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.

Update on kidnapped Greek aid worker

Kalash children

A 12 member jirga left Chitral yesterday for Afghanistan’s Nuristan province in an effort to secure the safe release of kidnapped aid worker Athanasios Lerounis. Lerounis was kidnapped on 8 September from his room in the Bumboret Valley.

According to the police they have “... credible reports that the Greek national has been sifted to Nuristan.” A local shepherd is reported to have witnessed a group of men taking a foreigner to a location in Afghanistan near the AfPak border. In addition police have arrested a Nuristani man suspected of being involved in the case. He is a close relative of the guide who is suspected of having helped the kidnappers move Lerounis to Nuristan.

This incident highlights the strengths and weaknesses of acceptance as an NGO security strategy. Lerounis’s acceptance by the local community did not prevent the murder of his police guard. Nor did it protect him from being kidnapped by those elements, criminal or Taliban, who live outside local societal norms. Community acceptance may however prove crucial during efforts to secure Lerounis’s safe release. Kalash community members have been actively working to secure his release. Besides the formation of the jirga mentioned above community members have assisted police in their investigations and are bringing pressure on the government to work quickly and effectively in regaining Lerounis’s freedom.

[Photo credit: Simon Taylor]

Greek aid worker kidnapped in Pakistan

Kalash woman and child
Kalash woman and child-- courtesy Gul Hamaad Farooqi

Unidentified gunmen kidnapped a Greek national from his room in the Bumboret Valley, Chitral, after killing one of his guards and injuring another early yesterday morning. The man was sleeping in his room inside the Kalash House museum when up to twenty armed men broke in and forced him to accompany them at gunpoint. The assailants also seized a local Kalash teacher, identified as Ajmeer Kalash, but quickly abandoned him after they tied him to a pillar.

The Greek man, identified in some reports as Athunasius, had been living and working in the Bumboret Valley since 1995. He was supervising the construction of the Kalash House museum and primary school where he also volunteered as a teacher. The project is funded by small Greek NGO and is intended to help preserve and promote the unique Kalash culture. During his time in the valley Athunasius also helped establish two primary schools and three maternity centres.

Note: The local media does not seem to be any better at handling Greek names than I am. Local reports have reported the victim as being Athanasee Laironaise, Lerunis Athuanisis, or simply Athunasius.

While Chitral is generally considered peaceful, it does border the conflict-plagued Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. An Afghan government adviser visiting the region was kidnapped last year. Two years ago unidentified gunmen murdered a Spanish national and his Pakistani servant at their residence in the Bumboret Valley.

Bumboret Museum
The museum in Bumboret

UN staffer killed in apparent kidnapping attempt in Pakistan

On 16 July 2009, gunmen killed Zil-e-Usman, a Pakistani working for UNHCR, just outside the agency's field office at Kacha Gari refugee camp, near Peshawar. According to UN and Pakistani officials the incident appears to have been a botched kidnapping attempt.

Usman (59) had worked for the UN for 30 years. A guard at the IDP camp was also killed.

The Kacha Garhi IDP camp mainly hosts Pakistani’s uprooted by the ongoing fighting between Pakistani forces and Taliban militants in the Bajaur tribal area.

Four aid workers killed in Pakistan

According to Pakistani television reports four aid workers with USAID funded Rise International were killed by gunmen in the Kund Bangla area of Shinkiary near Mansehra, Pakistan, on 6 April 2009. The gunmen fired upon the agency vehicle killing the three female staff. The body of their driver was found nearby.

The victims of the attack were identified as:

Sadaf Yar Muhammad - social mobiliser
Anjum Zeb - assistant education officer
Naeema Kausar - teacher
Saifullah - driver

According to a Rise International spokesman the four were returning to Mansehra from Kund Bangla when they were attacked. Their team had been in Kund Bangla to encourage local parents to send their children, especially girls, to school.

Although no culprits have been identified by police suspicion falls on Pakistani Taliban associated militants who object to education for girls. Conservative elements in the region object to the rapid pace of social change brought by NGOs and others since the 2005 Kashmir earthquake.

Update: Local sources have indicated that Sadaf Yar Muhammad was the only victim working for Rise International. The other two women worked for the local education board. Local papers are now reporting that the incident may be the result of a domestic violence case.

Vacancy - Regional Security Advisor - Afghanistan/Pakistan

NRC seeks a regional NGO security advisor for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

More details

Two MSF staff killed in Pakistan


According to MSF two of their medical staff were killed during fighting in Swat district, Pakistan on Sunday 1 February 2009. The two staff were on their way to collect casualties of the heavy fighting when their clearly marked ambulances were fired upon in Charbagh.

