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Published: December 22, 2015

The Jihadist Threat to INGO Aid Workers

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This brief article examines the current state of the jihadist threat to INGOs, particularly those linked to Britain and France, following November’s Paris attacks as well as the implications of the UK’s subsequent commencement of an overt military campaign in Syria. The article was prepared by DHClamp Consulting Ltd.


INGO workers have long been at risk of kidnap or collateral involvement in attacks in areas where jihadist groups operate. However, al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) had previously viewed violent attacks on aid workers as being counterproductive, particularly given the risk of alienating local Muslims who are supportive of INGO activities. Indeed, despite repeated killings of INGO staff by the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, both Osama bin Laden and his successor as leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, publicly cautioned against attacks that risked undermining local support for jihadists.

However, there have been exceptions, most notably the December 2007 and August 2011 bombings of the UN headquarters in Algiers and Abuja. The attacks struck perceived symbols of international support for the Algerian and Nigerian regimes, rather than projects benefitting local people. The consequent publicity for the jihadist cause in those countries was viewed by militant commanders as outweighing any negative reporting. IS adopted this same view as it sought to move away from al-Qaeda when the two groups split, following IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a so-called Islamic Caliphate in June 2014.

Investigations into the 13 November Paris attacks focused on the presence of a network of active IS members in the francophone countries of Europe, many with experience of fighting in Syria. Assertive foreign policy under President François Hollande, which has continued since the Paris attacks, has raised significantly the jihadist desire to strike French interests – both in metropolitan France and elsewhere. This was shaped first by French involvement in the 2011 intervention in the Libyan civil war and later the French-led military intervention in northern Mali in 2013, although the French government also supported operations in Afghanistan, Somalia and more recently Iraq. French domestic politics, and particularly an insistence on the promotion of secularism, also drives anti-French sentiment amongst jihadist sympathisers. This was demonstrated with the Charlie Hebdo attack and the other associated incidents around the same time.

The presence of significant numbers of INGOs in Muslim-majority areas of francophone West Africa means that they come under particular threat. This risk has been seen in repeated abductions by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and affiliated groups, and more recently in the 20 November attack on a hotel in the Malian capital Bamako, in which 170 people were held hostage and 19 killed by al-Mourabitoun, an AQIM offshoot. Inevitably, both foreign and local INGO employees are vulnerable in such attacks, as has been demonstrated by further incidents targeting INGOs in Yemen. Kenya and Somalia are also areas of significant risk, given the wider anti-French sentiment, French hostage rescues and special operations targeting al-Shabaab’s leadership. Regardless, despite security-awareness training generally being rolled out to both expat and local staff, there is an opportunity to refresh skills of those staff employed locally or deployed for extended periods.

The British Parliament’s vote authorising the UK to join the coalition of nations conducting air strikes against IS in Syria was followed within hours by the first of such attacks – against IS-controlled oil infrastructure. British jets have been conducting similar missions against IS interests in Iraq since 30 September 2014 and they were preceded by months of surveillance. The difference between the UK involvement in Syria and Iraq is that the latter has been at Baghdad’s request, while the Assad regime has demanded coordination with foreign efforts, only calling on Russia and Iran to conduct armed actions in its support.

IS had been threatening the UK and where possible killing British nationals before September 2014 and has continued since. The UK Parliamentary vote and subsequent British military action in Syria reinforces IS’s existing desire to strike UK interests. The direct threat from IS to British-linked INGOs has therefore changed little as a consequence and remains extremely high. That said, the publicity surrounding the vote may increase the indirect threat from IS sympathisers – although such attacks are more likely to be focused in UK territory than on INGOs’ local operations.

Nonetheless, British air strikes over Syria certainly give IS a greater incentive to be seen to act against the UK. IS may also connect the October 2014 shootings at Parliament Hill in the Canadian capital Ottawa with the new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s subsequent promise to end Canada’s involvement in the air campaign against it, in the hope that the UK could be similarly pressurised – however this appears unlikely given that the next British election will not be held until 2020.

Sources and Background Reading

Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, http://www.dni.gov/index.php/resources/bin-laden-bookshelf?start=1

Twin Bombs Kill Dozens in Algiers, New York Times, 12 December 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/12/world/africa/12algiers.html?_r=0

Abuja attack: Car bomb hits Nigeria UN building, BBC News, 27 August 2011, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-14677957

Sunni rebels declare new ‘Islamic caliphate’, Al Jazeera and agencies, 30 June 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/06/isil-declares-new-islamic-caliphate-201462917326669749.html

Charlie Hebdo attack: Three days of terror, BBC News, 14 January 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-30708237

Mali hotel hostage situation over as UN troops report seeing 27 bodies, The Guardian, 20 November 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/20/gunmen-take-hostages-radisson-hotel-mali-bamako

Yemen ‘extremely fragile’ for aid workers, Red Cross says after kidnap, Al Arabiya News, 2 December 2015, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2015/12/02/Yemen-extremely-fragile-for-aid-workers-Red-Cross-says-after-kidnap-.html

RAF Tornado jets in Cyprus for Iraq aid mission, BBC News, 12 August 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28758370

Profile of British hostage David Haines, BBC News, 14 September 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29086517

Parliament Hill attack that ‘shook Canada’s faith in its safety and security’ voted news story of 2014, National Post, 25 December 2014, http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/parliament-hill-attack-that-shook-canadas-faith-in-its-safety-and-security-voted-news-story-of-year

Canada to withdraw fighter jets from Syria and Iraq strikes, BBC News, 21 October 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-34589250


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