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The impact of IEDs on aid agencies and humanitarian operations


On the 11 September 2015, an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated in a tent in Nigeria’s largest Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camp, Malkohi, near Yola in the State of Adamawa. According to the State Emergency Management Agency (ADSEMA), the blast killed five and injured 20. Among the injured were camp workers and student volunteers who were hit by flying debris. The aid workers had been assisting 315 new arrivals fleeing from Boko Haram.ied-paper

While the death toll in this attack added only five to the thousands recorded killed by Boko Haram, it had reverberating effects. The bomb was to affect the delivery of aid and, in so doing, impacted the wellbeing of countless others. The explosion changed aid agencies’ perceptions and assessments of the security situation in Nigeria, and led to security management changes with far-reaching consequences for the delivery of aid.

In such a way, the attack in Malkohi is an example of how IEDs have consequences on the delivery of humanitarian aid that reverberate far beyond the shock of the initial explosion.

The fact that Boko Haram militants were able to plant a bomb despite the high security at the camp, where armed soldiers manned the gates and carried out checks on vehicles and passengers, changed the outlook for aid agencies responsible for the safety of aid workers and volunteers. Humanitarian organisations have a duty to protect staff and most are reluctant to expose their staff to unpredictable and deadly security risks. In response, the ICRC suspended its activities in government-run IDP camps in Nigeria.[i]

« Between 2004 and 2013: 300% rise in severe attacks in which a staff member was killed, injured or kidnapped »

Such attacks on humanitarian workers are part of the broader patterns of harm that have increasingly effected humanitarian aid over the past years. The Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD) shows that between 2004 and 2013, there was a 300% rise in severe attacks in which a staff member was killed, injured or kidnapped (from 63 to 264). And, despite there being a dip in casualties in 2014, the data also shows rates of violence generally rising too, doubling from 2.4 per 10,000 in 2004 to 4.7 per 10,000 in 2012. The Security in Numbers Database (SiND), which tracks all reported events that interfere with the delivery in aid, has shown a similar increase in severe events but an even more dramatic increase in the number of reported events that damaged or destroyed humanitarian infrastructure, most of which through the use of explosive weapons.

While some of these increases might be ascribed to the fact that harm to humanitarian work is increasingly being reported, the underlying reality is that it is very difficult to ensure humanitarian aid to all in populations in need of aid.

The rise of terrorism, the fragmentation of armed groups, the ease by which explosive material can be procured, the re-drafting of the rules of conflict to fit shifting agendas; these new realities have transformed the environment in which many aid organisations operate.

Terms of reference

This paper responds to this new reality by focusing on how the use of IEDs affects humanitarian space and the ability of aid agencies to reach people in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. It considers the dilemmas for humanitarian principles, the consequences for humanitarian security management, and impacts on the delivery of humanitarian aid.

It starts by defining humanitarian space and then describes the different ways in which IEDs have affected aid agencies with reference to examples reported between October 2014 and June 2016. The information has been collected for the Security in Numbers Database (SiND) of the Aid in Danger project, using publicly available sources.

Humanitarian space and the use of IEDs

Humanitarian space refers to the geographic area and /or the autonomy of humanitarian decision-making to assist populations in aid. The term is often discussed in the context of ‘shrinking humanitarian space’, which describes how armed conflict and geopolitical policies limit or restrict the capacity of humanitarian organizations to safely and effectively provide aid to populations requiring assistance.

« Insecurity for humanitarian staff has been one of the most prominent manifestations of shrinking humanitarian space »

According to the UN’s Inter-agency Standing Committee, insecurity for humanitarian staff has been one of the most prominent manifestations of shrinking humanitarian space.[ii] The proliferation of non-state actors, the targeting of civilian populations, deliberate attacks on humanitarian workers, and the co-opting of humanitarian response within counter-insurgency operations all affect aid agencies’ ability to provide assistance.

While it is far from certain that the humanitarian space has been overall shrinking – agencies may have a wider geographical coverage than in the past – the Nigeria example demonstrates that the use of IEDs by non-state actors affects the ability of humanitarian organisations to deliver aid. When non-state actors use IEDs to kill and injure staff or beneficiaries, or to damage and destroy humanitarian infrastructure, the ability of humanitarian agencies to operate is almost always effected.

Attacks on aid agencies and humanitarian staff

Non-state actors have used IEDs to target humanitarian agencies and individual aid workers, ignoring the principle enshrined in international law that humanitarian work should not be targeted in armed conflict. Methods used to target aid agencies have included the use of explosive devices fitted under seats in agency vehicles or private cars used by individuals working for humanitarian agencies, as well as throwing explosive devices at offices.

