The 25 March kidnapping and release of two UN workers has underlined the risks aid workers in Yemen face.
Humanitarians can find themselves caught up in outbreaks of violence by Zaydi Shia Houthi militants in the north, southern separatists, al-Qaeda-inspired groups, tribal groups, or common criminals, and the new UN sanctions regime could make matters worse for them.
After more than two years of warnings to those who undermine Yemen’s internationally-sponsored political transition, the UN Security Council on 26 February unanimously authorized targeted sanctions against “designated individuals”.
“Spoilers to the political process [now] have a high incentive to target the international community, including UN agencies and NGOs,” said Siris Hartkorn, head of risk analysis at the humanitarian consultancy Safer Yemen.
“The developing security environment is different from previous [periods],” according to a Sana’a-based security source who preferred anonymity. “The UN sanctions… will continue to cause levels of friction, whilst the political and military manifestations of the Al-Houthi and Al-Hirak entities in the north and south will likely increase over the first half of this year,” he told IRIN.
Humanitarian agencies have responded to the new environment by beefing up protective measures, including minimizing travel, the security source told IRIN.
“In all types of security incidents facing NGOs [in Yemen], assailants are less accountable [compared to traditional tribal groups], levels of violence are higher, and incidents are becoming difficult to negotiate and solve,” Hartkorn told IRIN.
In southern Al Dhale Province, the Hirak Taqrer Al Masir Movement (Movement of Self-Determination for the South), have engaged in tit-for-tat hostilities with state forces since December.
The increasing frequency of threats to patients and personnel in hospitals and health centres forced Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to halt life-saving services in Dhale in February.
A similar state of lawlessness compelled MSF to pull staff from its facilities in northern Amran Province last August. In March, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) likewise decided to lower its profile in Amran, closing a northern-based office as part of the restructuring of its Sana`a delegation, but also due to ongoing threats against personnel over the past three months, spokeswoman Marie-Claire Feghali told IRIN.
Houthi campaign in Amran Province
Security conditions in Amran have further deteriorated since Houthi militants launched an aggressive expansionist campaign in late January. By the third week in March, Houthis had besieged nearly every stronghold of the Hashid tribal confederation and Sunni Islah Party in Amran, leaving 600,000 (two-thirds of the province’s population) in conflict-affected areas. With Houthi insurgents now in the foothills north of Sana’a, the interim president, Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, has deployed the army’s Special Forces to protect the capital.
An aid worker previously based in the north told IRIN Houthi fighting in Sa’dah Province had forced him to leave his post there and move his family to Sana`a for the sake of his children’s education. “Almost every school in my area has been damaged, destroyed or is currently occupied by militias,” he said.
In between the conflicts in Amran and Dhale, “political groups of Sana’a continue their efforts to establish, maintain and influence power,” the security source said. “Finally, AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] and associates will definitely be active in this environment and that is probably our most serious concern.”
In the last 12 months, AQAP has proved it can organize complex attacks in the capital: Last autumn a suicide car bomb blasted through the gates of a southern army base, allowing jihadist gunmen to storm the facility. The tactic has since been used at least twice, most recently in February to release 29 alleged al-Qaeda inmates detained in Sana’a’s Central Prison.
The AQAP’s early December siege of the Ministry of Defence building in Sana’a led to the deaths of some 50 hospital patients and healthcare workers, including two aid workers (the head of Germany’s state relief agency GIZ and a colleague). Although they were not actively targeted as humanitarians, the incident marked a disturbing rise in the threshold of violence in one of the most secure buildings in the capital. An AQAP spokesman later apologized to victims for the attack on the hospital, which was inside the ministry compound, where many of the deaths occurred.
Jump in ransom pay-outs
NGOs are most worried about kidnappings.
“Since 2011,” Hartkorn said, “kidnappings have become much more aggressive, e.g. shooting against victims resisting kidnapping (including females), prolonged periods of captivity, political/ransom demands and ill-treatment of victims.”
ICRC ranks kidnapping among the top security risks facing the organization in Yemen, according to Feghali, and last year had to deal with three staff abductions.
The diminished capacity of state security forces since the 2011 transition has created pockets of lawlessness in which opportunistic criminal and terrorist groups have operated with impunity. Abducting foreigners for ransom can secure huge sums for hostage-takers.
The UN Security Council responded to Yemen’s alarming spike in kidnappings for ransom with a January resolution warning that the jump in ransom pay-outs, and political concessions to secure the release of hostages, were benefiting terrorist organizations.
The 2014 humanitarian appeal for Yemen, launched last month, is for US $592 million, with 58 per cent of the population - 14.7 million people - in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. Around $34 million has been raised so far.