It started on an uneventful day in May 2013, three weeks before the United Nations' newly minted special representative, Nicholas Kay, was due to arrive in Mogadishu. Kay's presence would inaugurate a new era of international support for Somalia's Western-backed government, which was not yet one year old. Behind closed doors, a U.N. security analyst received a troubling intelligence tip: Al-Shabab, Somalia's then-dormant Islamist militant group, which would orchestrate the bloody Westgate Mall massacre in Nairobi just a few months later, was plotting a sophisticated terrorist strike against a list of Somali government facilities and outposts of its African and Western allies. The prime target, however, was the U.N.'s humanitarian compound in downtown Mogadishu.
The terrorist plot, hatched in coordination with al Qaeda's East Africa cell, called for nearly a dozen militants disguised as security guards and contractors to board a passenger vehicle and shadow a U.N. convoy as it entered the compound. Once inside, al-Shabab's assassins would open fire on dozens of unarmed international aid workers who had taken up residence in Somalia to deliver life-saving assistance to the country's poor. The terrorists' ultimate goal: drive the U.N. out of Somalia, and thereby deprive the struggling new government of the international lifeline it depended on for survival.
"This threat information is without doubt the most specific that we ... have received in the past two-and-a-half years," read a highly confidential e-mail the U.N. security analyst wrote on May 20 to top security officials in Mogadishu and New York. The threat described in the e-mail, which was obtained exclusively by Foreign Policy, has never before been made public. "The level of detail, as well as the comments about the source's reliability, strongly suggests we should take it very seriously, though the possibility of intended or unwitting misinformation cannot be excluded."
The tip -- the first of two detailed warnings of an al-Shabab plan to strike the U.N. in Somalia -- was deemed credible enough to require several measures to reinforce the U.N.'s defenses, including the placement of a machine gun at the main guard tower. But the measures proved deadly inadequate.
Less than a month after the first warning, al-Shabab's terror squad struck with lethal force. A suicide bomber drove a silver Toyota Noah packed with explosives right up to the compound and blew open the front steel gate, blasting a hole in the outer wall and filling the street with smoke. Six additional militants dressed in uniforms from Somalia's national forces slipped through the opening, firing on Somali guards and trying to hunt down U.N. relief workers inside.
By the end of the June 19 raid, the militants had killed eight people employed by the U.N. At least six Somali nationals were killed outside the building, possibly from the blast, but potentially from crossfire. All seven of the militants died. Even as the fighting in the compound raged, al-Shabab crowed in real time on Twitter about the "clueless foreigners" inside the U.N. compound "who were lulled into a false sense of security by a strong disinformation campaign!"
"The UN, a merchant of death & a satanic force of evil, has a long inglorious record of spreading nothing but poverty, dependency & disbelief," the group tweeted on its official account, which was later shut down. The U.N., al-Shabab added, is "serving #US goals" and thwarting "Allah's Law on earth & must therefore be dislodged."
The tragedy in Mogadishu is raising questions inside the U.N. about whether the Somali government or the organization's own security detail in Mogadishu undertook reasonable steps to defend against the attack. A ring of concrete barriers rested within feet of the compound walls, providing only limited protection against a large truck explosion. The weakest point of entry -- a steel boom and a metal gate -- crumpled from the force of the car bomb. There was little sign that the Somali police stationed outside the compound engaged the militants.
Troublingly, the analyst who first delivered the warning has since resigned from the U.N. The analyst expressed frustration to colleagues that others at the U.N. had not taken the al-Shabab threat seriously enough -- that they had ignored a host of signs that the compound was vulnerable.