Behind the attacks: A look at the perpetrators of violence against aid workers

Publication language
Date published
01 Jan 2017
Research, reports and studies
Conflict, violence & peace, Working in conflict setting, Protection, human rights & security

In 2016, 158 major attacks against aid operations occurred, in which 101 aid workers were killed, 98 wounded and 89 kidnapped. The number of attacks and victims increased only slightly from 2015.

} For the second consecutive year, South Sudan was the most violent context for aid workers, reflecting the fracturing conflict and an atmosphere of impunity for armed actors.

} Most aid worker attacks are perpetrated by ‘national-level’ non-state armed groups (NSAGs) seeking control of the state. Targeting aid operations serves their effort to dominate populations and territories and delegitimise the government in power.

} Global-level NSAGs, such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, are responsible for smaller numbers of attacks but higher fatality rates. They are more lethal in their means and often specifically target international aid workers.

} However, when measured by body count alone, states are responsible for the highest number of aid worker fatalities. In 2015 and 2016, 54 aid workers were killed by state actors. This was mainly the result of airstrikes by Russia and the US in Syria and Afghanistan and an upsurge in state-sponsored violence in South Sudan.

} NSAGs view aid organisations as potential threats to their authority as well as useful proxy targets. When attempting to govern territory and provide some measure of public services, NSAGs have incentives to grant aid organisations secure access, but this often requires the aid groups to accept conditions that compromise humanitarian principles.

} Different types of NSAGs (and different ranks within them) will pose different levels of threat to aid organisations. However, negotiations are almost always possible if humanitarians are willing and equipped to engage with these actors and understand their perceptions, incentives and red lines.