David Bax helped save 35 aid workers in a Mogadishu firefight. So why did they turn against him?
The tip came early in the day on June 19. Islamist militants had breached the inner sanctum of the United Nations' humanitarian compound in downtown Mogadishu -- and they were trying to slaughter the relief workers inside.
It wasn't David Bax's job to respond to such an attack; the former South African soldier was hired by the U.N. simply to defuse explosives in and around the restive city.
But Bax wasn't about to sit on his hands while a massacre went down. Within 30 minutes, Bax had mobilized his convoy, consisting of Burundian soldiers, U.N. explosives specialists, and foreign security contractors, into a rescue party.
While the firefight between al-Shabab militants and Somali guards raged inside the U.N. facility, Bax led his team to the outer wall and waited for a lull in the shooting. When the pause came, they rushed into the compound and began loading the terrified U.N. survivors onto Bax's Casspir armored personnel vehicles. Once the vehicles were full, Bax's team sped off and delivered the survivors to safety at the secure U.N. compound at Mogadishu's airport. In the end, one U.N. staffer, two South African contractors, four Somali security guards, a Somali electrician, and several Somali civilians were dead. As many as seven al-Shabab fighters were also killed in the operation. Most of the fighting was carried out by Somali security guards, who suffered the largest number of casualties. While Bax's team didn't engage in the firefight, there was little doubt that he and his team had risked their lives.
But the United Nations didn't award Bax a commendation for his bravery. In fact, days after the attack, Bax, the program manager for the U.N. Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in Somalia, came under fire from some of the very people he tried to save, and his U.N. career may now be on the line. His detractors say he repeatedly overstepped the bounds of his authority and propriety, propositioning female colleagues and exercising undue control over vital necessities for humanitarian workers like a Chicago alderman. Others say that Bax's rescue mission, while noble, may have only put U.N. employees -- and the U.N. mission in Somalia -- in further jeopardy. Bax had no authority to mount a risky extraction operation, some of his U.N. colleagues charge, and the appearance of a U.N.-led convoy -- made up of Western security contractors and armed Burundian soldiers at war with al-Shabab -- might have only reinforced the Somali public's perception of the United Nations as a partisan in the conflict. The appearance of evenhandedness, so necessary for humanitarian work, could be shattered.
The dispute over Bax's actions speaks to a deeper conflict over the U.N.'s global identity today. Is it an impartial humanitarian organization tending to the needs of civilians, regardless of political preferences? Or is it an ally with the world's great powers in the international struggle against militant Islamist extremism?
"The lines can get pretty blurred," said Matthew Bryden, who once headed the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea (SEMG), a U.N. Security Council panel that investigates threats to Somalia's democratic transition.
The United Nations, Bryden, explained, is like "a very broad church" whose myriad strains and tendencies can frequently come into conflict in the field. The U.N. humanitarian aid agencies insist that the United Nations must be perceived as "a neutral actor" in order for them to safely carry out their lifesaving work. "The humanitarian agencies don't like to talk to the SEMG or provide it with information because they don't want to be seen collaborating with what they see as an intelligence arm of the United Nations." For people like Bax, whose mandate places him closer to the conflict's front line, "claiming to be neutral when al-Shabab has already decided the U.N. is a target doesn't make sense."
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.N. Security Council required states to write anti-terrorism laws, and it expanded its black list of suspected Islamist terrorists with links to al Qaeda and the group's affiliates. (Indeed, confronting Islamist extremists is one of a handful of issues that has united the council's five major powers: Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States.) More recently, the Security Council has thrown its weight behind military missions crafted to thwart the ambitions of Islamist militants across Africa.
In Somalia, the United Nations is on a traditional humanitarian mission: feeding and caring for destitute Somali civilians. But it's also supplying crucial logistical support to the African Union forces who kicked al-Shabab out of Mogadishu -- and it's helping Somalia's new rulers stabilize the country in order to prevent the militants from staging a comeback.
Bax, a lumbering, 6-foot-5-inch former military engineer, has emerged as the embodiment of the hard edge of the United Nations. Bax is operating under a Security Council mandate to train American-backed peacekeepers on how to evade al-Shabab's bombs. That places him squarely on one side of the war there.