Riaz Ahmad (24) and Nasar Ali (27) were killed in the attack. An MSF volunteer was also injured in the attack. The drivers of both ambulances escaped injury.

Attacks on independent medical staff strike me as extremely myopic. You might deprive your enemy of medical care but you also deprive yourself, your colleagues, and your community of the same care.

For more on attacks on aid workers in 2009 check out the aid worker fatalities map.

UNHCR officer kidnapped, driver killed in Quetta

On 2 February, unidentified gunmen kidnapped UNHCR sub-office Chief John Soloki from the Chaman Housing area in Quetta, Pakistan. The gunmen opened fire on his vehicle as he was leaving for work in the morning killing his driver.

Vacancy - Regional Security Advisor - Afghanistan/Pakistan

NRC is looking for a regional security advisor to cover the challenging countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Updated: Gunmen Kill American Aid Worker and Driver in Peshawar

Gunmen shot and killed an American aid worker and his driver in Peshawar, Pakistan on Wednesday 12 November. The men were killed near their office in the University Town area. The names of the victims have not been officially released pending notification of next of kin but local television channels are reporting the victim as Stephen Devency.

The American reportedly worked for the FATA Development Program, a USAID funded coalition of humanitarian organizations.

Update: The NYT has identified the murdered American as Steve Vance of the Co-operative Housing Foundation (CHF). The Tehrik-i-Taliban, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, has claimed responsibility for the murders.


American Aid Worker Shot Dead
US aid worker killed in Pakistan

Ahmed Rashid on Afghanistan and Pakistan

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid discusses the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan with Charlie Rose. This video is a timely summary of the region’s difficulties.

Vacancy - Regional NGO Security Advisor - Afghanistan/Pakistan

The Norwegian Refugee Council has a position for a Regional Security Advisor for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

More Cartoons and More Threats

A Norwegian newspaper recently published a drawing of a man with Turban, having his clothes open and displaying a t-shirt with the text: "I am Mohammed, no one dares to print me”. The artist says that the half naked caricature represents the naked face of terrorism. However, it is fairly obvious that others may interpret the cartoon differently.
The drawing seems to be circulating quickly on Arabic websites. 

In an apparently unrelated, but likely synergistic threat, AQ seems to include Norway as well as other EU countries on its target list as the story below highlights.

NGOs would be wise to monitor the situation closely. Any indicator of negative reactions to the new cartoon should be taken seriously and any necessary risk reduction and mitigation measures implemented.

Afghanistan Maps

If you need a little cartographic assistance to help you make sense of Afghanistan, Somalia, or world wide opium production, you should check out the Senlis Council’s map page. The maps also make great orientation graphics for senior level decision makers, VIP visitors, and others with short attention spans.

Islamabad Bomb Damages Local NGO

The building of a local NGO, Devolution Trust for Community Empowerment, was damaged in an apparent VBIED attack on the Danish Embassy in Islamabad. Dozens of its staff were reported to have been injured by flying glass. A spokesperson for the NGO said that the organization had been concerned about their location across the street from the embassy.

Kidnapped Aid Workers Released in Pakistan

On 17 May, Taliban fighters operating in Mohmand Agency, Pakistan, released four employees of two NGOs. The four were kidnapped by the Taliban on 23 April.

The aid workers were reportedly released after a local Peace Jirga facilitated talks between the Pakistani government and the Taliban.

Kidnapped UN Workers Released in Pakistani Raid

The Globe and Mail "Talking to the Taliban"

"Talking to the Taliban" is a unique look at the attitudes and motivations of the 'average' rank and file Taliban fighter. This six part video series is based on standardized interviews of 42 Taliban insurgents conducted in five districts of Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Topics of discussion ranged from their motivations for fighting, their world view, relations with Pakistan and their views on suicide bombing. This is a view of the Taliban that is stripped of the myth, mystique and misunderstanding.

globeandmail.com: Talking to the Taliban

Pakistan: Shifting Targets?

Islamabad Bomb Kills Turkish Aid Worker

On Saturday, a bomb blast at the Luna Caprese Italian restaurant killed a Turkish aid worker and wounded eleven others. According to reports a British diplomat and the Italian owner of the restaurant were among the injured.

It appears that the bomb was planted in the outdoors eating area and was not the work of a suicide bomber. Luna Caprese was popular with expats as it was one of the few restaurants in Islamabad to serve alcohol.

