A funeral ceremony for two Bangladeshi officers killed in action. 15 May 2016. MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko

In Mali, peacekeepers have become the target of an insurgency. This is unprecedented

In Mali, it is UN peacekeepers — and not the civilians they are meant to protect — who have become the primary targets of a growing insurgency.

Since the mission deployed in 2013, there have been 86 fatalities, making it the deadliest peacekeeping mission, by far. In the last two weeks alone, eleven peacekeepers and two UN contractors were killed in ambushes. In the city of Gao yesterday, coordinated attacks on UN facilities left one peacekeeper and two other UN personnel killed. On Sunday, five UN peacekeepers were killed in a roadside ambush in the center of the country, and ten days earlier, five more peacekeepers were killed in an ambush in the north of the country.

Blue helmets are the target of choice for a growing jihadist insurgency

UN peacekeepers first came to Mali in 2013, on the heels of a French-led military offensive that routed al Qaeda-linked groups from the territory they held in the northern part of the country. The peacekeeping mission, called MINUSMA, has an authorized strength of over 18,000 and is one of the largest in the world. It is helping to implement a fragile peace accord between the government and ethnic rebel groups in the north and providing support to UN agencies and NGOs that are helping to rebuild cities like Timbuktu that were damaged during the Islamist occupation.

But these attacks on blue helmets, which have been claimed by Al Qaeda linked groups, are occurring with increased frequency and threatening to undermine some of the gains made by this mission. The groups that appeared defeated have reconstituted and are setting their sites on blue helmets.

“After the French intervention, these groups dispersed. They did not go away,” says Andrew Lebovich, a Visiting Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “In the last year an a half they have re-emerged more forcefully.”

Contingents from Niger and Bangladesh. MINUSMA/Marco Dormino
Contingents from Niger and Bangladesh. MINUSMA/Marco Dormino

What can the UN Do?

The United Nations has unfortunate experience in being the target of terrorists and militias who find strategic value in attacking UN operations around the world. This is not new. But never before have UN peacekeeping troops deployed in the midst of an Islamist insurgency; and never before have peacekeepers become a prime target of a sustained jihadist insurgency.

This is upending the traditional UN playbook. For example, protection of civilians is at the heart of the mandate of MINUSMA.  Normally, peacekeepers would carry out that task through a model known as “protection by presence” in which blue helmets patrol communities to deter combatants from targeting civilians.  But that cannot work in a context in which peacekeepers themselves are the target. “Protection of civilians in a place like Mali cannot look like what it looks like in other missions,” says Aditi Gorur of the Stimson Center. “Since peacekeepers are the target, placing them in the community would have the opposite effect.”

Last year, a months long review of UN peacekeeping operations commissioned by Ban Ki Moon and lead by Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta foresaw the dilemma now facing the mission in Mali. The panel concluded that UN peacekeeping was not currently suited for counter-terrorism, and blue helmets should not be asked to undertake “military counter-terrorism operations.”

So, we probably cannot expect blue helmets to launch offensives against these al Qaeda-linked groups. But the UN can–and should–expect the broader international community to support the mission, financially and militarily, to enable it to implement the fledgling peace deal and reduce some of the drivers of the insurgency.

Absent that kind of broader political support, the mission in Mali may be doomed.