An ambulance that has been attacked. Humanitarian workers are often the target of kidnappings in some of the world’s most dangerous areas. Photo by: Catalina-Martin Chico / ECHO / CC BY-SA

The inherent risks facing international aid workers again came to the forefront a month ago, when a video surfaced showing ISIS militants threatening to execute David Cawthorne Haines, a 44-year-old British aid worker with Paris-based disaster relief group ACTED.

Haines was beheaded days later. His countryman and fellow humanitarian Alan Henning, a 47-year-old taxi driver working for an aid convoy in Syria, was next and a video showing his brutal murder was posted online last week. ISIS’ latest identified hostage is 26-year-old Peter Kassig, a former U.S. Army ranger who founded a nongovernmental organization for fleeing Syrian refugees. The fact that all three men were aid workers who had traveled to war-torn Syria did not surprise those versed in the dangers facing those working for such groups abroad.

Kidnapping and violence against foreign aid workers has gone from a rare horror story to an all-too-familiar refrain from those working in the world’s most dangerous locales. Even as security has improved for many aid organizations in recent years, deepening political crises in a few select hot spots stretching across the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America have made it increasingly risky for humanitarians operating in remote and unstable locations.

Given the current unrest in conflict-affected states like the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Syria, the risks to foreign aid workers are only expected to rise, according to the more than a dozen security analysts interviewed by Devex. Risk assessments for those operating in the Sahel region, the Gulf of Guinea and the Nigerian coast, as well as ongoing war zones in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, routinely advise aid groups to pack up and leave entirely.

“NGOs are accepting and assuming a lot more risk and taking on a lot of the work that governments used to do,” said John Schafer, a longtime security director in Washington, D.C. who started a consulting firm three years ago that works solely for aid organizations. “It’s forcing these aid groups to approach security more seriously and more like how corporations have approached it for years.”

Deterioration in security environment

Last year, up to 460 aid workers were involved in violent attacks abroad, and 155 of them were killed, making it the most violent year for foreign civilian aid operations on records dating back to 1997, Humanitarian Outcomes, an international consultancy for humanitarian aid groups and governments, noted in its latest report on aid worker security. The increase in attacks has been mostly due to conflicts in Syria, Sudan and South Sudan, as well as ongoing instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The majority of victims have been local staffers of iNGOs of as well as chapters of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies calls itself the “last-mile provider of aid” and says just six countries — among them Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and Syria — accounted for about 80 percent of all serious attacks on its employees.

“IFRC continues to witness a general deterioration in the security environment in many of our areas of operations, resulting in IFRC personnel and humanitarian aid workers having to operate increasingly in insecure or potentially dangerous environments,” the organization said in a statement.

In 2013, 26 IFRC employees died in the line of duty — 15 of them in Syria, where the organization has reported more deaths than any other aid group in the past 20 years, according to its own statistics.

Shootings and kidnappings remain the most common type of attack, and most occur on the road when aid workers and supplies are in transit. Through the first eight months of 2014, 76 aid workers were killed, according to the Humanitarian Outcomes report.

“What all of these cases have in common is ongoing conflict and a lack of governance in remote areas, where perpetrators can act with impunity, beyond the reach of any meaningful law enforcement,” said Abby Stoddard, a partner at Humanitarian Outcomes.

And the official numbers might be underestimating the danger in areas with weak reporting standards, a lack of data on where aid organizations are operating and a dearth of regional security coordination bodies, said Larissa Fast, an assistant professor of conflict resolution at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Restrictive measures

Many aid groups working in Afghanistan and Sudan have secure compounds and on-site security staff. Afghanistan is also the home of the Afghanistan NGO Security Office, one of the first groups to provide security services directly to NGOs. (The group merged into a larger, international umbrella group in 2011.)

But in Haiti, for example, some attacks on local staffers might go unreported altogether.

“A lot of organizations are implementing more restrictive security measures to prevent things like kidnapping,” said Fast, author of “Aid in Danger,” a book on aid worker security published in April. “But the trickle-down training hasn’t necessarily reached all of the national staff and their safety is a cause for concern because they represent the vast majority of victims.”

Among the most dangerous places for aid workers and other foreigners are North and West Africa, including the entire Sahel region, as well as the Gulf of Guinea. Since 2008, criminal gangs and militants in West Africa have specifically sought out French aid workers, contractors and tourists, according to threat assessments compiled by U.S. and British security firms, and have kidnapped dozens of other Westerners.

Over the past five years, at least one dozen French nationals have been abducted in the Sahel region, the highest number of any nationality. But the lines between nationalities are blurring, and kidnappers often know that if a government won't pay a ransom, a third-party insurer or company will.

“Experienced aid organizations know that you cannot always count on the cavalry, in this case the U.S., or another government, coming in for a rescue,” said Jack Cloonan, a retired FBI special agent and the head of special risks for Red24, a Cape Town, South Africa-based crisis management company. “They want to be prepared and there’s a serious debate going on about how best to handle these threats.”

This includes the payment of ransoms, which is discouraged by the U.S. and British governments and runs counter to a United Nations resolution, but is not specifically outlawed for aid groups, companies or many European countries.

The kidnap-for-ransom trade in northern and western Africa has faced diminishing returns for several years, as the number of tourists and aid workers has dried up and terrorist groups gravitate towards weapons and drug smuggling, explained Geoff Porter, a former assistant professor of Middle East and North African History who now runs his own security consulting firm in Algeria. Still, he said, kidnappers are now expanding their reach to points in Nigeria’s Niger Delta and farther south.

“Kidnappers have been forced further afield from their historic areas,” Porter said.

Moreover, the prospect of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb coordinating with outside terrorist groups — namely Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula in Yemen — shows the group’s expanding sphere of influence in the African and Arab worlds.

