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.
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