Natural Disaster as Cover for Terrorism

After reports from Israel stating that many of the current fires in the country were arson and/or terrorist attacks it got me thinking, is there a history of terrorists or terrorist organizations taking advantage of natural disasters? To me, it seems like a no-brainer, hit the country or affected area while its already down. The government is already diminished and putting its resources and man-power to the disaster recovery. This alone should reduce the cost of conducting acts of terror thus making an attack more effective and plausible. For a terrorist organization, there are many benefits to conducting an attack while the government is diminished or overwhelmed.

There are different ways terrorist can take advantage of a natural disaster. The primary windows of opportunity are either during or following the event itself.  Historically, the latter occurs. This appears to be primarily due to the nature of natural disasters, we do not always know when they will occur nor do we know how devastating they will be – neither do terrorist. The recent wildfires and suspected arsons in Israel provide the potential for the former option, conducting attacks during the natural disaster to occur. Israel was primed for these attacks given the current climate conditions and the capacity of Israel’s firefighting services.  All that was needed was a wildfire that could not be controlled.  

According to Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, at the time of writing this article (Sunday, November 27, 2016) 23 individuals are in custody on suspicion for arson or incitement related the recent wild fires. The wildfires burned for days, led to the evacuation of at least 75,000 people from Haifa, and resulted in a global response to fight the flames throughout the entire country. The fires were able to spread due to abnormally dry conditions and strong winds. Official estimates from Israel states that nearly half of the fires were arson or due to negligence. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started, “any fire caused by arson or incitement to arson is terrorism in every sense of the word, and we will treat it as such.” It should be noted that the media and many politicians interpreted this as Arab or Palestinian terror and did not include Jewish, Zionist, or other forms of terror leading to tensions throughout society.

For the purposes of this analysis let’s assume some of the fires in Israel were politically motivated arsons, in other words, terror attacks. Is there a history of terrorist or terrorist organizations utilizing natural disasters to conduct attacks? Is there a relationship between terrorism and natural disasters?

According to a 2011 Rand Corporation Working Paper, “on average, an increase in deaths from natural disasters of 25,000 leads to an increase in the following year of approximately 33 percent in the number of deaths from terrorism”. Meaning, in the years following a natural disaster, the effectiveness or the number of terrorist attacks increases. For example, the study found that acts of terror increased in Thailand and Sri Lanka following the 2004 Tsunami. A similar result occurred following the 1976 earthquake and in Guatemala and the 1986 typhoons in the Philippines.

In another Rand Corporation essay, Vulnerable States: Investigating Terrorism in the Wake of Natural Disasters, Jordan Ostwald notes that terrorist organizations may try to gain legitimacy by providing relief services were the government fails to do so. This occurred following the 2010 Pakistan monsoons that affected over 20 million people. It was reported that the Pakistani Taliban provided relief efforts to affected peoples and areas while also conducting terrorist attacks throughout the country. There are other examples of this as well.

Both studies refer to terrorism that occurred following a natural disaster, a situation in which the terrorist or terrorist organization takes advantage of a weakened or overwhelmed government. But this doesn’t address possible instances when terrorist actively used an occurring natural disaster to conduct terrorist attacks. If the apparent arsons in Israel are indeed acts of terror they would appear to be the first-time terrorist used a natural disaster as to conduct acts of terror, a truly innovative feat. This method requires the right conditions to be plausible and successful and the recent wildfires provided those conditions. This could open a new frontier for terrorism, one that can be harder to counter or even detect. I leave it to you, the readers, what do you think?