The U.N. Insignia Emerges as a Global Target for Al-Qaeda Attacks
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
UNITED NATIONS -- The suicide bombings that ripped apart the U.N. headquarters building in Algiers on Dec. 11 and killed at least 37 people, including 17 U.N. employees, provided a bloody demonstration of the United Nations' emergence as a key target in al-Qaeda's global war against the West.
This year, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have threatened or targeted U.N. officials and peacekeepers in conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and southern Lebanon, where six U.N. peacekeepers were killed in a bombing in June. Even before the Algiers attack, the United Nations was already investing millions of dollars in fortifying its facilities and convoys in response to threats in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But the Algiers attack -- the deadliest for the United Nations since insurgents bombed its Baghdad headquarters in August 2003 -- provided a blunt reminder of how vulnerable the international organization is, even in relatively peaceful locales. It also raised concerns that more than a decade of efforts by the U.N. Security Council to check the influence of al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic movements has exposed U.N. humanitarian agencies to new dangers.
"Al-Qaeda certainly regards the United Nations as inimical to its own interests," said Richard Barrett, head of a U.N. team that monitors the effectiveness of U.N. sanctions against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "The more the United States and other countries protect themselves, the more the battle goes to the softest target, and the U.N. is always going to be a softer target."
While the United Nations is often accused in Washington of being anti-American and anti-Israeli, its image in the Middle East -- where it serves as the chief caregiver for Palestinian refugees -- has also been tattered. U.N. sanctions against Islamic countries, including Iraq and Iran, and the agency's refusal to engage in talks with elected Hamas officials have played into the hands of those who say the global body is an agent of U.S. and Israeli interests.
Al-Qaeda's Saudi-born leader, Osama bin Laden, has long harbored strong antipathy toward the United Nations, which he blames for a spree of alleged crimes against Islam, starting with the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state in the heart of the Arab world.
In the early 1990s, al-Qaeda affiliates planned attacks against U.N. headquarters, and bin Laden has put a price tag of 10,000 grams of gold -- about $137,000 -- on the lives of Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary general, and Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian diplomat who led U.N. diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. More recently, bin Laden has urged his followers to fight U.N.-endorsed peacekeepers in Sudan and Somalia.
"The United Nations is nothing but a tool of crime," bin Laden said in a 2001 statement. "We are being massacred every day while the United Nations continues to sit idly by."
U.N. officials say the latest bloodshed underscores the need to shake that perception. "We must do even better in explaining to the public and the media the role of the United Nations, wherever we operate," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told U.N. staff members at a memorial for their lost colleagues in New York, after a trip to Algiers. "We must make clear we are not there to represent the interests of any one group of nations over another. We must make clear that we are there to clear mines, build schools, run clinics, advance the rule of law, help protect the environment and help protect human rights."
Ban has pledged to review U.N. security procedures to ensure the safety of tens of thousands of workers in the field. But some U.N. officials say there is only so much the agency can do. "Do you go to the U.S. fortress model?" asked one senior U.N. official, referring to Washington's effort to reinforce its overseas embassies after al-Qaeda bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. "I doubt the U.N. could ever do that."
In Afghanistan, the United Nations has begun pulling staff members out of some provinces and is beefing up security after a top Taliban military commander, Mullah Dadullah, announced on April 28 that the United Nations is a legitimate target because of its support for the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai. "We certainly target all those who work for the U.N., the U.S. and Karzai," said Dadullah, who was later killed in a U.S.-led military operation. "We are attempting to target everyone that works for the U.N. and are determined to target all U.N. organizations and branches, considering them similar to U.S. organizations," he said.
Some U.N. officials say that the al-Qaeda threat, while real, has been overstated and that the deadliest threats in countries such as Iraq are from local insurgents who consider the United Nations a political arm of the United States. U.N. officials have detected growing hostility since the announcement that it would strengthen its presence in Iraq. One pro-insurgency writer said that the United Nations, along with the CIA and the Blackwater private security company, is part of a U.S.-led occupation army. "The resistance factions and their supporters are required to fight vigorously and treat [the United Nations] exactly as any other invader," he wrote.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda affiliates including Fatah al-Islam have infiltrated Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, posing a new threat to U.N. operations there. The killing of six Colombian and Spanish peacekeepers in Lebanon raised concerns that the groups may be targeting the U.N. peacekeeping mission there. Some U.N. officials also say that Syria, which is suspected of backing a series of political assassinations in Lebanon, may have had a hand in the attacks. "Things aren't always what they seem in Lebanon," Barrett said.
In Algeria, a group calling itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb asserted responsibility for the Algiers bombing and defended the strike against the United Nations, which it described as a "den of global infidelity."
But some senior officials said attacking the United Nations was simply the easiest way for the group to generate international attention. "Nothing suggests they had any grudge against [the U.N. Development Program] as such," said one senior U.N. official. "One of my concerns is that if there is less stuff in the newspaper about Iraq, they may be looking around for places to show they are still around and still a force to be reckoned with."