By Zia Ur Rehman

May 18, 2012

ISLAMABAD – Attacks on aid workers in Pakistan have increased in the past four years, partly because criminal gangs and Taliban militants hope to obtain large ransoms for kidnapped foreigners, officials say.

Police officers January 20 stand outside the Multan residence of an Italian who was kidnapped January 19. Militants and criminal gangs are kidnapping foreign aid workers to extract ransom payments. [REUTERS]
One recent kidnapping ended tragically April 29, when authorities found the body of slain British aid worker Dr. Khalil Rasjed Dale in Quetta. Dale, 60 and a Muslim, worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and had been kidnapped January 5 in Quetta. A note found on his body said the ICRC failed to pay the demanded ransom of US $30m (Rs. 2.7 billion), media reported.

“This is an abhorrent act. … We condemn his killing and all targeted violence against humanitarian organisations and personnel in the strongest terms possible,” said Aine Fay, chairperson of the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum (PHF), which decried the violence against aid workers in a May 7 statement.

The PHF statement followed the May 6 release of a video that showed Western development worker Warren Weinstein urging his government to meet his abductors’ demands. Weinstein, 70, was kidnapped from his home in Lahore August 13.

In another unresolved case, Johannes Bernd, a 70-year-old Dutch aid worker, and his 24-year-old Italian colleague Giovanni Lo Porto disappeared from Multan January 19. They are being held by militants in North Waziristan, media reported.

Other past cases include:

  • Two separate attacks in 2009 on humanitarian offices in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) claimed the lives of eight staff.
  • In 2010, six staff members of one humanitarian agency were killed in a targeted shooting in KP, and in another incident, four humanitarian staff members were abducted and one murdered in Western Pakistan.
  • In 2011, six staff members from a single project and eight staff members from another organisation were abducted in two separate incidents in Western Pakistan.
  • In the first two months of 2012, five humanitarian staffers were abducted, one staffer held hostage since 2011 was murdered, and two humanitarian personnel were shot to death in separate incidents in several provinces, including Sindh and Punjab. Seven humanitarian staffers abducted in 2011 and 2012 are still hostages.

Suspension of aid activities affect most needy :

The wave of violence is causing humanitarian groups to reconsider their presence in Pakistan. The ICRC May 10 suspended some projects in Pakistan after Dale’s murder.

“We are painfully aware that these measures are having a severe and far-reaching impact on wounded, sick, physically disabled and other vulnerable people,” said Paul Castella, head of the ICRC delegation in Pakistan. “We are currently analysing the situation and the environment.”

“The suspension of activities of international aid organisations that are doing good work would deprive local communities of much-needed social services and development initiatives,” said Bushra Gohar, a Pakistani MP.

However, scores of Pakistani and foreign aid organisations, with thousands of staffers, still operate in Pakistan, said Ayub Jan, a security advisor of a humanitarian organisation in Islamabad. Many have instituted strict security protocols for their staff, Jan told Central Asia Online.

“For example, aid workers simply do not travel at night, and we stay out of areas that have high risks,” he said.

Taliban militants involved :

Kidnapping is one tool militants use to raise money. Militants looking for a large payoff have been kidnapping mostly foreign aid workers, wealthy industrialists, academics and relatives of military officers, said Raees Ahmed, a security analyst who monitors the activities of al-Qaeda and Taliban militant outfits.

Documents recovered from the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad suggest that al-Qaeda and its affiliates resorted to kidnappings for ransom in part because anti-terror-financing measures impeded their access to cash, Central Asia Online reported last July.

Other motives include retaliation and publicity.

“Taliban militant groups based in tribal areas are targeting foreigners, especially aid workers, in reaction to the government’s on-going operation against the foreign militants,” Qari Akbar Noor, a militant linked to the Hafiz Gul Bahadur-led militant group in North Waziristan, told Central Asia Online.

And kidnappings involving foreign aid workers or prominent Pakistanis draw media attention and can win the release of imprisoned militants, Ahmed said.

Government’s efforts :

The government has increased security for aid organisations and their workers and has cracked down on groups involved in the kidnapping and killing of aid workers.

Pakistani agencies arrested two suspected al-Qaeda operatives linked to the eight-member ring involved in Weinstein’s kidnapping, Express Tribune reported May 8.

However, the report adds that the remaining six suspected members of the network, including al-Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri and his Pakistani cohort Afzaal Hussain, are hiding, likely in the tribal regions of Pakistan or Afghanistan.

And Quetta authorities arrested a number of suspects from four groups involved in abductions for ransom, media reported May 12, citing Hamid Shakil, chief of Quetta police.

The government also has restricted foreign-national aid workers from the most dangerous areas, Jan said.