The Cable

Exclusive: U.N. Uncovers 'Credible' New al-Shabab Terror Plot

The United Nations recently uncovered a "credible" plot by the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab to mount a major terrorist attack against the U.N. compound in Mogadishu, according to senior U.N. officials briefed on the plan. It's another sign that the militant outfit, once thought to be all but expired, has once again become a major force for terror in East Africa.

The warning, one of several threats against the U.N. in recent months, drove home the harsh risks of life in Somalia for the United Nations nearly three months after the Islamist movement attacked the organization's humanitarian compound in downtown Mogadishu, killing eight U.N. employees. It also reinforced the fact that al-Shabab, which was widely considered to be organizationally spent earlier this year, has regrouped. Late last month, al-Shabab killed dozens at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

"U.N. premises in Mogadishu may come under direct terrorist attacks," according to a confidential security assessment of Somalia produced jointly by the African Union and the United Nations. The report, which was shared with U.N. Security Council members, said the ongoing "risk of asymmetric attacks has significantly curtailed the mobility of U.N. staff in Mogadishu and hampers delivery of critical UN programs in support of [Somalia's] Federal government."

In response, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called this week for the deployment of thousands of additional African troops to take the fight to al-Shabab's strongholds and to reinforce the U.N.'s own security. In a letter, Ban asked the 15-nation Security Council and governments to enhance the U.N. mission's security in Mogadishu. He proposed the "immediate deployment" of a "static U.N. guard unit" to reinforce the security of the U.N. political headquarters at Mogadishu's airport. He also called for the establishment of a "dedicated force" of about 150 Somali police officers to provide security for U.N. convoys, and he urged Somalia to set up a quick-reaction force that can respond immediately to the U.N.'s cries for help.

But can the U.N. be truly safe in Somalia?

J. Peter Pham, a specialist on Somalia at the Atlantic Council, isn't convinced that's possible over the long run.

"Yes, more troops will provide more security for those already present in Somalia," he said. "We can clear out some more space from Shabab-controlled areas. But in a year, we will be asking for more troops and air power. This is a never-ending cycle."

Pham said that the larger problem is that the African Union and the United Nations are supporting a government in Somalia that lacks sufficient political legitimacy among the Somali people. He said the assembly of elders -- that last year elected the country's constituent assembly and parliament, which in turn elected Somalia's president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud -- was "packed with phony elders."

Equally troublesome, he added, is the fact that the U.N. has picked sides in a messy civil and clan conflict, repeating the mistake made by the United States and the United Nations in the early 1980s, when they pursued the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.

"The U.N. is not a neutral force in Somalia," Pham said. "I think in a way the United Nations has painted the target on its own back."

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who studies terrorist groups at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the United States, the United Nations, and others frequently have to make hard choices about working with states that are not entirely democratic.

"The question is 'how much is legitimate enough,'" he said, noting that al-Shabab's standing in Somalia has never been lower. Many countries, including the United States and its African allies, "have invested in the idea that it is."

Gartenstein-Ross said that two years ago many analysts were skeptical that African troops possessed the power to dislodge al-Shabab from key urban centers, including Mogadishu and Kismayo. But they did it.

A new military surge, he said, carries risks, but "certainly there is a chance that these operations against Shabab will succeed," he said. "Military operations against Shabab over the past year and a half have been more successful than analysts anticipated."

"Putting people in danger in an environment like Somalia may be worth the cost. That's a judgment the U.N. or the U.S. government makes all the time when deploying people in unsafe environments," he said. "Is it being unwise?… On its face, it seems the only way to build a functioning government is to try to put services and the like in place as ground is captured."

In the meantime, Ban said he has received assurances from the African Union that the African forces in Somalia will continue reinforcing the perimeter of the airport compound they share and provide security for U.N. personnel who travel outside the capital.

Ban has also requested the U.N. Security Council to authorize the expansion of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which he hopes could free up more African troops to enhance security at the airport until the situation stabilizes in Mogadishu.

"The current security environment directly affects the ability of the United Nations and the international community to support the Somali authorities and people in Mogadishu and the region," Ban wrote. "U.N. personnel must be able to work effectively in Somalia, including to operate alongside Somali counterparts and to move freely in Mogadishu and recovered areas, in order to deliver their mandates," Ban wrote. "This requires additional security adjustments to allow our staff to operate safely."

The U.N. has previously seen its appeal for protection for its personnel rebuffed. Last year, the African Union was asked to develop a guard force composed of 311 troops for the United Nations "to provide security, escort and protection services to personnel from the international community including the United Nations." "However, the mandated guard force has not been deployed as AMISOM became over stretched," the report stated. It was impossible, the report added, to bring in reinforcements to take on the role because the Security Council had imposed a ceiling on the number of foreign forces allowed into the country at one time.

