Anis Chouchane is a conflict management and international development professional focusing on humanitarian policy, peacebuilding and governance reform in Africa and the Middle East. Anis graduated from the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) where he received his Master of Arts degree in international relations and international economics.
The killing on Sunday by the Islamic State (IS) of the kidnapped American aid worker Peter Kassig, and of British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, are further testimony the security risks humanitarian personnel are increasingly facing. With the plummeting security situation in Iraq and Syria, humanitarian actors have increased their activity on social media to draw attention to their causes and to the plight of their beneficiaries. This activity, however, is putting them at an increased risk of kidnapping by militant groups.
In the age of social media, militant groups not only release videos showing the beheading of foreigners for propaganda purposes, but also use them to gather valuable intelligence. In fact, aid organisations often fail to manage sensitive information about their operations carefully. Recent reports have shown that militant groups increasingly track the activities of humanitarian organisations on social media platforms to monitor and intimidate international aid workers and eventually locate and capture them.
One example demonstrating the risks of using social media irresponsibly is the case of Oscar Bergamin, president of the small humanitarian aid group called Ash-Sham Care. Bergamin tweeted the coordinates of an IS-controlled bunker in the Syrian town of Jarabalus. News agencies reported that Bergamin’s tweet immediately caught the attention of several IS affiliates on Twitter, who sent out a plethora of threatening messages to Bergamin, warning him that they were ‘coming for Mr. Aid Worker‘, and that he would share the same fate as Haines and Henning. Moreover, IS sympathisers published his LinkedIn and Twitter accounts as well as pictures of him, claiming that Bergamin is a CIA agent who needs to be killed. The death threats have forced Bergamin into hiding and his whereabouts are still unknown.
Bergamin has received criticism from the humanitarian aid community in Syria. Many aid organisations see his actions as an endangerment to the rest of the aid community’s work as well as a violation of the humanitarian principals of neutrality and impartiality. Although Mr. Bergamin actions represent a clear violation of the aforementioned principals, the speed by which his tweet was spread by those affiliated with IS is alarming and reveals that militant groups such as IS monitor closely the activities of humanitarian actors. It is also a clear sign that sensitive information posted on social media platforms can quickly fall into the hands of militant groups.
A study published by Professor of Communication, Gabriel Weimann from the University of Haifa discovered that 90 per cent of organised terrorism on the Internet is being carried out through social media. He added that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are being used by these organisations to gather military and political intelligence. Other cyber warfare experts such as Brad Barker highlighted that criminal organisations use images and geo-location technologies on social media platforms and mobile devices to select and ultimately find their victims.
Many aid organisations only emphasise the benefits of using social media platforms to raise awareness about humanitarian disasters. Harvard University’s program on humanitarian policy and conflict research reported that some organisations have exploited the emergence of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to expand their capabilities to report about their operations, mobilise awareness campaigns, raise funds, and even apply pressure on governments. Aid organisations use social networks to send images and share locations from the field to expand their base of donors and supporters and to ultimately draw media attention about ongoing operations in countries such as Syria. Although there are many benefits from using social media to raise awareness about humanitarian crises, the case of Oscar Bergamin shows that in the age of social media there is an increased need to manage sensitive information cautiously.
An Aid Worker Tweeted the Location of an ISIS Camp. Now They’re Hunting for Him, Mother Jones, 30 September, 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/09/swiss-aid-worker-isis-tweet
Social Media and Criminal Organizations, Brad Barker, undated, http://www.securitymanagement.com/article/social-media-and-criminal-organizations-0010271?page=0%2C0
Terrorist groups recruiting through social media, CBC News, 10 January 2012, http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/terrorist-groups-recruiting-through-social-media-1.1131053
The Promise of Social Media for Humanitarian Action?, HPCR, 10 May 2012, http://hpcrresearch.org/blog/hpcr/2012-05-10/promise-social-media-humanitarian-action
Aid Worker Security Report 2013, The New Normal: Coping with the kidnapping threat, Humanitarian Outcomes, October 2013, https://aidworkersecurity.org/sites/default/files/AidWorkerSecurityReport_2013_web.pdf
Aid Worker Security Report 2014, Unsafe Passage: Road attacks and their impact on humanitarian operations, Humanitarian Outcomes, August 2014, http://www.humanitarianoutcomes.org/sites/default/files/Aid%20Worker%20Security%20Report%202014.pdf
Cyber-Warfare and Humanitarian Space, Daniel Gilman, GISF, October 2014, http://commstech-hub.eisf.helpful.ws/uploads/4/0/2/4/40242315/daniel_gilman_cyberwarfare_and_humanitarian_space_eisf_october_2014.pdf
Swiss aid worker criticised for tweeting location of Isil target, Harriet Alexander, The Independent, 30 September 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/11131349/Swiss-aid-worker-criticised-for-tweeting-location-of-Isil-target.html
Security risk management for humanitarian operations and open-source social media platforms, Tess Dury, GISF, 3 July 2014, https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/news/security-risk-management-for-humanitarian-operations-and-open-source-social-media-platforms/
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