Former ISIS members have described to us in detail how water plays into terrorism and terrorist strategy. We have conducted interviews with more than 150 ISIS defectors, returnees or imprisoned ISIS cadres. ISIS members have told us that water security, and perhaps more importantly, water insecurity, has played an important role in why some joined ISIS, and how ISIS (and other terrorist organizations) can successfully manipulate populations to maintain strongholds.
One Iraqi defector, 27-year-old Abu Ibrihim said before ISIS, his family had a productive farm. “Before ISIS came we were middle class. [But during the] siege you couldn’t plant, the water was cut,” As ISIS took over his region, local governance retaliated against ISIS by cutting the water supply. Without water, his crops were destroyed. Abu Ibrihim was married with three children and didn’t see many options. “[ISIS] didn’t allow anyone to go out of the [area]. Nobody could get out. [I joined ISIS] for survival. It was only for surviving, nothing more. We were trapped. The farms were barren. There was no water. How can you live?”
Water availability for farmers, as well as the general population and even extremist groups, can play a decisive role in setting the stage for the rise of terrorist groups, determining who will join, and in some cases, it can also dictate the survival of the terrorist group and whether it can function as a ruling pseudo-state. When ISIS seized the strategically vital Fallujah Dam, for example, it gained dangerous leverage over local governments and populations by cutting off water to Christian, Kurdish, and Muslim minorities. It also utilized water as a strategic weapon, flooding lands to force Iraqi troops to withdraw, and holding back water needed to power electric stations further downstream.
Abu Mansour, a Moroccan-born ISIS emir serving in Syria, emphasized the importance of water as a shared security concern for nations and terrorist groups alike. In fact, negotiating a successful water agreement, he says, became one of the bases upon which ISIS agreed not to attack Turkey.
The Euphrates River flows from Turkey, through Syria, and into Iraq. “The importance of water [cannot be overstated],” he explained. “We needed it for electrical power and as a vital source of living. But water, we cannot keep it, it flows to Iraq,” Abu Mansour told us during an interview with him in a Baghdad prison in February 2019.
He explained that ISIS had sent him and a group of ISIS “diplomats” into Turkey to negotiate restoring the water level of the Euphrates. He also explained the water situation prior to ISIS overtaking the city of Raqqa in Syria: “Actually, we had an agreement with Turkey for 400 cubic meters [of water] per second into Syria. After the revolution, they started to decrease the quantity of water to 150 cubic meters per second. After our negotiations [in 2014] it returned to 400.”
When we asked what ISIS gave to Turkey in return for re-establishing the needed water supply levels, he answered unequivocally, “There is the most important benefit — their country will be safe and stable.”
Data offers proof for his assertion. According to a U.S. Homeland Security report, between 2013 and 2015, ISIS launched nearly 20 major attacks against Syrian and Iraqi water infrastructure including taking control of dams in Mosul and Raqqa. Dams in Iraq are crucial in controlling water for irrigation and the power supply, and those who control them can weaponize water.
As water conflicts accelerate, the inverse is also true. Analysis by the Strategic Foresight Group, a global issues think tank, found that “countries enjoying peaceful co-existence have active water cooperation and countries facing risk of war have low to no water cooperation.” It should not be surprising that some experts blame the early Syrian uprising in part on droughts that caused frustration among local populations. The resulting uprisings ultimately led to the rise of ISIS, which promised a utopian dream to the beleaguered Sunni populations in both Syria and Iraq.
Water can be a currency for peace. The U.S. government has a role to play here. Over a year ago, the U.S. launched its Global Water Strategy, mandated by the Water for the World Act, to elevate water issues and better coordinate the 17 U.S. government agencies that overlap on water policy. It would be wise for our leaders to invoke this valuable tool to advance U.S. defense, development and diplomacy efforts across the globe.
Anne Speckhard is director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and runs its Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project in which in-depth video interviews with ISIS defectors, prisoners and returnees are edited into counter-narrative video clips to disrupt ISIS’s online and face-to-face recruitment. Speckhard is also an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine.
Ardian Shajkovci, senior research fellow and director of research at ICSVE, studies the impact of ICSVE’s global internet counter-narrative campaigns.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.