The dawning of hydro-terrorism

ISIL threatens to flood downstream towns and deprive them of a resource for daily survival and irrigation.

Iraqi security forces and Shiite militiamen on the Tigris River
Iraqi security forces and militiamen on the bank of the Tigris River [AP]

The role of water in conflict in the Middle East has existed since time immemorial, but ISIL has used it to such an effect that it deserves credit for mastering “hydro-terrorism”, threatening to flood downstream towns and deprive them of a resource essential for daily survival and irrigation.   

Just two weeks ago in early June, ISIL closed the gates of a dam in the city of Ramadi, which it had captured a few weeks earlier, depriving downstream areas under Iraqi government control, of water.

In the year since, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has created its so-called Islamic State, international attention has focused disproportionately on the military aspects of the conflict, tracking the flowing and ebbing front lines, or ISIL’s use of social media technology to broadcast their banal love of Nutella , to their numerous beheadings as a means to ” shock and awe “.

However, the role of water is an important, yet neglected, aspect of the conflict. It acts as a resource to be captured, but also as a geographical factor determining where ISIL can spread militarily.

The role of water

In terms of the region, it had been forecasted that if a war would break out over water, it would be between states that share the same rivers, not non-state actors.

Forecasts for potential conflict included conflict scenarios where Turkey, which controls the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates through a network of dams, would face some armed confrontation with its downstream riparian neighbours, either Syria and/or Iraq, which are dependent on Ankara’s water flow.

One of the rationales for Syria’s Hafez al-Assad’s support for the Kurdish Workers Party   (PKK) was to use this terrorist group, which sought an independent homeland for Turkey’s Kurds in the 1980s, as a means of pressuring Ankara to increase flow of the Euphrates through Syria.

Conflicts within Iraq have also witnessed the manipulation of water for political goals.


Non-state actors have also targeted water facilities in the region. Fatah, the armed faction that would eventually take over control of the umbrella group the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), conducted its first military attack in 1964 on a diversion water-pump installation for the Israeli national water carrier – an attack that had symbolic value as the facility was diverting water away from the Palestinians. 

Conflicts within Iraq have also witnessed the manipulation of water for political goals. Following the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein ordered that water be diverted from the Iraqi marshes, a massive, swamp-like area that provided the perfect base for Iraqi rebels , as government tanks and artillery could not deploy in that terrain.

ISIL’s waterlogged origin

Even the Syrian civil war, the conflict that enabled the rise of ISIL, was linked to scarce water resources. The Syrian government’s mismanaged water policies  resulted in crop failures that led to the internal displacement of 1.5 million people from the rural countryside into urban areas, contributing to the societal stress that led to the protests and eventual civil war in 2011. The dire scarcity of water in Yemen and the ensuing displacement  of farmers has also been one of the factors that has contributed to its current conflict.

An Iraqi flag waves over the Tigris River at a checkpoint in Tikrit [AP]
An Iraqi flag waves over the Tigris River at a checkpoint in Tikrit [AP]

The geographical distribution of water facilitated the rise of ISIL, and gave it the potential of conducting hydro-terrorism: The use of water to achieve strategic and tactical aims.

ISIL is a product of the two rivers, the upper Euphrates and Tigris, which fan out in separate directions north of Baghdad, creating a landmass known as the Al-Jazira, a quasi-island enveloped by these water arteries.

ISIL’s headquarters, Raqqa, is located in the Syrian part of the Euphrates, and their first major foothold in an Iraqi urban centre was Fallujah, another Euphrates town, which came under ISIL control in January 2014. The move into Mosul and Tikrit in the summer of 2014, not only represented ISIL’s seizure of major Iraqi cities, but securing two locations on the Tigris flank of the future Islamic State.

The so-called Islamic State borders have been essentially determined first by the location of the two rivers, and second, on its the ability to rule predominantly Sunni co-religionists within Al-Jazira. Any groups deemed heterodox by ISIL in this area, such as Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims, were forcibly expelled or eliminated to create a religiously homogeneous populace within its borders.


Displaced Iraqis cross the Iraq-Syria border over   the   Tigris River [AP]
Displaced Iraqis cross the Iraq-Syria border over  the  Tigris River [AP]

As early as April 2014, a few months before its declaration of an Islamic State, ISIL attempted to manipulate dams south of its base in Fallujah as a means to flood the area where government forces were besieging the city, hindering the Iraqi military’s mobility and displacing 60,000 Iraqis from the flooded lands in the process.

ISIL also sought to manipulate the dams to create a drought downstream among the predominantly Shia cities of Najaf, Karbala, and Nasiriyah, which depend on the Euphrates for irrigation and drinking water.

When ISIL seized Mosul in June 2014, it was also feared that it would destroy the dam in its vicinity, creating a scenario where a 15-foot wall of water would crash into Baghdad, killing an estimated 500,000 people. One of the first targets in the US air campaign was ISIL targets around the dam, enabling Iraqi forces to recapture the site in August 2014.

The question remains as to why ISIL failed to destroy or manipulate the Mosul Dam, but did so in Fallujah. In this case it would have meant flooding territory ISIL hoped to conquer, and could have resulted in the deaths of their Sunni co-religionists in the process. As a proclaimed state, ISIL needs both the water and hydro-power the dam provided for areas it controlled, particularly Mosul.

Greater control

However, closing the dam in Ramadi in June proved to be a tactic that ISIL could have greater control over, depriving downstream areas of Khalidiyah and Habbaniyah, held by pro-government forces, of water.

Reducing the water level of the Euphrates granted the group greater freedom of movement to traverse water arteries, facilitating their ability to carry out attacks on government forces on the opposite bank of the Euphrates .

ISIL’s survival depends not just on its military ability, but its ability to manage resources to sustain the state and its populace, economically and environmentally. The sale of black market oil and antiquities have been extractive resources that financially maintain ISIL. 

Environmentally, providing water to those living in Mosul, combined with ISIL’s effort to improve the transportation infrastructure and municipal services of the city, according to a former Iraqi administrator, is essentially ” one of the most dangerous [ISIL] tactics yet “.

While the military campaign against ISIL remains inconclusive, ISIL has waged, and perhaps has won the battle in urban planning and water management.

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.