Article August 18, 2017

Means, motive, opportunity: Why Yemen has become a hotspot for aid worker kidnapping

As the threats facing international aid workers increase around the world, Yemen consistently stands out as a major venue for aid worker kidnappings. Francesca Fazey explores the combination of factors that have contributed to this threat.

The rising trend of kidnappers targeting aid workers is a global, rather than country specific, phenomenon. As foreign governments have reduced their military involvement on the ground in prominent conflict zones, aid organisations have begun taking on many responsibilities that governments used to shoulder. In Yemen, however, the practice of kidnapping aid workers predated the onset of the current conflict, and has since been exacerbated by it. This contributes to a unique combination of factors that has made Yemen one of the most dangerous places for aid workers to operate.

On 1 April, the International Medical Corps reported that five local staff members and two contracted drivers had been detained by Houthi rebels from a hotel in Ibb province, southern Yemen. The rebels accused the aid workers of spying for a foreign intelligence agency, and took the employees to a prison in the capital, Sana’a. In a similar incident on 14 February, seven employees of the Norwegian Refugee Council were detained by Houthi rebels in the western port city of Hodeidah. The workers were accused of distributing aid provided by the Saudi-led Gulf military coalition, which has been conducting military operations against the Houthis and their allies since early 2015. The outcome in both cases were positive: the victims were all released within a few days. However, while the victims were local nationals, the targeting of foreign NGOs re-focused the global spotlight on the high number of international aid workers who continue to face threats of kidnapping and unlawful detention in Yemen as the country’s conflict enters its third year.

In October 2016, Nourane Houas, a French Tunisian worker for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), was released after being held captive by Houthi militants for over ten months. Her release followed the abduction of Peter Willems, a US English language teacher, from his school in Sana’a in September 2016. Another international NGO worker was detained for 24 hours in June 2015. A UN worker and her translator were kidnapped from their car in Sana’a in February 2015 and held until August of that year. In total, at least 27 international aid workers have been kidnapped in Yemen since the start of 2011, when the uprising which precipitated the current civil war began.

As foreign governments reduce their visible role in politically unpopular conflicts, international aid workers are becoming increasingly exposed as the only (visible) international presence on the ground, often working without the protection of dedicated security personnel. This is partly to blame for the steep rise in kidnappings of aid workers accompanying the escalation of regional conflicts. Aid worker kidnappings per year rose from 11 to 79 between 2000 and 2015, with a high of 141 reported kidnappings in 2013. Whilst this rise, in large part, reflects the increasing number of aid workers deployed in high-risk zones, the rate of kidnappings per number of aid workers deployed has also increased dramatically in recent years. According to the latest confirmed figures, average kidnapping incidents per 100,000 aid workers deployed rose from 13 between 2006 and 2009, to 17 between 2010 and 2012.

This is attributable not only to the changing role of aid organisations in conflict zones, but also to the enduring appeal of kidnapping as a financial and political bargaining tool. For rebel groups contesting territory in some of these zones, international aid workers represent lucrative opportunities to generate revenue, in an otherwise resource-strapped environment. Where groups know that governments, such as those of the US and the UK, will not pay ransoms as a matter of policy, they are aware that organisations are often duty-bound to negotiate the release of any member of their staff whose life is at risk. Kidnappers also have the option to sell hostages onto transnational militant groups, such as Al Qaeda. The rewards for kidnapping aid workers are therefore not exclusively dependent on negotiating a ransom.

In Yemen, kidnapping foreigners was already an established practice before the start of the conflict. Prior to 2015, tribal groups, particularly in the south and east of Yemen, were notorious for targeting tourists and expatriate workers, with the aim of extracting concessions for better service provision from the central government. These incidents formed a normal part of negotiations between the Yemeni government and its rural provinces, where central influence was weak. However, hostages in these situations were rarely harmed. For example, over 157 foreigners were victims of kidnapping in Yemen in the latter half of the 1990s. Of these, there were only two incidents, one in 1998 and one in 2000, in which the victims were killed.

Since 2015 however, the civil war has made the security landscape in Yemen more complex. The separatist Houthi rebel group, which controls the northwestern areas of the country, including the capital Sana’a, has conducted a high number of kidnappings for ransom of local and foreign nationals, including aid workers. Like tribal kidnappings elsewhere, these have rarely ended in harm to the victim. However, since the start of the conflict in March 2015, the group has evolved from a separatist movement to a rebel government. The threat of traditional kidnappings by the Houthis has given way to that of politically-motivated unlawful detentions, targeting anyone, local or foreign, whom they suspect of colluding with their opponents. The tacit support of the US to the Saudi-backed campaign has made Americans particular targets within this context. Ransom demands have not been abandoned, but the added element of political suspicion adds a greater threat of physical violence to the kidnapping dynamic in Houthi-held areas.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also retains a high intent to kidnap foreigners, specifically Westerners. AQAP tends to operate in the same rural areas as armed tribal groups and, on occasions, the groups have been known to work together, with negotiations often being carried out by tribal intermediaries. Kidnappings by AQAP usually end in the payment of ransoms, often to the value of millions of dollars, which constitute a major source of funding for the organisation.

Humanitarian efforts so far have also been hampered by a naval embargo and no-fly zone imposed by Saudi Arabia, allegedly to prevent the flow of arms and supplies to Houthi rebels. As a result, aid staff are having to double their efforts to reach the areas most affected by the conflict, often without sufficient support to ensure their safety.

Despite exposure to these threats becoming increasingly unavoidable, the numbers of aid workers in Yemen is only likely to increase. Not only has the conflict led to the death of over 10,000 civilians, and the displacement of millions of others, it has resulted in unprecedented food shortages, with over 17 million people now believed to be in need of food assistance. With no sign that either the Houthis or the Saudi-led coalition have any intention of relenting on their current stances, and the ongoing freedom of movement enjoyed by militant actors such as AQAP, Yemen is likely to remain a hotspot for aid worker kidnappings for the foreseeable future.