Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

New Risk for Afghan Aid Workers

The arrest of a suspected suicide bomber who disguised himself as a member of a non-government organisation could put all aid workers at risk.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
Kruma Yaya came to Mazar-e-Sharif as an aid worker intent on setting up a computer science training centre in this provincial capital. At least that’s what his credentials indicated.



In reality, according to the Afghan authorities, he was a would-be suicide bomber who intended to assassinate Mohammad Atta, the governor of Balkh province. He was arrested in the governor’s office with explosives strapped around his waist, according to officials.



Staff working with non-government organisations, NGOs, already had plenty to worry about, given the continued violence in much of Afghanistan and the constant accusations of embezzlement and mismanagement levied by members of the government and the public. Now, following the incident in Mazar-e-Sharif, they also face the danger of being considered potential terrorists.



According to officials, Yaya held a Malian passport and was carrying an identification card issued by the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, when he was detained.



“During his stay, [Yaya] bought some computers and put them in a house in Mazar just to pretend that he was establishing a computer training centre,” said Atta at a press conference following the incident.



The governor said that between February 2 and 6, Yaya repeatedly requested a meeting to present his project to him. His insistence provoked the suspicion of the governor’s bodyguards, who arrested him when he entered Atta’s office on February 6. They reportedly discovered explosives hidden beneath his clothing.



“This incident will oblige me to take a closer look at NGOs from now on,” said Atta. “We knew that smugglers and mafia bands were working through some NGOs, but now we know that terrorists have penetrated the organisations as well.”



The accusation has caused consternation in the government and in the NGO community, whose presence has long been a subject of dispute in Afghanistan.



“It is not a simple matter for terrorists to penetrate NGOs,” said deputy economy minister Nazir Ahmad Shahidi,. “We check the identity of everyone working for NGOs, and we do not issue a license until we have adequate information.”



Shahidi speculated that Yaya’s NGO credentials may have been forged.



Captain Katia Oberg of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Mazar-e-Sharif told IWPR that ISAF did not issue an ID card to Yaya. “Acquiring an ISAF ID card is not easy,” she said. “We issue identification cards only to those individuals who work with ISAF.”



Mohammad Hashim Mayar, deputy director of the Afghan Coordinating Body for Aid Relief, ACBAR, told IWPR that the accusation of NGO involvement in the attempted assassination was just another means to call the activities of aid groups into question.



“NGOs have attracted a lot of attention in Afghanistan,” he said. “They have been accused of embezzlement and corruption. Now there is a new trick being used on them –mentioning them in the same context as terrorist or mafia activities.



“This is a warning for us to be smart and careful,” he said. “We, in coordination with all NGOs. must not let anyone get into our organisations who could compromise their integrity.”



Some analysts speculated that Taleban and al-Qaeda members may indeed be posing as legitimate NGO workers or infiltrating aid organisations.



“Over the past three years the Taleban and al-Qaeda have changed their tactics,” said Ghulam Farooq Khepalwak, a political analyst and lecturer at Balkh University. “Infiltrating NGOs is a very dangerous trick. It allows terrorists easy access to government targets.”



Qayoum Babak, another political analyst in Mazar-e-Sharif, blames the government for allowing the unchecked proliferation of NGOs. This has provided an easy opportunity for terrorists, he said.



“There are countless NGOs in Afghanistan,” he said. “If someone tries to work as an NGO without any authorisation, it will take the government years to find out about it.”



But the government is confident that it has the situation under control.



The economy ministry recently completed a wholesale re-registration of NGOs in Afghanistan, stripping more than 1,600 organisations of their licenses in the process. The move was intended to give the government greater control over the NGO community and weed out those organisations that were merely a front for fraudulent or criminal activity.



“Terrorists may try in different ways to expand their activities throughout Afghanistan, but the arrest of the suicide attacker in Balkh as well as the arrest of some terrorists in Kandahar over the last month indicates that terrorists cannot escape,” said Yousuf Stanikzai, spokesperson for the Interior Ministry. “These arrests are a sign that Afghanistan’s security forces are getting stronger.”



But for those working for legitimate NGOs, the crackdown merely creates another hazard of working in Afghanistan.



“I feel that I’m in danger,” said an employee of a construction NGO in Mazar-e-Sharif, who declined to give his name. “Now that I’ve heard that terrorists want to carry out their attacks through NGOs, I am afraid that one day I will be accused of being an associate of terrorists.”



Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.