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Attacks Targeting Aid Workers in Niger Are Latest in Worrying Spike

The coffin of one of the six humanitarian aid workers from the French NGO ACTED killed by gunmen in a Niger, is carried out of a military transport plan during a ceremony at Orly Airport, south of Paris, Aug. 14, 2020.

New findings out Monday show an alarming spike in attacks against humanitarian workers last year, including in part of Africa’s Sahel region. That's where some of the latest attacks took place last week against French and Nigerien nationals.

France held a memorial ceremony Friday for six French aid workers killed in Niger on August 9, along with two Nigeriens. It was one of a pair of strikes against French humanitarian activists last week— last Monday, another was gunned down in Guatemala.

The Niger attack took place in a nature reserve outside the capital, Niamey — an area once considered safe for humanitarian activity. But the Sahel region overall is becoming increasingly violent. French troops are working with regional counterparts to fight an Islamist insurgency.

It’s not the only area of concern. Worldwide, last year marked the highest number of major attacks against aid workers over the past decade — with 483 workers killed, kidnapped and wounded, according to independent research group Humanitarian Outcomes.

Report co-author Abby Stoddard is a former humanitarian worker.

“Even though there are attacks in dozens of countries, only a handful of the worst conflict environments have numbers in the double and triple digits, and those drive the totals,” Stoddard said.

Along with years-long hotspots like Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan and Somalia, there are also some newcomers — like Mali, right next to Niger, from where the Sahel insurgency spread.

Speaking on French radio last week, Vincent Cochetel, a high-level official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, agreed aid workers are increasingly becoming targeted in the Sahel and elsewhere.

Cochetel himself spent nearly a year as a hostage in the Caucasus region, in the 1990s.

In and around the Sahel, the humanitarian community is reeling from a spate of recent deadly attacks. Along with the Niger killings, two aid workers were killed in Cameroon. In June, extremist group Boko Haram executed six in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno State.

As these attacks become deadlier, they also reflect a frightening new normal. Conflicts once pitting countries against each other are now increasingly splintered, involving a tangle of armed groups — which no longer see aid workers as neutral or beneficial.

“They are associated often with the enemy, so they’re seen as legitimate targets — they don’t have a moral issue with targeting them,” Stoddard said. "But it also allows them to flex their muscles and exercise control over local populations by controlling where the aid goes.”

Stoddard says attacking aid workers also brings economic benefits — assailants gain vehicles, humanitarian relief and cash, including through hostage ransoms.

Stoddard and others say aid groups are responding by taking more precautions and adopting new strategies to reduce operating risks. But there is no such thing as zero risk — and in Niger and elsewhere, there are sometimes terrible outcomes.