Follow me on Twitter: @columlynch


The Cable

Rubio Pushes for More Iran Sanctions While U.S. Hails 'Positive' Talks with Tehran

GENEVA -- Western diplomats are hailing the latest nuclear talks with Iran as the most constructive in decades. But that isn't stopping hawks in Congress like Sen. Marco Rubio from calling for a new round of crippling sanctions against the country -- a development that some observers fear could spoil the fragile negotiations.

On Wednesday, Iran and six world powers wrapped up two days of nuclear talks in Geneva on a surprisingly positive note. In a rare joint statement, the nations called the discussions  "substantive and forward looking" and formalized the next round of negotiations in Geneva on Nov. 7-8. The United States and the European Union depicted the talks as "substantive," "very important," and "positive." 

One senior Obama administration official beamed with excitement. "I've been doing this now for about two years, and I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before," said the official. "I would say we really are beginning that type of negotiation where one could imagine that you could possible have an agreement."

But back in Washington, the enthusiasm is not shared by Congressional hawks who immediately dismissed the talks and proposed a new round of sanctions against Tehran -- even though the administration had yet to reveal details about the progress of discussions.

"No one should be impressed by what Iran appears to have brought to the table in Geneva," said Sen. Marco Rubio in a statement attached to a new resolution calling for additional sanctions. Rubio added earlier: "Now is not the time to suspend sanctions, but to increase them on the Iranian regime."

The House of Representatives already passed a bill that would choke off almost all of Iran's remaining international oil sales in July. This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers threatened to pass that House bill in the absence of an Iranian offer to "halt and dismantle" its nuclear program.

"If Iranian actions fail to match the rhetorical reassurances of the last two weeks, we are prepared to move forward with new sanctions to increase pressure on the government in Tehran," said the group of lawmakers, which included Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and others.

To a number of more dovish lawmakers in Congress, additional sanctions threaten to erode the already minimal amount of trust between Washington and Tehran. "There are very hawkish voices being raised and there is a push for additional sanctions in the Senate," Rep David Price (D-NC) told The Cable. "I think it's ill-timed."

The Iranians are looking for a nuclear deal that would alleviate the dozens of U.S. and international sanctions punishing its economy. For their part, the six world powers -- which includes the U.S., China, Russia, France, the U.K. and Germany -- want verifiable curbs on Iran's nuclear program that guarantee its purported peaceful aims.

It remains unclear whether the administration will do anything to convince lawmakers to postpone the sanctions. When asked if it would ask lawmakers to hold off, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters "I don't have a prediction of that at this point."

Back in Geneva, a senior administration official downplayed the White House's ability to influence Congress on this issue even if it wanted to. "The prerogative in the end is theirs, but I am hopeful that we will continue to be strong partners with the same objective," the official said. "They'll make their own decisions about how best to proceed. And we all have to think through and reflect on what we learned here, what we discussed here, and how to best proceed forward."

Administration officials didn't divulge a date of its next briefing with Congress but Psaki said chief nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman would lead the effort when she returns to Washington. At a Senate panel earlier this month, Sherman said that the White House was willing to potentially soften some of its sanctions if Tehran took "verifiable, concrete actions" to delay its nuclear program. Sherman also urged lawmakers to hold off on imposing new sanctions on Iran until Tehran detailed its potential nuclear concessions at this week's talks.

The Rouhani government insists on the right to continue enriching uranium on its own soil, something the White House has hinted it might accept under stringent inspections, but hasn't officially accepted. Tehran has also yet to signal a clear willingness to shutter its underground, heavily-fortified nuclear plant at Qom, a source of particular concern for Israel because it is largely impervious to their air strikes, or to dismantle any of its centrifuges.

The Iranians, for the first time in a decade of on-again-off-again talks, agreed to conduct discussions in English. It was seen as a goodwill gesture, earning gratitude from the world powers. "We spoke in English, which makes a real difference," said a European official.

While world powers are likely to demand Iran ship out some of its near-weapons-grade uranium stockpile, Iranian diplomat Abbas Araghchi raised eyebrows before the talks by declaring such a move a "red line." On Wednesday, he softened that stance as well: "Red lines should not be an obstacle," he told a small group of journalists after tonight's press conference. "They are not reversible, but can be dealt with." Araghchi speculated that "if there is enough good will on each side, we can complete a deal in three to six months."

Details of the new Iranian proposal, however, remained scant. American, European and Iranian officials steadfastly refused to respond to inquiries on the contours of the proposal or the follow-up discussions. Analysts said Iran's proposal opened potential avenues to agreement by dealing directly with the possible final status deal at the outset.

"The Iranian proposal is more structured and clear than previous Western proposals because the previous Western proposals only included the first steps." said the National Iranian American Council's Trita Parsi, who supports diplomacy. "The Iranian proposal goes from the beginning to the end and has the end defined."