A Fatal Necessity: The Weaponization Of Water By Terrorists

“In this world, nothing is softer or more yielding than water. Yet, dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing surpasses it. The soft overcomes the hard, the gentle overcomes the rigid.”

In his book Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu reminds us that although water appears fragile, it can have a powerful destructive force. As a vital resource for mankind, human activities rely heavily on water infrastructure. Access to water was recognized as a fundamental right for humanity during the Second Global Summit for Water in 2000 and the 2023 UN Water Conference has developed the Water Action Agenda to address global water challenges. Almost 1,500 years ago, Rome experienced the cutting-off of its major aqueducts by the Goths during a siege. Nowadays, terrorists are weaponizing water to achieve their goals. In other words, water has been shown to be a useful tool for strategic and tactical plans to terrorize, poison, kill or contaminate, especially because the strength of the “blue gold” constitutes its weakness: there is no substitute for it. In line with this, this article aims to explore the concept of “hydroterrorism” and its application, specifically the weaponization of water by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq between 2014 and 2019.

The threat of hydroterrorism has gained increasing interest from scholars, international organizations, governments, and scientists in recent years, with water becoming a means to terrorize a whole nation”. Hydroterrorism should be distinguished from other forms of terrorism such as cyberterrorism, nuclear terrorism, or bioterrorism. Hydroterrorism encompasses all techniques intended to massively destroy by using water for terrorist ends, in order to destabilize the human security of targeted populations. This type of action is characteristic of the “Religious wave” of terrorism according to David Rapoport, which began in 1979, “the beginning of a new century according to the Muslim calendar”. The key difference with this fourth wave of terrorism is that irregularity has become a major and permanent feature of contemporary warfare”, thus leading to an irregular, asymmetrical, and total war against the terrorists. Terrorists are faced with inferior power compared to the state-power they are fighting against and therefore try to compensate for their deficiencies by using unconventional means of combat and prolonging the conflict through a clandestine war of attrition against a better-equipped enemy. All these factors explain this trend toward the rudimentarization of means of warfare, notably the weaponization of water. Hydroterrorists mortify the few vital resources through disproportionate offensive, completely disregarding jus in bello.  Indeed, the terrorist strategy of weaponizing water targets both the civilian population and military personnel.

However, it is important to note that the ultimate goal of terrorists is not necessarily to purposefully target civilian populations, as they need the support and adherence of these populations to their ideology. Instead, the weaponization of water serves to destabilize the security balance of states by targeting critical water infrastructure and natural sources that have a major impact on the economy, society, environment, and health of a nation. For example, the use of water as a weapon in Syria and Iraq has been a strategic move employed by the Islamic State to further their political objectives, particularly in view of establishing their caliphate by subjugating the local population. On one hand, they have utilized a deprivation strategy by restricting or denying access to water, such as during the capture of the Ramadi Dam in May 2015, which resulted in depriving the agriculturally fertile Shiite province of Babil of its vital water resources. On the other hand, the Islamic State also employed an inundation strategy by releasing a substantial amount of water on Syrian and Iraqi territories. For instance, just two days after capturing the Ramadi Dam, they diverted the lower reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to flood the valley between Falluja and Abu Ghraid. This tactic resulted in the displacement of thousands of people, causing significant damage to property and infrastructure.

Water weaponization was also employed by the Islamic State for tactical purposes to undermine the fighting capacity of their opponents. This tactic was exemplified by the deprivation of water to Khalidiyah and Habbaniyah, both populated with pro-Iraqi government forces. Furthermore, the tactical use of water as a weapon for inundation purposes was implemented in the form of flood waves to impede the advance of Iraqi troops. In the Diyala Governorate, the flooding of villages by the IS disrupted the efforts of the Iraqi soldiers. Finally, the IS’ weaponization of water has also been characterized by coercion, exploiting people’s fear of water deprivation, often resulting in individuals joining the IS camp in exchange for secure water supply and, in turn, their lives. For that end, IS groups had developed considerable deprivation operations such as the one in the surrounding Iraqi villages of Mosul and Tikrit, in June 2014. A few days later, they offered discount prices to all Sunnite people in re-establishing the water supply.

In my opinion, as water itself can become a weapon, states must adopt prudence and prevention as real counterterrorism strategies. The weaponization is so systematic that sometimes different forms of water weaponization require tailored prevention strategies and responses. Counterterrorism policies in such context should be both operational with highly maneuverable rapid reaction teams with air support to protect all critical water infrastructure and relies on intelligence to prevent any attack and locate vulnerable sites with geospatial and hydrological information. Moreover, after the attacks, the military, civil international and non-governmental organizations should prevent the terrorists from taking control of the damaged or destroyed water infrastructure. Therefore, it is necessary to reinforce the control of critical water infrastructure to prevent terrorist attacks and to protect the population from the denial of a vital resource for mankind.

Water, a seemingly harmless resource, has become a critical challenge in countering terrorism. As stated by Pierre de Senarclens, the weaponization of water in Syria and Iraq has overcome the “limits of the political and strategic unthinkable”. Terrorists have exploited the existing water scarcity to inflict psychological damage on the population. The use of water as a weapon can be categorized into three types: tactical, strategic, and coercive, which often combine inundation or deprivation operations. These unconventional techniques of warfare have proven that mere power is now insufficient in countering terrorist threats, necessitating the need for counterterrorism policies to adapt to these irregular, asymmetric, and total wars waged by terrorists. Therefore, it is necessary to reinforce the control of critical water infrastructure to prevent terrorist attacks and to protect the population from the denial of a vital resource for mankind.


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