Climate change and water woes drove ISIS recruiting in Iraq

It was a few weeks after the rains failed in the winter of 2009 that residents of Shirqat first noticed the strange bearded men.

Circling like vultures among the stalls of the town’s fertilizer market in Iraq’s northern Salahaddin governorate, they’d arrow in on the most shabbily dressed farmers, and tempt them with promises of easy riches. “Join us, and you’ll never have to worry about feeding your family,” Saleh Mohammed Al-Jabouri, a local tribal sheikh, remembers one recruiter saying.

With every flood or bout of extreme heat or cold, the jihadists would reappear, often supplementing their sales pitches with gifts. When a particularly vicious  struck in 2010, the fifth in seven years, they doled out food baskets. When fierce winds eviscerated hundreds of eggplant fields near Kirkuk in the spring of 2012, they distributed cash. As farming communities limped from one debilitating crisis to another, the recruiters—all members of what soon became the Islamic State—began to see a return on their investment.

Two agricultural laborers in Azwai, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it farming community just south of Shirqat, ran off to join the jihadists in December 2013. Seven more from outlying villages followed a month later. By the time the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) seized this swath of Iraq—along with most of the country’s west and north—in a brutal summer-long blitzkrieg in 2014, few locals were surprised to see dozens of former fertilizer market regulars among its ranks.

“We said just wait until the next harvest, life will get better, life will become easier,” Jabouri said. “But things just weren’t getting better. There was always another disaster.”

Across rural Iraq and Syria, farmers, officials, and village elders tell similar stories of desperate farmhands swapping backhoes for assault rifles. Already battered by decades of shoddy environmental policies, which had hobbled agriculture and impoverished its dependents, these men were in no state to navigate the extra challenges of climate change. And so when ISIS came along, propelled in large part by sectarian grievances and religious fanaticism, many of the most environmentally damaged Sunni Arab villages quickly emerged as some of the deep-pocketed jihadists’ foremost recruiting grounds.

Around Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s northern Iraqi hometown, ISIS appears to have attracted much more support from water-deprived communities than from their better-resourced peers. In Tharthar subdistrict, a semi-arid expanse west of the Tigris, farmers with fields closest to the encroaching sands joined the jihadists in greater numbers than their counterparts near the river valley. Throughout 100 plus interviews conducted over three years, farmers and agricultural officials alike sometimes wondered aloud: if only we’d received a little more assistance, might this entire blood-soaked mess have been averted?

“This beast [ISIS] has many causes, but in the countryside these new problems just pushed people over the edge,” said Omar, a former agriculture ministry administrator from Mosul, who fled as the jihadists seized his city three years ago and who wished to withhold his surname for security reasons.

Seeds of Discontent

Looking back, it seems almost inevitable that something was going to snap. For decades, Iraqi agriculture has been mired in a long, sad decline that showed few signs of abating. First the oil boom robbed farming of much of its importance from the early 1970s. With massive revenues coming out of the ground, Baghdad gradually lost interest in other parts of the economy.

And then when Saddam Hussein rose to power in 1979, he swiftly sucked Iraq into a series of conflicts that struck farmers disproportionately hard. He press-ganged tens of thousands of agricultural laborers into service for the eight year Iran-Iraq war. That conflict left many farms desperately shorthanded and saw the repurposing of much farm machinery for military use. Hussein torched some of southern Iraq’s most bountiful date plantations for fear that Iranian saboteurs might use them as cover to attack oil facilities around Basra. Where once 12 million palm trees stood, there’s now just miles of dusty scrubland laced with oil spills. (Learn more about the damage caused in southern Iraq.)

All the while, Hussein—and then his successors—stood idly by as Iraqi farmers’ water supply slowly seeped away.

Years of below average rains in the Kurdish region and Nineveh governorate, the only parts of Iraq where rain-fed agriculture was historically possible, had increased the country’s dependence on the Euphrates and Tigris, the Fertile Crescent’s two great rivers. At the same time, upstream Turkey and Iran were relentlessly damming them and their tributaries. Turkey has built over 600 large dams, including dozens of major ones near the Iraqi and Syrian borders. The Tigris and Euphrates’ combined flow in southern Iraq has subsequently shrunk so much that the Persian Gulf now barrels up to 45 miles upriver at high tide (the rivers used to project freshwater up to 3 miles out to sea).

“The disappearance of our water and environment has been unstoppable in places,’ said Hassan Al-Janabi, the minister of water resources.

As the rains and rivers declined, many farmers turned to wells to fill the void, only to find that they too had their limitations. With no electricity for up to 20 hours a day, the only way to power the pumps was with diesel generators, which are prohibitively expensive for many smallholders. Around Samarra, farmers can shell out at least $6,000 on fuel a year to water 12 acres of fields. Little by little, water was becoming a resource that in some parts of Iraq only wealthier landowners could afford.

“Every year the rains became less, so people were having to spend more and more on their generators,” said Ahmed El Thaer Abbas, director of the Tharthar Agricultural Office. “It’s not sustainable.” Once the provider of over a quarter of local farmers’ water, rains now supply less than ten percent of their needs, he added.

