Yemen has long been renowned as a place where foreigners, including aid workers, are at risk of kidnapping. On the brink of civil war last year, and with a still fluid social and political transition under way, new challenges for aid worker security are emerging, say experts.
“It’s more risky than before, not just for foreigners, but they are the number one target,” said Nasser Arrabyee, a local analyst and journalist.
Since the election in February, the security situation has deteriorated gradually,” Siris Hartkorn, head of risk analysis at Safer Yemen, a security consultancy specializing in advice to humanitarian organizations, told IRIN. “It is more insecure than it has ever been before.”
The transition process – set in motion by the Gulf Cooperation Council last year when it brokered a deal allowing President Ali Saleh to step down, scheduling fresh presidential elections and instituting a period of national dialogue – is bedevilled by continuing rifts within the military and society generally.
Things which were previously certain are no longer so.
Established communication channels between the tribes – who control most of rural Yemen and are often behind the kidnappings – and the central government, are not necessarily in place any more. Loyalties are in flux, and the security services are part of the political divide, say observers, such as the influential International Crisis Group.
“The divisions in the armed forces still persist. The loyalties are divided between the tribes, between the current and the previous president, and new appointments in the army add to this incoherence,” said Arrabyee.
The previous unwritten agreement between the government and the tribes – that kidnappings of foreigners would be solved through negotiations – does not necessary apply any more.
“A foreigner was kidnapped and it was normally clear, what tribe was behind it and what motivation they had. Most of the time it happened for social demands and was directed at the government, not at the person’s organization. Now, in the recent kidnappings, the actors are much more overlapping; it’s a mix between tribal groups, criminal groups and political actors, which makes it much more complicated. So it is not always clear who is behind these things,” said Hartkorn.
An official from an international NGO, who requested anonymity, told IRIN about a recent kidnapping that is said to have involved a criminal group, al-Qaeda, and a local tribe – an example of a situation so blurred that hardly anyone seems to know who is really behind it.
Up until recently, even foreigners kidnapped by al-Qaeda, which is deeply embedded in local tribes, have been treated fairly well. In the past, foreigners were rarely targeted just for the sake of targeting a foreign organization. But with government and US forces stepping up pressure on al-Qaeda, the latter’s attacks have already spread from the countryside to the capital. Over 60 members of government security forces have been assassinated by al-Qaeda in 2012 alone. It does not seem unlikely that foreigners could also be targeted.
“The Yemeni Qaeda was in many ways well integrated in the local tribal structures, and therefore the rules [of hospitality] were and are still to some extent upheld in kidnapping cases. That might not necessarily be the case with foreign fighters that have joined al-Qaeda over the course of the past year – especially when they are coming from more brutal environments like Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Hartkorn.
Changing perceptions of neutrality
With the UN deeply involved in the transition process, its political work could be potentially seen as compromising its humanitarian mandate. Supporters of ex-President Saleh see the current transition process as a coup, and the southern independence movement is violently opposed to it.
“The UN now plays different roles; it has to balance the impartial delivery of aid, with a more political role where it has to oversee the implementation of the political agreement and resolutions of the Security Council,” said Hartkorn.
With political alliances shifting, so are the options for tribes to generate income through government payments.
Due to the conflicts still raging in the north and in the south, many people have lost their income. Young people, in particular, may look for alternative ways of earning a living. Already reports have surfaced that young people are joining Ansar al-Shari’a – a local al-Qaeda offshoot – mainly to earn some money.
The danger is that the kidnappings could turn into a way of securing a living.
“At the moment kidnappings are not about building a school, or a new road – that is not on the priority list of the government or the tribes right now. The priority list for the government right now is to survive the transitional period and for the tribes to position themselves in a new state patronage network,” said Hartkorn. “The biggest emerging threats for aid workers are direct targeted attacks against humanitarians, which could occur at some point due to their now dual and also political role.”