A Thoughtful, Analytical Approach to NGO Security

Acceptance, ladders, kindness and WFP

If you read this blog regularly you undoubtedly already know of yesterday's suicide attack the the WFP office in Islamabad. If you somehow missed the news I suggest you take a look at Peter's post on the loss of five of his WFP colleagues. This brief coverage from Dawn news should also help bring you up to speed.



At this point there isn't much purpose in rehashing the copious news coverage of this tragedy but it might be worth looking for some tentative security lessons. I'm somewhat hesitant to do so for fear that it will be seen as pointing the finger of blame so I'll caveat by saying that is not my intent. I am in no way second guessing those who were forced to make difficult choices based on incomplete and often contradictory information.

No, they really don't like you...

I'm hoping this incident will finally lay to rest the persistent and dangerous myth that there is no evidence that the Taliban and other extremist groups are deliberately targeting the UN and humanitarian organizations in Pakistan. If the kidnapping of
John Solecki, the murder of his driver, the murder of Zil-e-Usman, and numerous death threats were not enough to convince perhaps these words from Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq will:

"We proudly claim the responsibility for the suicide attack at the U.N. office in Islamabad. We will send more bombers for such attacks. The U.N. and other foreign (aid groups) are not working for the interest of Muslims. We are watching their activities. They are infidels."

"The WFP is promoting the US agenda. They are silent on massacres and do not comment on killings in Waziristan and other areas."

Ladders and walls

The attack also highlights one of the limitations of passive physical security measures. As United States Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano put it, “You build a 50 foot wall, somebody will find a 51 foot ladder.”

Responding to the VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) attacks in Baghdad in 2003, Algiers in 2007 and Hargeisa in 2008 the UN increased passive security measures to deal with the new threat. Significant sums of money were spent building and strengthening blast walls, hardening buildings, installing vehicle barriers and blocking access roads. These measures would have made it much more difficult for extremists to carry out an effective VBIED attack on a UN facility.


In this case however the Taliban adapted to the increased security measures and used the equivalent of Janet's figurative 51 foot ladder, a single suicide bomber with seven or eight kilograms of explosives and ball bearings strapped to his chest. This simple change in tactics accomplished what using a larger VBIED probably would not have. Given the success of this attack we can expect similar attacks in the future.

A small act of kindness

At this early stage in the investigation it appears likely that the suicide bomber, who was wearing a Frontier Corps uniform, was let in to the WFP compound under the pretext of needing to urgently use the washroom. Critics have been quick to
lay blame on the private security company guarding the WFP compound, calling them negligent even before investigations were fully underway. While I agree to some extent I think its important to point out that there was likely simple but brilliant social engineering at play here.

There were 13 private security guards, three Frontier Corps soldiers and two police officers on duty at WFP at the time. I have little doubt that every one of them knows what its like to stand outside under the blazing sun hour after hour only to have the very people they were charged with protecting refuse to provide them water or let them have use of their washroom facilities. Add to this the fact that many private security guards are former Frontier Corps men and it's easy to understand how any one of them might have been willing to bend the rules for what to them appeared to be a brother-in-arms.

The great tragedy of this entire event is that it may have been the result of a small act of kindness. I truly hope it's not the case.

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