A combination of climate change and poor environmental practices have made forest fires into a diabolical threat in the American West, with this year ranking among the worst in decades. Scientific experts have pointed to climate change as an exacerbating factor in wildfires like those that hit California this summer and fall. At the same time, on the political right, unfounded rumors have spread blaming leftist arson for the fires.
For many years, however, law enforcement agencies chattering with each other behind the scenes have been on the lookout for an even more dramatic potential cause of forest fires in the U.S.: terrorists waging a global “forest jihad.”
Law enforcement documents obtained by The Intercept show that fears of a “forest jihad” have been on the mind of U.S. law enforcement agencies for a long time, stoked by extremist propaganda and periodically echoed by foreign adversaries. Part of a trove of documents dubbed “BlueLeaks” that was hacked from so-called fusion centers — regional clearinghouses coordinated by the federal government for the purposes of sharing information — and published by the transparency collective Distributed Denial of Secrets, the documents show how post-9/11 paranoia about forests burned through U.S. law enforcement agencies and distracted from the real threats now at hand.
The notion of setting forest fires, or arson generally, as a terrorist strategy has made a few appearances in extremist propaganda. But, despite periodic calls over the years, the threat of terrorists burning down American forests never seems to have actually materialized — while other, more common threats have persisted.
Experts in environmental security and climate advocates, for their part, said serious concerns about “forest jihads” have never gotten on their radar. “I had never heard the term ‘forest jihad’ before, which isn’t to say no one has ever thought of it. People have used fire as a weapon against each other ever since we learnt how to make fire,” said Rolf Skar, forest campaign director for Greenpeace USA. “But there are lots of cases of arson in forests every year that don’t have a political motive, including from campfires and logging industry practices.”
Geoff Dabelko, an expert on environmental security and associate dean at the Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, said forestry experts rarely deal with potential terrorist attacks. “I have not heard forestry scenarios outside the FBI’s often politicized and over-hyped focus on domestic environmental groups like Earth First that spike trees to prevent cutting or set fire to infrastructure within forests,” Dabelko said. “I also have not heard of the term ‘jihad’ associated with any U.S. government or researcher efforts” into wildfires.
A 2014 academic paper published in the United Kingdom did evaluate very seriously whether “forest jihad” had ever indeed taken place in the West. After exhaustive research, the authors concluded that evidence of such attacks was lacking. “[T]here is little substantive evidence to suggest that jihadists are carrying out acts of ‘forest jihad’ in the United States or in those Western European countries most prone to wildfires,” the study said, adding that “there is also no evidence to suggest that there is any systematic relationship between wildfire activity and areas where known jihadists have been based.”
A half-dozen documents in the BlueLeaks trove dealt specifically with “forest jihad,” while many more discussed generally possible terrorist threats to forests. One February 2009 fusion center report from the Washington Regional Threat and Analysis Center, in Washington, D.C., was titled “Possibility of ‘Forest Jihad’?” The document cited a report from Fox News speculating about whether recent fires in Greece and Australia had been set by terrorists and whether “forest jihad” could soon be coming to the United States.
Another report published the same month by a fusion center in Minnesota cited the same Fox News article and warned, “Jihadist attacking natural resources could instill new terror ideas in other areas like the food supply chain. Also, these wildfires could cause a regional strain on resources and availability for other responses.” (In response to an inquiry directed to the fusion center, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety declined to comment, saying, “We will not respond to questions based on illegally obtained documents that contain law enforcement sensitive information.” Other fusion centers and law enforcement offices contacted for this story did not respond to requests for comment.)
The 2009 report cautioned law enforcement to “remain vigilant and immediately report any suspicious activity” related to so-called forest jihad.
The term “forest jihad” itself seems to have been popularized by a 2008 article published by a retired Israeli colonel, Jonathan Fighel, on the website of an Israeli counterterrorism research institute. Fighel’s article stated that, in Israel’s conflicts with Lebanon and Palestinians, fires deliberately set by militants damaged Israeli forests and cropland. Rather than being an inevitable result of irregular warfare and shelling, Fighel suggested, the damage suffered to Israeli agriculture during its wars was part of a deliberate terrorist-led “forest jihad,” with global connotations.