Time has more details here.

Vacancy - UN Security Officer - Pakistan

There is a security officer vacancy with UNICEF in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Four Killed in Attack on NGO Office in Pakistan

Jobs - Security - Kenya and Pakistan

Save the Children is looking for a Safety and Security Coordinator for Kenya. Given the recent rapid deterioration in the security environment in Kenya this should prove to be a challenging position.
Ref: 4458

CHF International is seeking a Security Manager for Pakistan. The position is based in Peshawar and requires experience working in the FATA region of Pakistan.
Tracking Code: 1460

Christina Lamb - Flak Jackets and Suicide Attacks

Christina Lamb is interesting in her own right but that's not why I think you should watch this video. Its worth watching it just for her short description of what it is like to be in a survivor of suicide attack. I firmly believe in visualization as a tool for preparing people for traumatic events. Gaining insight from people who have been through the experience helps do this but you need to concentrate on the emotions and feeling of the event. She also talks about trusting your instincts when working in dangerous areas.

Of course Christina has lots of other interesting insights as well so if, like me, you are a spending a lazy Saturday recouping from a hectic week grab yourself a coffee and watch the whole thing.

Suicide Attacks in Pakistan 2007

The Pak Institute for Peace Studies' Security Report has some interesting data on suicide attacks in Pakistan in 2007. Actually there is all manner of data covering many aspects of the violence plaguing Pakistan but I've only had time to play with the suicide bombing data. Digging deeper into the numbers reveals some interesting facts.

Suicide Attacks by MonthCasualties Due to Suicide Attack by Month

If we examine the number of suicide bomb attacks per month we see a peak in July 2007. This coincides with an active suicide bombing campaign against predominantly military and police targets. However if we compare it to the adjacent chart showing casualties due to suicide bomb attacks we can see another peak in November and the start of one in December. The July, November and December peaks coincide with attacks on Pakistan Peoples Party rallies and/or attacks on the party chair, Benazir Bhutto.

Incidents of suicide bomb attacks and casualties by region of Pakistan
This chart reveals that most of 2007's suicide attacks occurred in the NWFP. The single but very lethal attack in Karachi also stands out.

Assessed Intended Target of Suicide Bomber

Attacks probably intended to target the military accounted for 47% of suicide attacks with attacks against the police accounting for another 20%. Assessing the actual target of suicide attacks is difficult since the perpetrators are no longer around to explain their intent so these numbers are approximate. The 'mixed' category in particular may be the result of bombers attempting to attack police or military targets without regard for nearby civilians.

Nine percent of the attacks were assessed to be primarily intended to target civilians while 13% where assessed as being intended to attack government personnel and/or political entities, including VIPs.

A comparison of BBIED vs VBIED as method of attack

In 2007 suicide bombings in Pakistan were almost evenly split between Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) and Body Borne Improvised Explosive Devices. There were a small number of 'complex attacks' involving either multiple bombers or combinations of suicide bombers and conventional attacks.

Relative lethality of VBIEDs and BBIEDs

It was a comparison of the relative lethality of the variants of suicide attacks that surprised me somewhat. I had expected complex VBIED attacks to produce the highest number of casualties per incident yet we can see that complex BBIED attacks on average produced two and a half times as many casualties. However, on second examination it becomes apparent that suicide bomber on foot are able to get much closer to their targets and are able to merge easily with large crowds. Even a relatively small quantity of explosives will cause many casualties when employed indiscriminately at political rallies and religious festivals. In addition it appears that VBIEDs were employed primarily against harder military and police targets.

I would have liked to compare civilian victims of suicide bombers against total casualties but unfortunately the data fidelity is just not there. However PIPS did have a table showing total civilian casualties as a result of 2007's cumulative attacks and clashes. Once again civilians seem to bear the brunt of the violence as the chart below shows.

Casualties of Clashes in Pakistan 2007

So what does all this mean for NGO's and others wanting to increase their personal security? Well there shouldn't be any surprises here. The data supports the tried and true advice:

* Avoid potential targets including military and police personnel and facilities as best you can.
* Don't wear clothing that might be mistaken for a uniform.
* Don't mingle with military or VIP convoys while driving.
* Avoid travelling on routes and at times used by military convoys and/or VIPs.
* Avoid political rallies especially when VIPs are present.
* Avoid large crowds including during religious festivals.

People and Power - Burning Issues

An Al Jazeera report from Balochistan, where nationalists struggle for greater control over their region's natural resources.

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