Athena Institute

Worldwide Terror List 2015

News & Analysis

The Price They Pay – Aid Workers as Targets of Terrorism

Relief agencies often cannot pick and choose which countries they send their employees to. Aid workers go where they are needed and these places are almost always among the most dangerous regions and countries. Peter Kassig, David Haines and Alan Henning were all murdered while carrying out humanitarian work. Their example shows just how dangerous it is to be an aid worker in the 21st century.

Aid workers travel to the most dangerous regions to offer their help to prostrated people. Working for relief agencies, international organizations or NGOs, aid workers travel to warzones, regions hit by natural disasters and epidemics. Such workers provide food, clean water, medicine and medical treatment. They also carry out rescue missions and give operational support to local rescue and relief agencies.

However, by doing the very thing they signed up for, they put themselves into immense dangers, especially if they work in war zones, refugee camps of regions plagued by violent terrorist outfits. Aid workers often become collateral damage in local conflicts, but even more often they are deliberately targeted by subnational armed groups for different reasons. Either they are seen as legitimate targets by, for instance, Jihadist groups for coming from a Western country, or they are helping people who are considered to be enemies by terrorist outfits and become stuck in the line of fire between the two sides. Either way, aid workers put their lives on the line on a daily basis and frequently become victims themselves.

There are more terrorist outfits that attack aid workers than refugee camps (app. eleven per cent versus seven per cent), but there are less that attack aid workers than journalists and media workers (app. eleven per cent versus twenty-nine per cent). Still, there is a clear and present danger when one becomes an aid worker to become a victim of a terrorist attack, especially in certain regions or particular continents.

The most dangerous continent for aid workers is Africa. Almost Forty-three per cent of groups that regularly attack (or have carried out at least one attack) against aid workers operate in African countries. There is a huge gap between Africa and the Middle East that comes second when it is about attacks against relief workers. Approximately thirty-six percent of groups that carry out attacks against such targets reside in the Middle East.
South and Southeast Asia is the third most dangerous place for relief workers. About fourteen per cent of groups that target them are headquartered in these two regions, whilst there is one major terrorist network that operates worldwide and attacks aid workers or other members of relief agencies, al-Qaeda.

Other groups that carry out violent acts against people who try to help the locals include al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in the DR of Congo and previously Rwanda, al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Jundallah in Iran, Ansar al-Dine in Mali, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the Philippines, the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) or – as it is widely known – the Pakistani Taliban, al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, the DR of Congo and other countries in the region.

slamist Jihadist groups stand out when it comes to attacks on aid workers. More than seventy-one per cent of terrorist outfits that target relief agencies and aid workers follow some kind of Jihadist ideology and agenda, followed by nationalist groups (fourteen per cent), Christian fundamentalist groups (app. seven per cent) and separatist groups (also app. seven per cent).

These pieces of data show that aid workers should be extremely cautious and wary if they work in certain regions of Africa, where Islamist groups operate. These regions include the Maghreb, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the central regions of the continent.
Groups in the Middle East are more concentrated to certain countries. Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Iraq should be considered as high risk countries for relief workers to travel to; whilst Pakistan and the Philippines in South and Southeast Asia are the two most dangerous countries for aid workers to work in.

Relief agencies often cannot pick and choose which countries they send their employees to. Aid workers go where they are needed and these places are almost always among the most dangerous regions and countries. Hence, they should exercise extra caution when they travel to the aforementioned areas and states, otherwise they might become victims of terrorism, killed, abducted for ransom or executed on video for propaganda purposes like Peter Kassig, David Haines and Alan Henning who were executed by ISIS.