The concerns surrounding the Mogadishu attack extend to many others like it around the world. Over the past decade, political and humanitarian aid workers with the U.N. have become prime targets of some of the world's worst terrorist groups. In September, for instance, scores of people descended on Turtle Bay to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the worst terror attack in the institution's history: the Aug. 19 suicide bombing of the U.N. compound in Baghdad that killed 22 people, including the U.N.'s special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello. Moreover, since the summer of 2005, the U.N. has been attacked by armed extremists linked to al Qaeda nearly 70 times, with 68 people killed and more than 160 injured, according to internal U.N. figures.
What can be done to stop this trend? Is it reasonable to expect lightly defended U.N. relief workers to hunker down in the world's most dangerous conflict zones, even when confronted with specific and potentially deadly threats? Is the U.N. doing all that it can to prevent attacks, and is it appropriately holding people accountable for failures to address warnings? To date, no one has been held professionally responsible for what happened -- and didn't happen -- in Mogadishu.
A debate on these questions is unfolding as the U.N. expands its role in hotspots like Somalia, Mali, and Syria and confronts violence perpetrated by al-Shabab and other extremist groups. Indeed, in the wake of the 2003 Baghdad attack, the U.N.'s humanitarian agencies have strived to maintain a presence in even the most dangerous field missions. The "stay at all costs" spirit was even codified in a Jan. 1, 2011, directive that changed the U.N. Security Phase System, which required withdrawal when a certain threshold of risk had been reached, to what's called the Security Level System, which aims to reorient "security thinking from ‘when to leave' to ‘how to stay.'"
"The U.N. does continue to work in areas that we probably would not have worked in 10 [or] 15 years ago," said Kevin Kennedy, a former U.S. Marine colonel who heads the U.N. Department of Safety and Security. The department has responsibility for securing several hundred facilities in 187 countries. Kennedy defended the U.N.'s effort to hang tough, saying it is immoral to abandon the legions of national staff to their own devices in the face of a threat. He said that, on a typical day, he may receive multiple warnings against U.N. personnel in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Sudan. He also recalled being shot at twice during a three-and-a-half-hour tour of Damascus, Syria. "We have become a target; we have been hit enough," Kennedy said.
In Mogadishu, threats are nothing new. A recent one involved a team of al-Shabab frogmen emerging from the shark-infested ocean and approaching an airport compound shared by the U.N.'s political leadership and African Union (AU) peacekeepers. (Ironically, the scenario is somewhat similar to the attempted U.S. SEAL team raid on the home of a suspected al-Shabab leader on Oct. 4, in retaliation for the Westgate attack.) Officials slept with their guns, but the threatened attack, like many others, never materialized. "Every day there are warnings," said Stephan Smith, the chief of operations for the South African contractor Mechem, which helps manage U.N. missions in Somalia. He noted that it is always easy to find fault in hindsight. "We expect attacks every day."
Yet the deadliness of the June 19 tragedy, and new information about what the U.N. knew in advance and how it may have failed to protect itself in Somalia, drives home the importance of enhanced diligence and better preparation, especially given the now-routine targeting of the U.N. around the world. The following account of the deadly attack is based on internal U.N. documents, e-mails, and interviews with officials in Mogadishu and elsewhere.