Environmental terrorism and acts of "ecocide" present catastrophic threats in Iraq and around the world.
The United States spends untold billions of dollars on terrorism preparedness and attempts to prevent loss of life. In war zones around the world, the United Nations and dozens of countries throw money and people at maintaining order, preventing terrorism and diminishing the effects of war and violence. These are, obviously, important things to do, but according to a paper in the journal Global Environmental Politics, we might be dangerously ignoring the potential for an environmental terrorist attack with catastrophic consequences.
According to the paper's authors, Ali Mohamed Al-Damkhi and Rana Abdullah Al-Fares: "The increasing likelihood and potential scope of sudden, politically-motivated acts of environmental destruction creates another layer of concern beyond the already-problematic effects of gradual environmental degradation caused by unsustainable expansion."
In the first Gulf War in 1991, the retreating Iraqi army set almost 700 oil wells on fire, and eventually caused a spill into the Arabian Gulf of more than 20 times the amount of oil spilled from the Exxon-Valdez. It took eight months to put the fires out. In the Vietnam War, the US sprayed millions of gallons of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange on up to 20 percent of the country's jungle, with devastating human health and environmental effects. The history of environmental terrorism is long and brutal.
The current war in Iraq, according to the paper's authors, presents an unprecedented risk of large-scale environmental attacks. Since 2003, more than 500 attacks on oil installations have been carried out, with varying degrees of success; many times these have resulted in incidental spills of oil and contaminants into waterways and soil. Still, there are targets that to this point remain untouched that represent ecological time bombs; oil infrastructure near the Tigris and Euphrates river, in particular, would have devastating impacts if compromised in an attack.
"The complex political situation in Iraq leaves much uncertainty as to who would have the will and resources to orchestrate a response to a sudden environmental catastrophe," wrote the authors, Ali Mohamed Al-Damkhi and Rana Abdullah Al-Fares, both of Kuwait. "For all of these reasons, Iraq stands as one of the most likely and worrisome potential sites for sudden environmental destruction in the world today."
Preventing environmental terrorism
Preventing environmental terrorism, in Iraq and elsewhere, should be more of a priority than it is, they argue. The steps recommended to achieve that goal, though, do seem mildly naive: step one is to not have wars at all. Well, yes. That would help.
They also promote education and environmental ethics, as well as development of international laws, as methods of avoiding terrorist acts against nature. "It should be clear, then, that educational initiatives emphasizing the ethics of Islam can be a valuable way to inhibit any support for actions of environmental terrorism in this region," Al-Damkhi and Al-Fares wrote.
More specifically, they noted that the Qur'an espouses attitudes of "reverence toward nature," and that if such ideas could spread through the region then the potential for decidedly non-reverential terrorist acts might diminish. Again, this seems somewhat naive; generally speaking, religions and cultural traditions don't advocate destruction of nature or people, but that hasn't stopped war and ecological devastation from occurring in the past.
There is some good news, though. First of all, it is notable that in the Iraq war there have been no specific environmentally motivated attacks, like the oil well destruction in 1991 or the Agent Orange "ecocide" of the 1960s and 1970s. Secondly, even al-Qaeda appears to recognize the damage that can be done to nature and those living in it. In 2006 the group circulated a document that actually said the following:
“Harms caused by targeting oil wells in the lands of Muslims outweigh the benefits because of the health and environmental damages.”
Good to see they're engaging in some risk-benefit analysis. Of course, in that same document, they do endorse targeting of tankers and pipelines; but the wells are off limits, okay?
Still, this paper's message is a good one: environmental terrorism might seem to take second place behind all that bloody death and destruction that wars and terrorist attacks can generate, but better to not sleep on it. After all, Agent Orange targeted jungles, but it also killed 400,000 people.