“’Forest Jihad’ (forest arson) is one manifestation of the ‘Economic Jihad’ tactics, a tool in a variety of options to cause economic direct and indirect secondary damages,” Fighel wrote, raising the specter that “forest jihad” is part of a broader set of boutique jihads being waged by terrorists against Western countries. Fighel went on to specify that “the radical Islamic logic in setting fires is regarded beneficial for several aspects that have strategic implications.”
Fighel’s attempt to connect Israeli national security history with the phenomenon of global lone-wolf terrorism was poorly reasoned on many counts. But his arguments seem to have resonated in some quarters of U.S. law enforcement. An October 2018 report from the California State Threat Assessment Center warned of the threat of “forest jihad,” citing Fighel’s article as a source. The report, found in the BlueLeaks trove, also included notes on a then-20-year-old woman accused of terrorism after setting fires on a university campus in Minnesota. The report related the alleged arson attack to the Israel-Palestine conflict and “HAMAS’ recent use of ‘fire kites’ to set fires in Israel” as examples of “FTOs” — foreign terrorist organizations — using arson as a tactic. (The Minnesota woman pleaded guilty in federal court to material support for terrorism and, after initially being found incompetent then having her diagnosis upgraded, faces arson charges in Ramsey County, Minnesota, court.)
Starting forest fires as a tactic has been mentioned a handful of times over the years in propaganda magazines and videos issued by international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and, more recently, the Islamic State, which again endorsed arson in a short video this summer.
These online publications and videos often seek to encourage potential lone wolves to conduct acts of violence in the West, however minor they may be. In the past, terrorist groups have encouraged people to build their own bombs, run pedestrians over with cars, or even hit people and spit in their faces — no jihad is too small, the thinking goes. The idea of starting forest fires has also been thrown out on a handful of occasions, part of an apparent kitchen-sink approach to suggesting possible attacks to supporters.
A fear of foreign attack against American forests goes deep into U.S. history. During World War II, there were fears that Japanese aircraft might try and ignite West Coast forests with firebombs, a fear that helped create “Smokey Bear” as a symbol of national vigilance during wartime.
Contemporary terrorists never apparently tried to carry out such an attack, but they were effective at exploiting the deep historical paranoia of U.S. law enforcement agencies about such an attack against forests — a fear that other foreign adversaries of the United States were glad to exploit.
“If law enforcement were to step up in enforcing existing regulations, it’d go a long way to stopping the fires that we’re seeing each year. Start with something simple, get the basics right.”
After a summer of wildfires in European Union countries in 2012, a Russian security official claimed that the fires had been set by Islamic extremists as part of a jihadi strategy. The claim, unsupported by evidence, was met with derision by Russian and European environmentalists. But the notion fell on more receptive ears in the United States. A 2012 report from California’s Orange County Sheriff’s Department directly cited the Russian government claim to warn of a looming threat to local forests. “Although there have not been any wildfires in the U.S. attributed to al-Qaeda related activity, the Russian Federal Security Service has accredited this last year’s widespread forest fires throughout the European Union to an al-Qaeda tactic called, ‘forest jihad,’” the report stated, starkly warning to stay on guard against the threat.
The theory has engendered controversy elsewhere. Earlier this year, with wildfires engulfing Australia, a 12-year-old Brisbane Times article about the possibility of “forest jihad” began to circulate online. But the publisher of the article, according to a conservative blog, took it down once it began to recirculate. In recounting the deletion of the story, the conservative blog, Caldron Pool, appended its own note to the top of its post: “Authorities have given no indication that the current bushfires are the result of terrorist activity.”
Although some self-styled terrorism experts have periodically raised the possibility of hidden “forest jihadis” behind new forest fires, experts say that manmade climate change is the primary driver behind this deadly phenomenon. Even in the best-case scenarios, it is expected that these fires will become more severe in the years to come, threatening the lives of millions living in the American West. The threat of climate change appears to be far more severe threat than the “forest jihad” that law enforcement and experts on international terrorism have spent years contemplating.
“If law enforcement were to step up in enforcing existing regulations, it’d go a long way to stopping the fires that we’re seeing each year,” said Skar of Greenpeace USA. “Start with something simple, get the basics right.”