Friday, January 20, 2012

European Aid Workers Kidnapped in Pakistan

According to local media in Pakistan, two European aid workers, one an Italian and the other a Dutchman (originally thought to be German), were kidnapped from their residence in Multan by a number of gunmen on Thursday (January 19). Unfortunately, they had only one security guard on duty at the time, who was quickly overpowered. There has been no immediate claim for responsibility for the abductions, which occurred in Punjab province.

Both kidnap victims are employed by Bonn-based Welthungerhilfe [World Hunger Aid], an international aid group, which has been providing aid to Pakistani flood victims since 2010. Its annual budget is considered to be in the realm of US$230 million.

COMMENT: As most of our regular readers know, the kidnapping of foreigners, particularly aid workers, has been steadily rising in Pakistan over the last year. US aid worker Warren Weinstein, 70, was kidnapped from his home in Lahore in August 2011. In December, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an al-Qaeda leader in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of the Weinstein, but has provided no evidence to support his claim.

A few days after Weinstein was kidnapped, Shahbaz Ali Taseer, the son of Salman Taseer, the former Punjab governor who was assassinated by his security guard in January 2010, was also abducted in Lahore. Pakistani authorities believe that both men are being held in the northwestern tribal regions of the country.

In July 2011, a Swiss couple was abducted in the Loraloi district in Baluchistan Province, and are currently being held by the Taliban, who released a video of them. In exchange for the couple’s return, the Taliban has demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani, who was sentenced to 86 years in September 2010 for attempting to kill US military personnel and members of the FBI in 2008 while in custody at a police station in Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, gunmen kidnapped a British national working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan.

It is very likely that the kidnapping of foreigners in Pakistan is likely to increase. Even though it is hard to believe that bi-lateral US-Pakistani relations could get worse, that is actually a real possibility.

At the same time, from the diversity of nationalities being kidnapped, it is clear that extremist elements in the country are not just targeting US aid workers, but aid workers generally, which suggests that there is a subliminal message underway that is telling aid workers to go away.

From my own experience in working in Pakistan, foreign embassies and consulates do an excellent job in protecting their staffs, but nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to NGOs and institutional contractors who provide aid workers in the country. In this regard, emergency plans are often non-existent and the security of foreign aid workers is inadequate.

Local security guards are generally poorly trained and equipped and in insufficient numbers to effectively repel a terrorist attack or kidnapping. They are also poorly paid. Additionally, NGOs permit their expats to live wherever they wish to, with little focus on the physical security of such residences.

The reason that kidnapping are on the rise is that kidnapping an expatriate in Pakistan is relatively easy, unless their employers make personal security a major priority and provide adequate security funding for their protection.

Most foreigners have been successfully kidnapped either at their residence or en-route between home and office. The reason for this is because these two venues is where the vulnerabilities are the largest. Many NGOs have no idea how to secure a leased residence in order to reduce the risk of kidnapping.

Also, few NGOs or contract firms use ballistic-resistant vehicles, which, while expensive, are very effective in preventing a successful kidnapping. I'm actually surprised that there have not been more kidnappings.

Unless employers of foreign aid workers take the security of their employees seriously, who are exposed to high risks every day they go to work, the recruitment of such workers will become infinitely more difficult.

There is a big lesson to be learned from the Kidnapping of Warren Weinstein, who has now been a captive for nearly six months. Or, he is no longer with us. He was kidnapped the day before he was scheduled to permanently return to the US. Those close to him knew this, which is why he was kidnapped before his departure. This is also why the vetting of local staff is so important.

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