For example, on 20 April 2015, four UNICEF workers were killed and five injured by a bomb placed under a seat in the minivan that picked them up from their guest house in Garowe, North Puntland. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the remote-controlled bomb. On 2 February 2016, a local Somali aid worker escaped unhurt after an IED fitted to his car detonated near the headquarters of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Xamar Jabjab district, in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu. In Mali a bomb was set off at the entrance of a building housing an NGO in the town of Meneka, in the Gao Region (northern Mali) on 11 November 2015.

« Humanitarian work should not be targeted in armed conflict »

The use of roadside IEDs or vehicle borne IEDs also affects humanitarian agencies even if it is not clear whether they were the intended target. Agencies may be targeted by association or their staff or vehicles may pass the wrong place at the wrong time. For example, on 10 September 2015, a roadside bomb targeting an Afghan army convoy on the outskirts of Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province damaged a UNICEF vehicle. A total of four civilian UN staff were injured in vehicle-borne IED suicide attacks in Kabul between 1 and 4 January 2016, but the precise circumstances and likely motives of the perpetrators went unreported. On 24 November 2015, a civilian MINUSMA staff member was killed when the convoy hit an explosive device between the cities of Goundam and Timbuktu, Northern Mali.

Aid agency staff have also been effected by IED use targeting restaurants and hotels frequented by foreigners and affluent locals. Many aid workers use hospitality services in the countries they work in, and they are therefore vulnerable to attacks directed against restaurants and hotels that symbolise a particular lifestyle. For example, a national UN staff member was killed on 21 January 2016 in Mogadishu in an attack that included a car packed with explosives being rammed into Beach View Hotel on Lido Beach in Somalia’s capital.

Attacks on aid operations and beneficiaries of aid operations

Militants sometimes use IEDs to target specific aid operations for political or ideological reasons. On 13 January 2016, for example, a suicide bomber blew himself up near a UN-backed polio eradication centre in the city of Quetta, Balochistan Province, Pakistan, where an anti-polio team was preparing for the third day of a vaccination campaign. The bomber set off the blast when security forces prevented him from entering the building. The strike occurred at the moment a police van arrived to accompany the vaccinators. The explosion killed 15 security personnel guarding the building and injured 24 others. The Pakistani Taliban and the Jundallah separately claimed responsibility for the attack.

In Nigeria, female suicide bombers have also detonated their vests inside camps for internally displaced in the northeast towns of Dikwa (9 February 2016), and Banki (20 April 2016), both in Borno State. The Dikwa attack injured 78 and killed 60, while the Banki attack injured 12 and killed eight.

The examples above show that the use of IEDs can affect aid agencies in a range of different contexts. Agencies are sometimes targeted for what they symbolise or because of their association with a particular state or power. The aid operation may itself be the specific target of an IED attack.

« The aid operation may itself be the specific target of an IED attack »

In other cases, individuals working for aid agencies are singled out for reasons unrelated to their employment, for example in connection to their ethnicity, religion, or even personal relationships. Sometimes agency staff are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. In other cases, they are caught up in a wider attack targeting civilians. This wide range of contexts and uncertainty regarding the motives for attacks, makes it impossible for aid agencies to respond with a single approach to IED use.

Humanitarian principles, the use of IEDs and consequences for the delivery of aid

The use of IEDs is challenging for humanitarian agencies because it is difficult to mitigate the risks of IED use through traditional humanitarian approaches. Traditionally, humanitarian agencies rely on humanitarian principles of independence, impartiality and neutrality to ensure staff safety and access to beneficiaries. In the context of IED use, humanitarian principles do not guarantee the ability to safely operate and to assist effected populations. Maintaining impartiality, independence, and neutrality is difficult in armed conflicts where non-state actors such as Boko Haram launch a war of terror against a civilian population. By aiding the populations fleeing Boko Haram attacks, humanitarian agencies effectively take side in an asymmetric conflict directed against civilians.

Humanitarian aid providers are aware that in many contexts, including where non-state actors use IEDs, the emphasis on humanitarian principles may be insufficient to guarantee access to vulnerable populations in need of aid. In response, agencies have developed other practical strategies and protocols for operating in inherently high-risk environments. The humanitarian approach has centred on a combination of acceptance – a concept that focuses on maintaining good relations with key actors in the humanitarian space to guarantee access and safety, combined with protection and deterrence.[iii]

However, an acceptance strategy is difficult in the face of some non-state actors and in particular those who use IEDs, like Boko Haram or radical groups in Pakistan, because these groups pursue a strategy of terror that leaves little room for negotiation. In such circumstances, agencies have little choice but to rely on protection and deterrence or remote management if they want to continue to provide assistance.

