Tue, 26 Aug 2003

Terrorizing aid agencies a nasty trend

Arabinda Acharya, Terrorism Analyst, Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, The Straits Times, Asia News Network, Singapore

The bombing of the United Nations (UN) headquarters in Baghdad provides evidence of more than just another terrorist act. It fits into a well-established pattern of terrorist targeting of aid agencies.

In Knights Under The Prophet's Banner, al-Qaeda ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri put the strategy into perspective when he identified the international relief agencies as one of the tools against Islam. His logic was clear and unfortunately convincing to the terrorists engaged in the "global jihad".

The services of aid agencies have been routinely requisitioned to help rebuilding and rehabilitation in conflict zones. Targeting aid agencies and relief workers was seen as part of the plan for ousted al-Qaeda and regrouping Taliban to create a general climate of fear and insecurity which would undermine the Karzai government in Afghanistan.

The attacks in Afghanistan, which were consistent and numerous after October 2001, were meant to frighten the agencies off and prevent them from helping to rebuild the nation. The ensuing instability, chaos and insecurity were designed to create the conditions exactly like those in Afghanistan when the Taliban was born.

Armed conflict often creates the crises that relief workers are called in to alleviate. But increasingly, aid agencies and their workers are coming under fire, especially from the ones who want to perpetuate the misery to subserve their distorted ends.

According to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, more than 1,650 military and civilian personnel have died in peacekeeping missions between 1948 and last year.

In a recent study, researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that deaths among humanitarian workers have risen dramatically over the past decade, and international relief is now being provided in increasingly dangerous places. "War between rival states has been largely replaced by economically driven internal conflict, which puts the lives of the humanitarian workers at ever-increasing risk."

The research found that of the different categories of violence involved, 67.5 per cent of the killings were of intentional violence, with most victims being killed in cold blood.

Michael Rudiak, of the Canadian Red Cross, said: "The targeting of humanitarian workers, separate from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is a very nasty but very clear trend." As the Los Angeles Times reported, "it is more dangerous to be a UN humanitarian aid worker handing out food than to be a soldier on peacekeeping duty in a war zone".

In Iraq, the pattern is the same, whether the perpetrators are affiliates of al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Islam as was initially believed or some previously unknown group like the Armed Vanguards of Mohammed's Second Army that has claimed responsibility. As reported by the Al-Arabiya news channel, the Armed Vanguards of Mohammed's Second Army has accused the UN of endorsing the occupation of Iraq.

The objective here is to terrorize the agencies and workers to the extent that the disruption in the flow of aid and relief would hamper improvements in the quality of life and prolong the misery and hardship for the common Iraqi.

This would in turn undermine the United States occupation, embarrass the interim administration and project it as inept and incompetent, unable to maintain authority. The deterioration is bound to fuel hostility against the U.S. in the minds of the average Iraqi citizen.

Significantly here, this strategy has been integrated by these elements into the broader pattern of attacks on utilities and essential services -- water mains, oil pipelines, power grids, public offices and embassies, along with regular killing of allied forces.

The resultant insecurity is designed to coerce agencies and governments to re-evaluate their missions in postwar Iraq, as was the case in Afghanistan.

For instance, responding to the killing of its aid worker Ricardo Munguia, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) suspended its Afghan operations indefinitely; Doctors Without Borders moved its four international staff in the area to another region; and the UN ordered its staff to stay off the roads while it re-evaluated security.

In Iraq, many foreign missions have started to scale down their operations; foreign businessmen, potential investors and traders are either pulling out of Iraq or reappraising their strategies.

The European Union, one of the largest donors of humanitarian and development aid, has disbanded its mission to assess Iraq's aid needs ahead of a meeting of the donors in Spain scheduled in October. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have also recalled their staff from Iraq.

And even though UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared that the bombing would not drive the world body out of Iraq, that the UN "will persevere" and not be intimidated, there was an announcement of a reduction in the number of its staff in Baghdad. The ICRC is similarly withdrawing its personnel; other international relief agencies are keeping a low profile.

Attacks on humanitarian workers and aid agencies in the world's danger spots represent an alarming trend that is likely to accelerate in the years ahead.

This now poses a serious problem for international aid agencies, as the rise in casualties among aid workers not only affects how they conduct their programs, but even whether they are able to respond at all to some emergencies.

For the U.S., the problem surely is an acute one and getting more difficult every day. In a different perspective, however, the attack also gives it an opportunity.

As Richard Shultz, director of the international security program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, puts it, the terrorists might have made it tough for those in the UN who opposed the occupation and given a means to the U.S. to wage the attack back against the perpetrators as effectively as hurting the average person.

However, the politics of the killings aside, it is very important for those responding to terrorist acts to ensure what UN special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello reportedly said before he died in the attack: "Don't let them pull the UN out of Iraq. Don't let them fail this mission."