How the UN Became an Al Qaeda Target

The death toll in last Friday’s bombing of the UN building in Abuja is now up to 23.  75 others were injured. This makes it the deadliest attack in UN history.

One of the scariest and most disturbing trends for the United Nations is the way in which an international humanitarian organization has become a preferred target of Islamist extremists over the past ten years. The transformation has occurred remarkably quickly.

Since the mid 1990s, Al Qaeda leaders like Ayman al Zawahiri and the late Osama bin Laden have constructed a narrative about the United Nations that paints the world body as implacably hostile to the interests of Muslims worldwide. They portray it as part of a global conspiracy to subjugate muslims and promote the interests of the United States and the west.

I wrote my grad school research paper on this topic and found that between 1996 and 2009, Bin Laden or Zawahiri cited the UN disparagingly in over  30 separate public messages, the vast majority coming after the September 11 attacks. This note, from Ayman al Zawahiri in March 2008, is typical for the genre:

“What is Shari’ah’s judgment on the United Nations that established Israel by its resolutions and whose Charter provides for respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all member countries including Israel? Could we describe such a situation with the words “what is accepted as a norm is like that which is set as a condition?”

“In Iraq, America alleged that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. It asked the United Nations to strike Iraq. When it did not get what it wanted, it attacked Iraq itself and destroyed it, but it found no weapons of mass destruction – and this despite the fact that America holds others to account for not abiding by United Nations resolutions.”

“The property of some Muslims in the West has been frozen and they have been denied access to it. Indeed, it has been forbidden for any person to grant them any sum of money. Some have had this imposed on them by United Nations resolution, without having any charges brought against them or without any proof established against them. The funds of many charitable organizations and associations that provide aid to Muslims in Palestine and other Islamic lands have also been frozen.”

“No, by God! there is no covenant between us and them. In fact, they are belligerents wherever they live and stay, even if they take hold of the curtains of the Kaaba. The treaty that governments have made with these crusaders is not legal. It is based on the idolatrous charters of the United Nations. It was made by classes that do not regard God in their works and whose only interest is in keeping their seats and thrones.”

“I would add to what Shaykh Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdissi said, may God release him from imprisonment, and I would remind the Christians of Egypt of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia where the Serbian Orthodox – their brothers in creed – killed more than 7000 Muslims under the eyes and ears of the United Nations forces under the command of the agent and grandson of the agent, Butrus Butrus Ghali. We did not put you through investigative trials as your brothers did to our brothers, and we did not massacre you as your brothers did to our brothers in Srebrenica, Sabra and Shatilla.”

This narrative, which has been steadily built over the past 10 years or so, has been very consequential to the security of the United Nations.  To be sure, UN peackeepers and aid workers have been shot at, kidnapped and killed in the past, but never before has the institution had to deal with the threat of terrorism.

The first serious attack was the 2003 bombing of UN headquarters in Iraq, which killed 22 people. In December 2007, 17 people were killed in a twin suicide bombing attack on the UN headquarters in Algiers, Algeria. In Afghanistan and Pakistan the UN has been a frequent target as well. In October 2008, a suicide bomber struck the lobby of the Islamabad headquarters of the World Food Program, killing himself and five UN humanitarian workers. Three weeks later, a team of Taliban militants attacked a guesthouse in Kabul where UN election workers were stationed.  In Somalia, Al Shabaab militants launched a suicide bombing attack on a UNDP compound in northern Somalia in 2008.  Now, an al Qaeda inspired group, Boko Harum, is taking credit for this latest attack in Abuja.

The trend is clear: Al Qaeda or groups that look to Al Qaeda for ideological inspiration are targeting the United Nations whenever, and wherever they can.  If this trend continues–and there is no reason to think it will stop — the UN will become a real target wherever there is some sort of low-level Islamist insurgency.

That’s a serious problem for the UN, which runs humanitarian or economic development programs throughout the Magrheb, Middle East, Africa and Asia.

You expect a level of insecurity in conflict zones like Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the attack on the UN compound in Abuja shows that the UN is a target very far from hot conflict zones. UN offices in Mali, Mauritania, Indonesia, or wherever al Qaeda inspired groups have a foothold, may be next.

The organization and its member states ought to prepare accordingly.