Aid agencies can use standard protection mechanisms, such as fortifying offices, hiring security guards or using armoured vehicles. However, the use of heavy security may also associate aid agencies with military or police operations and thereby compromise their humanitarian principles. Such ‘bunkering down’ also can inhibit access to the very populations that the agencies seek to deliver aid to. When agencies believe that the level of protective security compromises their humanitarian self-image and they cannot guarantee the security of their staff, they often halt operations.

The polio campaign in Pakistan is an example of an aid objective being pursued under expensive state-provided security. Pakistan is one of the few countries with active polio outbreaks, and the global aim of eradication of the disease has made vaccination a key objective. After the murder of many health workers involved in the vaccination drive by radical and violent groups opposed to vaccination, the Pakistani government deployed tens of thousands of armed security forces to guard the more than 200,000 vaccinators who travel around the country during dedicated vaccination weeks.

Many humanitarian agencies would see the level of security provided by the state as incompatible with their neutrality and impartiality.

« The consequences for effected populations can be devastating »

In other contexts, a government opts to bar access to humanitarian agencies knowing that they are not capable or willing to mount the necessary security operations. In Nigeria, for example, the state has closed access for humanitarian agencies to several areas of the country affected by Boko Haram insurgency and counter-insurgency operations. In the early stages, the impact of such a policy can only be measured in number of areas reported as off limits for humanitarian agencies. For example, in December 2015 media reports indicated that agencies were unable to reach people on the island of Koulfoua in Lake Chad following restrictions aimed to prevent further attacks by Boko Haram.

Depending on the situation in the closed area, the consequences for effected populations can be devastating. By June 2016, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) categorised 4.4 million people in the Lake Chad region as being in need of urgent food aid. The true scale of the impact can only be documented when aid agencies finally regain access to these “no-go” zones. In June 2016, a humanitarian convoy reached Bama, Borno state’s second largest city and found the city destroyed. Around 24,000 people, mostly women and children, lived in a camp and many were starving. MSF documented the graves of 1,233 people who had died in the camp, including 480 children. More than 3,000 severely malnourished people were evacuated for emergency treatment, and several died on route.

« The use of IEDs limits the delivery of humanitarian aid »

The Nigerian army had captured the town as early as March 2015, but the 60 km journey from Maiduguri to Bama continued to be too dangerous without military escort because of the continued threat of Boko Haram attacks and landmines. On 28 July 2016, the UN temporarily suspended aid again following an ambush on a convoy from Bama to Maiduguri that injured an employee and a contractor.38 In this case, the fear of IED use affected security-related decision making by states and humanitarian agencies, directly contributing to the high levels of mortality in Bama.

The threat of IED harm also brings other – often hidden – costs. Legal action might be brought against aid organisations if workers are wounded during their work; there are greater insurance premiums; an increased drain of resources in providing security; and even the costs of providing psychological support to traumatised workers are all consequences of the impact of IEDs on humanitarian providers. Perhaps the most hampering element though, is the impunity enjoyed by many perpetrating the violence.


The use of IEDs has killed and injured aid workers and beneficiaries, with tragic consequences for the affected people, their families and colleagues. On a broader level, the use of IEDs limits the delivery of humanitarian aid. Humanitarian principles do not provide adequate protection against IEDs, and force agencies to either use hard security to protect staff – as happens in Pakistan to ensure vaccination against polio – or to withdraw and leave populations without access to humanitarian aid -as happened in the Lake Chad region.

Neither is an effective strategy to service people in need of humanitarian aid. The threat and use of IEDs thus has wide reaching consequences for the wellbeing of populations that reverberate beyond their immediate explosive impact.

This report is part of a series on IEDs and their impact. If you found this article interesting, you might also wish to read Improvised Explosive Devices – A 5 year overview.

[i] Intergovernmental communication, 21 September 2015

[ii] Inter-Agency Standing Committee Preserving Humanitarian Space, Protection and Security. Background Document for the IASC 70th Working Group meeting (IASC, 2008).

[iii] Koenraad Van Brabant, Operational Security Management in Violent Environments, Good Practice Review, ODI, 2000, Fast, Larissa, Faith Freeman, Michael O’Neill, Elizabeth Rowley. The promise of acceptance as an NGO security management approach. 2014. Available from: