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The warning, one of several threats against the UN 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 UN employees.
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Al-Shabab Targeted UN in Mogadishu
The United Nations recently uncovered a "credible" plot by the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab to mount a major terrorist attack against the UN compound in Mogadishu, according to senior UN 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 UN 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 UN employees. It also reinforced the fact that al-Shabaab, which was widely considered to be organizationally spent earlier this year, has regrouped. Late last month, al-Shabaab killed dozens at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

"UN 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 UN Security Council members, said the ongoing "risk of asymmetric attacks has significantly curtailed the mobility of UN staff in Mogadishu and hampers delivery of critical UN programs in support of [Somalia's] Federal government."

In response, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called this week for the deployment of thousands of additional African troops to take the fight to al-Shabaab's strongholds and to reinforce the UN's own security. In a letter, Ban asked the 15-nation Security Council and governments to enhance the UN mission's security in Mogadishu. He proposed the "immediate deployment" of a "static UN guard unit" to reinforce the security of the UN 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 UN convoys, and he urged Somalia to set up a quick-reaction force that can respond immediately to the UN's cries for help.

But can the UN 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 Shabaab-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 UN 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 UN 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"...

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 UN personnel who travel outside the capital.

Ban has also requested the UN 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.


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