Yet another major problem is what to do to help free the captives in hostage situations. Using force is not always an effective deterrent, said Rudolph Atallah, who runs a U.S. security consulting firm and has negotiated with Somali pirates for American hostages.

“It depends on the kidnappers,” Atallah said. “Hostages are like a commodity to the kidnappers. They want to safeguard them to make money in an exchange.”

But in rare cases, he pointed out, kidnappers will kill hostages if threatened. In the five cases he’s been involved in, Atallah said a ransom payment was never made, although there have been successful rescues.

Duty of care

Despite the increasing risks facing foreigner workers following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, many of the substantive changes in aid worker security have occurred since the height of sectarian violence in Iraq in 2007. More than 1,900 nonprofit employees were killed, wounded or kidnapped while working between 2000 and 2010, and many nonprofit groups have often viewed security measures as an afterthought, researchers and security analysts say.

Aid groups have been slow to adopt sweeping security or so-called duty of care policies, which spell out an organization’s security responsibilities to its employees. All U.S. Agency for International Development contracts have safety and security requirements. Donors are also increasingly adding in provisions for worker safety when handing out grants to aid groups. But there are two things security consultants can’t control for: human error and being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

“If you break curfew or go into areas you shouldn't, we can’t mitigate that,” said Schafer, a crisis management instructor who frequently conducts trainings in Sudan, Yemen and Haiti.

In many cases, simple training can go a long way to avoiding serious injury or death. Such training may have helped reduce casualties in March 2002, when during an attack on a protestant church near the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistani militants threw live grenades into the building which was packed with foreigners. Five people were killed including two Americans.

When a grenade is thrown, there is roughly three to five seconds to react before a blast. Security experts teach aid workers to turn their backs to the grenade, lay face down and cover their ears to avoid airborne metal fragments.

“One victim that day had had training for this type of event and he avoided serious injury,” Schafer said.

A watershed event for the risks facing foreign aid workers — and their companies — occurred in 2010, when a program manager for the Christian human rights organization Samaritan’s Purse in Sudan’s volatile South Darfur region was abducted and held for 105 days by Sudanese rebels.

The hostage, Flavia Wagner, was the first woman to be held in isolation by kidnappers in Darfur, where she was subjected to mock executions and threatened with gang rape. She was released but later sued her former employer in federal court, accusing Samaritan’s Purse of failing to properly train its employees and ignoring signs of kidnapping threats.

A study of Sudanese kidnapping cases commissioned by the Wagner family found that out of 10 Westerners kidnapped, the average hostage was held for just 14 days and all had ransoms of roughly $100,000 paid.

In court-ordered testimony, attorneys for the now-shuttered security company retained by Samaritan’s Purse said it “obeyed the directions of that foreign country and the policy of the State Department.” A minimal, undisclosed ransom was indeed paid, according to federal court documents filed in the case, but it wasn’t until more than three months had passed.

Representatives of Wagner declined to comment further on the case, while attorneys for Samaritan’s Purse said it did not pay a ransom for Wagner’s release and that Wagner participated in security training prior to her deployment.

“Samaritan’s Purse ultimately entered into a settlement agreement with Ms. Wagner, which was not an admission of liability in any respect,” a lawyer for the aid group explained, adding that it denies all allegations of wrongdoing.

Wagner’s lawsuit put the entire kidnap-and-ransom insurance industry on display, security directors say. Many companies operating in dangerous locations began buying liability insurance to cover potential lawsuits from kidnapped employees. But the inherent risks facing aid workers abroad have been climbing steadily since the 1990s.

A growing business

In 1992, while working for the Red Cross in war-ravaged Sierra Leone, Michael O’Neill was caught in a fierce firefight between the African country’s army and rebels in nearby Koidu. O’Neill and his driver were taken in handcuffs by the chief rebel commander, Foday Saybana Sankoh, who led the Revolutionary United Front backed by Liberian President Charles Taylor in a brutal 11-year civil war that killed some 50,000 civilians. (Taylor has since been convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.)

After he was captured, no government or private negotiator worked on O’Neill’s behalf and he spent the next 35 days in Sankoh’s unit. Although he wasn’t harmed or threatened, it wasn’t until a BBC reporter asked Sankoh about O’Neill’s whereabouts that the Red Cross employee was allowed to go.

“After the interview, we browbeat them to release us,” O’Neill said. “We negotiated our way out and bribed people at each checkpoint.”

O’Neill, who now works as the security director for the Save the Children in Washington, D.C., says his kidnapping and lack of a proper hostage negotiation spurred a career in overseas security, a field that has exploded since the mid-1990s. He's been influential in spearheading U.S. government efforts to provide better security for foreign aid workers and insure those working in the most dangerous of locales.

“When I started in 1998, we had two people working for NGOs as security directors,” O’Neill said. “We now have upwards of 70. In 20 years, it’s completely changed.”

O’Neill and other security directors say they expect the industry to undergo even greater change in the coming years, in light of several high-profile kidnappings and deaths.

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About the authors

  • Derek Kravitz

    Derek Kravitz is a research scholar at New York’s Columbia University, working on a forthcoming book project about the Afghanistan war. In the past, Kravitz worked for The Associated Press and The Washington Post in Washington, D.C., and now in New York he’s a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and Kravitz is a former fellow at Columbia University's Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.
  • Colm O'Molloy

    Colm O'Molloy is a multi-platform journalist based in Washington D.C., where where he reports on North American stories for BBC News and other outlets. He has extensive experience of working in conflict zones, including Nigeria and Afghanistan. O'Molloy conducted extensive research into global kidnap and ransom trends as a fellow at Columbia University's Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.