But though the U.N. is by no means neutral in Somalia, it is not supposed to be an active combatant. Bax's internal critics say he has crossed that line. His cooperation with American authorities, in particular, has raised eyebrows within the U.N.'s humanitarian's ranks.
Bax's troubles began days after the June 19 attack on the U.N. humanitarian compound. Infuriated by Bax's actions, an anonymous source in Mogadishu filed a complaint to Hervé Ladsous, the U.N. undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations. The source, who also leaked copies of the complaint to Foreign Policy and Inner City Press, suggested that Bax's heroics had actually endangered U.N. personnel by reinforcing al-Shabab's contention that the U.N. is merely an agent of American aims.
"Our colleagues are dead and this is why?" said the anonymous source's complaint, pointing out that Somali authorities and the U.N.-sanctioned African Union peacekeeping force, not the United Nations, bear responsibility for security in Mogadishu. "Why is this HIS job? Why does he have an armed response squad and a convoy as the head of the mine action service.???… Don't we work for the UN? Aren't we neutral? Are we humanitarians or soldiers? He is completely rogue and not in the chain of command."
In response to the complaint, Bax's employer, the U.N. Office for Project Services, dispatched a fact-finding team last week to Nairobi, Kenya to establish whether there is sufficient evidence to launch a full-fledged investigation into wrongdoing, with the team expected to subsequently travel to Mogadishu. Bax was transferred out of Mogadishu after the complaint -- purportedly for his own safety. The investigators, who have already questioned Bax, are likely to clear him of charges of improperly collaborating with American authorities. As of Aug. 4, the investigators had not yet reached out to several women who were identified in the anonymous complaint as having information about alleged sexual harassment. (Bax declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Whatever the investigation's outcome, the case has turned a spotlight on a man who has left an oversized impression on U.N. life in Mogadishu.
A 17-year veteran of U.N. peacekeeping missions, Bax arrived in Mogadishu nearly four years ago, a time when al-Shabab held sway over much of the capital and the city was deemed even too dangerous for U.N. peacekeepers to operate.
Bax carved out a swath of land at Mogadishu's airport, inside a broader security compound operated by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which had been established two years earlier to defend the country's Western-backed transitional government in its war with al-Shabab.
Bax's unit organized the construction of a network of secure housing units and offices that would accommodate the return of foreign diplomats, U.N. political officers, and relief workers. He organized his own armed convoy, protected by Burundian soldiers, who roamed freely around Mogadishu in a fleet of armored Casspir vehicles. He built a drinking establishment called Little Kruger in a thatched tukul at the heart of the compound. In a city where serving liquor can be a death sentence, Little Kruger -- named in honor of Nols Kruger, a South African diesel mechanic who was killed in a 2011 roadside ambush by al-Shabab -- was one of the rare spots where an expatriate could have a drink of imported Kenyan Tusker beer and relax with friends. It was also one of the city's safest spots.
Bax and his team quickly made common cause with Bancroft Global Development, a private security contractor that provided military training to African Union peacekeepers. Bax's agency hired the American firm to train Somali police and African Union peacekeepers in the handling of explosives. Two Bancroft employees, including an American national, were in Bax's convoy during the June 19 attack. The efforts by Bax's team and Bancroft helped the African peacekeepers improve their fighting skills and their defensive capabilities against al-Shabab.
Bax made other alliances as well.
Following a July 2010 attack by al-Shabab and its allies against Ugandan World Cup viewers, Bax established a relationship with the FBI to provide the Somalis with expertise on maintaining the integrity of the chain of evidence when handling bomb material.
On behalf of Somalia's police, Bax's unit collected fragments of explosives, swabs of blood, and chunks of mobile phones that were possibly used as detonators. The evidence was transferred by a Ugandan military flight to Kampala, the Ugandan capital, where an FBI field agent conducted tests at a local lab or in some cases sent the information back to Washington for further examination.
The arrangement was aimed at helping the Somali police build a case against extremists in the event of future prosecutions.
A senior official at U.N. headquarters insisted that the United Nations does not directly share evidence with the United States or other governments. The Somali government, not the U.N., was responsible for shipping the evidence to Uganda for testing by the FBI, the official claimed. The official also defended Bax's handling of the case, saying his team merely played a supporting role in the transaction. But some U.N. sources said Bax had taken the lead in facilitating the transactions and that in some cases his team had overstepped its authority. These sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Bax's team complied with an FBI request for blood samples of suspected foreign extremists who died in suicide bombings. In other words, this U.N. squad became an ally in America's war on terror.
