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A family passes a destroyed building and cars inside western Mosul, Thursday, May 11, 2017. U.S.-backed Iraqi forces were moving to surround Mosul's Old City on Thursday, a week after launching a fresh push to drive Islamic State militants from areas they still hold.
Bram Janssen/AP

ISIS Preyed on Victims of Climate Change to Recruit in Iraq, Report Says

Whenever a drought or an episode of extreme heat or cold hit Northern and Western Iraq after 2009, it became common for communities to get a visit from ISIS recruiters, according to National Geographic.

Except, at the time, the men weren’t yet called ISIS members. They were just strange men with long beards, according to the people National Geographic interviewed.

The men were there to build their ranks, according to the report, and they timed their visits for when farmers, tradesmen, and young men had little opportunities and could most easily be plied with cash payments and promises of income.

Take Action: Call on World Leaders to Help Millions of People Affected by Extreme Weather

Throughout their search, ISIS members followed the trail of climate change or, more specifically, the environmental and economic hardship caused by climate change.

In recent years, fears that climate change could fuel conflicts and destabilize parts of the world have gained momentum. The idea is that droughts, extreme heat, powerful storms, and sea level rise — events enabled or worsened by climate change — could become a “threat multiplier,” a way to ignite longstanding problems such as ethnic strife or economic turmoil into full-blown conflict.

The civil war in Syria, for example, has been linked to severe droughts, among other factors, and severe drought in South Sudan may have worsened the civil war happening there.

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New York magazine notes that researchers determined that every half-degree Fahrenheit of warming raises the likelihood of conflict by 10% to 20%. So according to this framework, global conflicts could more than double by the end of the century when temperatures are expected to rise by potentially more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Since ISIS overran the area of Iraq encompassing Mosul in 2014, thousands of people have been killed and millions more have been displaced.

When it comes to conflict, though, cause-and-effect is rarely clear-cut and sussing out the role played by something as amorphous as climate change has proved difficult.

National Geographic conducted more than 100 interviews over the past three years in the parts of Iraq overwhelmed by ISIS. Climate change consistently came up as a condition that made the invasion possible.

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The magazine is careful to describe the decades of domestic and international policies  that allowed climate change to play a triggering effect — including the Iraqi government’s focus on oil development instead of agriculture, Turkey and Iran’s damming of critical, cross-national rivers, and the US invasion of Iraq.

And it’s clear that the Iraqi military’s lack of training created a vacuum that ISIS could exploit.

But in order to fill its ranks in the preceding years, ISIS had to appeal to people. And aside from ideologues who could be won over with visions of an Islamic caliphate, they had to figure out how to recruit people less enthused by that vision.

So when weather events put farmers and traders in an economic pinch, ISIS offered a way out of poverty.

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National Geographic relates stories of day laborers laid off because a well ran dry; farmers whose eggplant farms were destroyed by powerful winds; and livestock herders who had to sell off their animals because of droughts.

For some people, employment by ISIS was all that seemed to be on offer and it shows how government efforts to mitigate both the effects of climate change and poverty can create a firewall against extremism.

“There are many stories like this; they were frustrated and just saw it as another type of work,” an Iraqi employer named Samir Saed told National Geographic.

Global Citizen campaigns on the Global Goals, which call for an end to extreme poverty and for countries to act on climate change. You can take action on these issues here.