Is Climate Change Fuelling Al-Shabaab’s Resurgence in Somalia?

Is Climate Change Fuelling Al-Shabaab’s Resurgence in Somalia?

Somalia has long struggled with the dual challenges of armed conflict and climate change, as observers of the fragile state suggest that the two phenomena are inextricably interlinked. Somalia’s experience illustrates how these complex linkages are indirect and contextual as shifting migration patterns, internal displacement and increased resource pressures exacerbate communal tensions and place unprecedented strain upon traditional modes of conflict management. Al-Shabaab has proved adept at exploiting such natural resource pressures and interclan tensions to fuel their jihadist insurgency in a manner which ominously foreshadows the future climate wars of the twenty-first century.

Somalia holds the dubious accolade of being one of the world’s most fragile states, and simultaneously, one of the worst affected by anthropogenic climate change. Consequently, Somalia’s ongoing struggles with herder-farmer conflicts, intercommunal violence, mass migration, political dysfunction and violent extremism have been portrayed as indicative of an assumed linkage between climate change and conflict, whereby rising temperatures and increasingly unpredictable meteorological patterns exacerbate violence in fragile contexts. Specifically, analysts emphasise that climate change plays into the hands of al-Shabaab, one of the most dynamic, deadly and resilient militant groups on the global jihadist landscape, who ostensibly capitalise upon interclan tensions, resource conflicts, natural disasters and broader insecurity to consolidate their stranglehold across Southern and Central Somalia. Such is the strength of this assumed linkage that the Biden administration has formally recognised climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ that exacerbates regional insecurity in vulnerable contexts, particularly in the Horn of Africa.

Somalia: Frontline of Climate Change

Somalia suffers from a hostile and unpredictable climate defined by erratic rainfall, extreme temperatures and prolonged droughts. Even absent climate change, Somalia’s average temperatures are some of the hottest in the world, fluctuating between 30°C and 40°C and only interrupted by brief rainy seasons from April-June and October-December. Over two-thirds of Somalis are entirely dependent upon these brief rains for their livelihoods, which is predominantly based on subsistence agriculture. The Horn of Africa is no stranger to droughts, notably suffering prolonged famines during the 1980s and 1990s after the failure of successive rains. 

However, rainfall patterns are becoming increasingly sporadic, with much of Somalia suffering almost continuous dry spells since the 2011 East Africa drought (2013 was the only year over the past decade not to see below-average rainfall). In 2016-17, consecutive failed rains plunged almost 6.2 million Somalis into acute food insecurity. More worryingly, when significant amounts of rainfall do occur, they increasingly come in the form of devastating cyclones driven by changing circulation patterns across the Indian Ocean, triggering devastating flash flooding. During 2018 and 2019, Cyclones Sagar, Luban and Pawan facilitated the emergence of vast swarms of desert locusts which ravaged crops in rural areas and forced the government to declare a state of emergency. In November 2020, Cyclone Gati brought two years’ rainfall over just two days, becoming Somalia’s strongest cyclone since records began. Moreover, current projections suggest that Somalia will see average temperatures increases above the global average, rising between 3.2% and 4.3% by 2100.

Source: ISS Today (

How does Al-Shabaab benefit from climate change?

Climate change is regularly highlighted as a key driver of ongoing conflict and state fragility in Somalia, with researchers suggesting that shifting climatological patterns fuel violence in myriad ways. Rising temperatures, reduced rainfall, dust storms and extreme heatwaves have contributed to repeated crop failures, food insecurity and water scarcity. These effects have forced communities into competition over increasingly scarce resources, such as grazing grounds and arable land, whilst reducing the opportunity costs of engaging in violence.

Notably, changing climatic conditions have exacerbated herder-farmer conflicts, as nomadic pastoralists seeking to sustain dwindling herds encroach upon increasingly scarce fertile land occupied by sedentary farmers. Moreover, prolonged droughts have fuelled mass migration, creating large influxes of displaced persons which place unsustainable pressures upon agricultural production in rural areas and fragile public infrastructure in urban contexts. Significant influxes of migrants can engender rapid demographic shifts, changing clan compositions in a way which threatens the control of dominant groups and places unprecedented strain upon traditional institutions of conflict resolution. Climate migration thus renders existing political institutions dysfunctional and reduces their capacity to manage tensions.

Al-Shabaab has proved adept at exploiting these localised clan tensions by drawing support from internally displaced persons separated from traditional kinship and familial support networks. Moreover, jihadists benefit from climate-induced livelihood loss and food insecurity through recruiting vulnerable individuals by offering food, protection and regular payments. More explicitly, al-Shabaab militants deliberately exploit the Federal Government of Somalia’s lack of state capacity and inability to effectively respond to natural disasters, filling critical governance gaps by providing emergency relief and establishing drought committees following successive rainfall deficits in 2017. Arguably, militants are themselves contributing to Somalia’s environmental woes through their financial dependence upon the illicit charcoal trade (a lucrative business generating up to $25 million per annum), systematically destroying acacia forests whilst accelerating deforestation and desertification. 

An Indirect and Conditional Link

However, despite significant anecdotal evidence, the assumed linkage between climate change and political violence is hypothetical, with repeated studies failing to find a direct causal link between climate and conflict. Assumed conflict drivers, such as climate-induced migration, increasing urban violence, and declining interclan trust following natural disasters, are unsupported by empirical evidence elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Reverse causality must also be taken into account; high-intensity conflict can exacerbate environmental issues and prevent effective responses to natural disasters, thus amplifying their impact. Indeed, al-Shabaab has long weaponised its control over scarce water resources in the Jubba-Shabelle river basin, one of the few areas with fertile, irrigated soil in an otherwise arid landscape, by blocking access to rivers, destroying water management infrastructure, and poisoning wells to extort local farmers. This lack of a direct causal relationship between shifting meteorological patterns and political violence does not indicate that no linkage exists, but rather suggests that the relationship between climate change and conflict is indirect and conditional, highly depending upon specific contextual factors and the agency of actors.


Source: Observer Research Foundation (

Looking Ahead: Does Somalia foreshadow future Climate Wars?

Somalia’s climate-conflict nexus is unlikely to weaken in the short- to medium-term. As long as cyclical violence continues, Somalia will remain one of the world’s most fragile states and the most significant implications of shifting meteorological patterns will go unaddressed in one of the countries on the frontline of climate change. Under such circumstances, al-Shabaab is likely to continue feeding off insecurity, migration, clan tensions, and the state’s inability to provide even basic public services. The latter unfortunately creates a positive feedback loop in the climate-conflict nexus, further contributing to environmental degradation and allowing al-Shabaab to exploit increasingly frequent extreme weather events affecting the Horn of Africa. 

If current projections are accurate, Somalia will face increasingly extreme climatic conditions, with droughts, floods, cyclones and dust storms becoming more frequent and severe. Somalia’s inability to cope with the implications of such events risks triggering broader regional insecurity, fuelling migration to neighbouring countries already struggling with the ramifications of climate change and violent extremism, such as Kenya and Ethiopia. 

Arguably, Somalia represents a harbinger of the future conflicts of the twenty-first century, as fragile states least prepared to cope with the fallout from extreme weather and natural disasters become trapped in cycles of violence fuelled by climate change, leaving them vulnerable to both state actors and global terrorist groups alike. Until the complex linkages between climate change and conflict are recognized and significant investments are made in environmental peacebuilding to tackle the root causes of climate-driven instability, counterterrorism operations targeting al-Shabaab are likely to fail.

Categories: Africa, Security

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