Two years ago, al-Shabab's forces were largely driven from Mogadishu, opening the door to an influx of European diplomats, U.N. political and humanitarian aid officials, and relief agencies. While statistics are hard to come by, the U.N. helped train AMISOM forces in evasion tactics -- for instance, reducing foot patrols in narrow streets and increasing patrols in armored personnel vehicles. (The number of attacks from improvised explosive devices, however, has spiked in more recent months, climbing from 22 in the last three months of 2012 to 34 in the first three months of 2013.)
But Bax's team, composed of former military officials, did not always mix well with the U.N.'s relief workers, who often resented the enormous power Bax wielded over many of their lives.
It was Bax, for instance, who decided whether you slept in a nice room with a private toilet or shower or whether you were required to walk 100 yards in the dark in the middle of the night to find the outhouse. Bax, according to some U.N. officials, played favorites, assigning nicer rooms to friends.
The humanitarians were also weary of being associated with Bax, who traveled around town with his own heavily armed convoy. In fact, Bax once offered the U.N.'s humanitarian agencies a plot of land on the compound at the airport to build their facilities. They declined the offer, saying they needed to be closer to the government and the Somali people. But the humanitarian agencies -- which lack sufficient accommodations -- continued to rely heavily on Bax for housing, travel, and entertainment. The situation bred an atmosphere of resentment, jealousy, and dependency.
Bax's personality -- he has been described as King David, the Lord of Baxland -- has not helped.
One official compared Bax to Clint Eastwood's character in the movie Heartbreak Ridge -- a highly decorated war hero whose hard drinking, rule breaking, and womanizing make him a bad fit for civilian life. A line from the film, according to the official, could apply to Bax: "You should be sealed in a case that reads, 'Break glass only in the event of war.'"
The official added that Bax is the "most action-oriented guy I've ever worked with." But Bax reportedly had personal failings and often behaved inappropriately. Among the accused offenses Bax is now under investigation for: a pattern of allegedly sexually harassing his female colleagues.
"He is very flirtatious, but I just ignored it," said one woman who recalled his advances. "UNMAS has done so much good there, and it would be a shame to see their program, and his career, go down the drain. I think it would be a huge loss for Somalia."
Another woman was less forgiving, saying that Bax frequently made sexually suggestive remarks to women, including her. "He makes constant lewd comments about me when I'm in my running gear," said the woman, a humanitarian worker who frequently stayed in the UNMAS camp. "He made unambiguous sexual advances at most of the women in camp. It's not just that he has a problem with women. I think he has a problem with boundaries of any kind."
A third woman who worked closely with Bax in Mogadishu, however, came to his defense, saying, "Bax is a decent guy." A fourth described him as protective of women in his own staff. "He is far better behaved than a whole raft of people" serving on U.N. missions, one of the women said.
In the end, the U.N. brass in headquarters has rallied behind Bax, saying he was instructed to go to the compound.
"In an extremely difficult and dangerous environment, the UNMAS team contributed to the success of the evacuation of more than 35 staff and allowed important evidence for later inquiry/investigation to be obtained without further casualties from unexploded ordnance," Agnes Marcaillou, director of the U.N. Mine Action Service, said in a statement.
But his position among the rank-and-file humanitarian workers suffered.
Numerous sources said that they resented the fact that Bax had shouted out the name of a particular woman during the rescue operation. That fueled the notion that he had only come to get his own friend out. Later that night, many survivors met at Little Kruger to console one another. Bax, pumped up on adrenaline and sometimes laughing, boisterously regaled his friends with tales of the day's adventure, at one point taking out his smartphone and playing a video he had taken of the siege. Maybe it was a natural act for a man whose job puts him in constant contact with terrorist attacks. But that night, it came across as boorish to some at the bar. "It was pretty bloody insensitive," said one person familiar with the night's events, noting that some survivors were appalled at his glib account of the episode. "If he had not done that I think he would have gotten more credit for his action."
UN Photo/Mark Garten