Ripe for Radicalization

By 2011, much of the Iraqi countryside was in desperate financial straits. Some 39 percent of people in rural areas were living in poverty, according to the World Bank. That’s two and a half times the country’s urban rate. Almost half lacked safe drinking water. The problems were so devastating in 2012-13 that tens of thousands of villagers ditched their fields altogether, preferring to try their luck in the slum districts of nearby cities instead.

Some 39 percent of those polled in Salahaddin cited drought as a reason for their displacement. Studies from neighboring Syria, large parts of which enjoy similar conditions to northern and western Iraq, suggest that anthropogenic climate change has tripled the probability of long, debilitating droughts.

But still the blows kept on coming. And by now, armed groups—ISIS’s forebears included—were paying close attention. When severe water shortages killed off countless livestock in 2011-12, jihadists descended on the animal markets to size up the frantic farmers, many of whom were trying to sell off their remaining cows and sheep before they too succumbed to drought.

“They just watched us. We were like food on the table to them,” said Abbas Luay Essawi, a herder from Hawija. In Kirkuk governorate alone, about two thirds of farms lost at least one animal, according to the International Organization on Migration.

Soaring temperatures also began playing into these groups’ hands. Amid unprecedented heatwaves, farmers pumped more water in order to keep their crops alive, but in so doing merely added to the burden on the aquifers, many of which were already struggling to keep pace with demand that had previously been met by the rains and rivers. After several years of energetic groundwater extraction near the oil refining town of Baiji, Samir Saed’s two wells ran dry in early 2014, forcing him to lay off the two young men he employed as farm laborers. Jobless and angry, he suspects they soon joined ISIS.

“There are many stories like this; they were frustrated and just saw it as another type of work,” he says.

Summer temperatures in the Middle East are set to soar twice as fast as the global average, possibly threatening the inhabitability of the region by the end of the century, researchers say.

Above all, though, the jihadists expertly exploited the desperation in Iraq’s agricultural heartland by rationalizing its inhabitants’ woes. They spread rumors that the Shia-dominated government was delaying crop payments and cutting off water to Sunni farmers. In fact, the lack of rain wasn’t due to climate change, but really a man-made ploy designed to drive Sunni landowners from their rich fertile fields, their emissaries suggested. Broke and unable to deal with their fast changing environment, many farmers ate it up. A large majority of the Islamic State’s Iraqi foot soldiers hailed from rural parts of the country’s west, north and center, terrorism analysts say.

“It’s like this: agriculture employs a big percentage of Iraqis, and so when there’s a negative impact on agriculture this will translate into major social problems,” said Samir Raouf, a UNDP consultant and former deputy minister of science and technology.

What’s next?

For the moment at least, ISIS is mostly defeated in Iraq. From a high of 40 percent of Iraq’s territory in late 2014, it now only controls a few isolated villages, and small chunks of largely featureless desert. But the conditions that contributed to its success in the countryside are, if anything, more pronounced than ever.

The jihadists adopted scorched earth tactics as they were beaten back, laying waste to hundreds of thousands of acres of prime farmland. And so for returning farmers, climate change and shoddy governance are now among the least of their worries. ISIS fighters ripped up buried irrigation pipes to mold makeshift mortars. They poisoned wells, blew up water canals, and carted off everything that was of any value, notably generators, tractors, and water pump parts.

In Tharthar subdistrict, some farmers are still paying installments on enormous crop pivots they can no longer use. More or less broke after the oil price crash, the Iraqi state can’t afford to pay farmers for crops they’ve delivered to state silos, let alone cover the multi-billion dollar agricultural clean up bill. “Until all of this is fixed, farming in Iraq is dead,” said Naif Saido Kassem, until recently director of the agricultural office in Sinjar, to the north of Mosul. He estimates the agricultural damage in his subdistrict alone at $70 million.

Even more devastatingly perhaps, Iraq’s water situation is set to plumb new lows. Turkey has almost finished building the Ilisu Dam, which threatens to further cut the Tigris’ flow when it comes online, probably next year. Hotter temperatures are evaporating more and more surface water—up to six feet worth in Iraq’s lakes every year, according to Nature Iraq, a local NGO. As Baghdad’s relations with the upstream Kurdish region deteriorate, farmers might once more bear the brunt of the dispute. Kurdish authorities have cut off water to mostly Arab areas on several occasions in the past.

Some farmers still have hope. “We are tough. We will come back like we always have in the past,” said Ahmed, who grows wheat, barley, and some fruits near Dibis, northwest of Kirkuk. But against the backdrop of a climate of distrust so severe that the security forces are blocking most fertilizer from liberated farmland for fear that it might be used in making bombs, few share his optimism. If Iraq can’t get a grip on its crumbling environment, the next war might not be far off.

“ISIS is gone for now, but with all these water and heat problems, things will only get worse,” said Jabouri, the tribal sheikh from Shirqat. “We need help now.”