Islamic State slaps branding on U.N. food aid

A Syrian refugee carries a box of food where it appears the ISIS logo is placed on top of WFP's. (Credit: Twitter/ISIS)

The Islamic State is taking a page right out of the humanitarian relief handbook. Or to be more precise, writing on top of it. The World Food Program says images show the Islamist militants are distributing its food aid with the group’s logo on top. They are taking credit for the food aid distributed by the United Nations.

“WFP condemns this manipulation of desperately needed food aid inside Syria. We urge all parties to the conflict to respect humanitarian principles and allow humanitarian workers including our partners to deliver food to the most vulnerable and hungry families,” said Muhannad Hadi, WFP emergency regional coordinator for the Syria crisis, in a statement.

un-shocked-to-see-images-of-its-food-packages-being-doled-out-with-islamic-state-branding-body-image-1422984119Humanitarian organizations, from the United States to Save the Children to WFP, use varying levels of branding in doing their work. Whether it is logos on shirts worn by staff or branding stamped onto tents for refugees, the signal is meant to let people know who it is that is providing assistance. On one hand, it is about building a rapport with communities that groups are serving. On the other, it is a form of claiming credit. Organizations will promote their work to donors in order to show what their money is accomplishing.

The branding of WFP food aid with the Islamic State logo allows the group to do the very same thing. With control over portions of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is now the de-facto government for millions of people. But it is struggling to bring life back to order in the areas it controls, leaving those who did not flee vulnerable. Placing its brand on bags of food that are distributed to people in need is a way the group can build good will and champion its accomplishments to the people living under its control. The “Islamic State Department of Relief” uses social media to show off its distributions of aid.

Photographs published by the Islamic State on Twitter showed people carrying boxes of aid with the group’s logo on the front. Just offset and behind the logo what appears to be a part of WFP’s logo. The photos were apparently taken in Dayr Hafr a town roughly 50 kilometers from the city of Aleppo. The last distribution to that area of Syria carried out by WFP was in August, it said. Some 1,700 food rations meant to feed 8,500 people for one month, were delivered at the time.

White food bags with what appears to be the faint WFP logo.

White food bags with what appears to be the faint WFP logo.

“WFP has learned that in September 2014, [the Islamic State]raided Syrian Red Crescent warehouses in Dayr Hafr where undistributed food rations may have been stored,” said WFP. “All areas controlled by ISIS are security hot spots, which severely limits the ability to monitor food distributions.”

WFP works with local partners to distribute food parcels and hygiene kits, among other things, in areas controlled by the Islamic State. In some cases the partners are directly negotiating with the Islamic State, according to a December report by the U.K.-based think tank the Overseas Development Institute.

“Major international aid agencies are using individuals who have good relations and can mediate with IS to facilitate assistance. No international or U.N. staff are involved in delivering aid to these areas, and items are distributed in plain black bags without agency logos,” said the report.

The advance of the Islamic State in Syria made it the deadliest year for the country’s civil war. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated 76,000 people were killed in 2014. The fighting in the country has left 10.8 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. WFP says it is currently providing aid to 4 million people in the country and roughly 2 million living as refugees in neighboring countries.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.