Why Do Suicide Bombers Attack the UN?

Within one week this month there were two high profile attacks against the UN in Iraq and Afghanistan.  On October 19, a convoy carrying the top UN official in Iraq, Ad Melkert, was targeted by a roadside bomb.  Melkert escaped unharmed, but one police officer was killed. Four days later a UN compound in Herat, Afghanistan came under attack by four Taliban assailants who crashed a car through the gates, then attempted to detonate suicide vests hidden under burqas.  Thankfully, no UN officials were killed during this assault.

These attacks must now be added to a growing list of terrorist strikes against UN targets in recent years.  The attack in Herat is particularly disturbing because it is about the seventh time that a suicide bomber has targeted the United Nations since 2003.

So why is it that suicide bombers chose the UN as a target?  I posed this question to University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, who is well known for his research on suicide terrorism. His 2005 book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism is a landmark study of suicide bombers’ motivations.   A follow-up, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It will hit bookshelves next month.

Pape’s main assertion is that the United Nations is being targeted in places where it is considered an accomplice to an American military occupation.  Thus, he concludes that the United Nations probably cannot insulate itself from attacks in places where it is working closely with the United States, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.  However, the UN can and should counter the perception that it is an American tool by showcasing its neutrality and humanitarian good works elsewhere.   Have a listen:

Robert Pape Discusses Suicide Bombings and the UN by UN Dispatch