247,105-296,526 acres (100,000 to 120,000 hectares) of arable land to soil erosion and desertification each year, according to the International Rescue Committee.

There are 6.3 million displaced people across the Sahel and 42 million in need of food assistance, according to the UN.

Across the Sahel, there has been a 532% increase in “crisis-level food insecurity rates” since 2014, and there has been a 127% increase in people “in need of humanitarian assistance and protection” since 2016, according to the International Rescue Committee.

The Sahel represents “43% of global terrorism deaths, a staggering spike from just 1% in 2007,” according to the Institute for Economic and Peace. Four of the 10 countries most affected by terrorism are in the Sahel region. Niger was number 10, Nigeria was 8th, Mali was 4th, and Burkina Faso was 2nd, only to Afghanistan.

The region is also home to the youngest population in the world, with 65 percent under 25 years old, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

In Mali alone, “the Central Sahel’s conditions have given rise to 41 nonstate armed groups (NSAGs),” according to the International Rescue Committee.

A study done by Kyung Hee University in South Korea found that “high temperatures during corn growing seasons in sub-Saharan Africa reduced yields and led to a rise in civil conflict” and that with continued warming, conflict in the region could increase by “over 30%.”

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), conflicts between farmer and herder groups in the Sahel have “increased greatly in the last decade.” These conflicts include “cattle raids, communal or ethnic violence” due to resources, and are sometimes “driven by association with violent extremist movements.”.

The CSIS also found that terror groups often “capture the means of food production or agricultural resources” to further their ability to gain recruits.

In interviews done by the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre with former members of the terror group al Shabaab, “socioeconomic conditions were the most common motivator for joining.”

Relationship Between Climate Change and Conflict (Credit: Climate and Migration Coalition)

According to the Turkish news service Anadolu Ajansi, the Sahel region “is perhaps one of the world’s richest, gifted with vast energy and mineral resources such as oil, gold, and uranium, but its people remain mired in extreme poverty, hunger, and conflicts.”

Why It Matters

The impacts of decreasing amounts of arable land and water, plus increasingly damaging weather events, have already led to an increase in social marginalization and insecurity in the region. Large-scale displacement and migrations southward have put increased pressure on land that is continually becoming less fertile and more crowded. Less and less yield from this land is likely to exacerbate the food insecurity that is already present within the region.

As general insecurity increases and regional states ability to effectively control their borders and land itself decreases, the ability for terror groups to assume control over regions becomes easier and easier. If governments are continually unable to solve regional issues, the people will be at the whim of any terror group that has a basic organization. It serves these groups’ interests to promote insecurity where they can and create security where they want. A “hearts and minds” campaign in the Sahel could lead to long-term and locally supported insurgencies in a land that is currently rife with civil strife.

As terror groups are able to increasingly control larger areas, they will likely be the sole major institutional force in the region.

Photo of Farmer Guarding His Livestock (Africa Center for Strategic Studies)


What Does the Future Hold? 

As climate change begins to eat up more and more arable land across the Sahel, terror groups will take direct advantage of the insecurity created by the lack of food, water, and institutional support to directly circumvent government control. These groups will likely be able to create long-term strongholds in the region, which would very likely create global terror implications. 

Projected Numbers of Climate Migrants in Sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank)

The current conflicts in the region, whether stemming from insecurity, migration, ethnic or sectarian tensions, or other issues, are all related to climate change. 

The issues that we see present in the Sahel today are likely to grow incredibly in the coming decades. The coming humanitarian crisis is likely to be one of the largest on the planet and will present major global social, economic, and security challenges that will require a large-scale and unified effort to combat. 

Mason Meinzinger
Mason Meinzinger
Majoring in International Relations with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies.


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