For years, the United Nations has taken pains to present itself to the world as an impartial, international institution dedicated to helping people around the world. But when the Islamist terrorist organization Boko Haram detonated a car bomb at the UN’s compound in Abuja, Nigeria, last Friday, killing 23 and wounding at least 75, it was a stark reminder that, no matter how hard the UN tries to be neutral, many, especially in the Muslim world, see it as a proxy of Western powers. Indeed, for many groups bent on wrecking havoc, the UN has become synonymous with the United States. And that spells particular trouble for the body, given that its compounds are far less secure than American overseas military bases and embassies. As most terrorists are opportunists—opting for symbolic targets that are easy to strike in the vast majority of instances—the UN must take stronger measures to secure its facilities if it wants to remain effective in the field.
Despite its best efforts to dissociate itself from the United States, the UN’s fate seems to have been sealed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which the Bush administration portrayed as a UN-authorized operation. Following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the UN expanded its presence in Baghdad to assist with Iraqi reconstruction projects. As part of the organization’s campaign to remain a neutral player, it maintained its national offices in the centrally-located Canal Hotel, as opposed to setting up shop in the Green Zone. The trade-off for trying to come across as impartial by locating its operations openly amidst Iraqi society was to leave its headquarters widely exposed—a decision that proved to be fateful when terrorists bombed the compound on August 19, 2003, killing 22, including UN Special Representative for Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Since the Baghdad attack, the UN has formed numerous expert panels that have issued several reports on how to better secure UN personnel and facilities. The reports, including one chaired by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari and another by veteran UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, recommended, among other things, that the UN improve internal management and oversight. But much of this advice, like assuring greater accountability, has either been discounted or given superficial enactment. The advice that has been heeded, moreover, like the creation of an entire department tasked with safety and security, has clearly not done enough to decrease the vulnerabilities facing the institution, which, since the Baghdad bombing, has been the target of no less than ten terrorist attacks annually, according to the U.S. National Counter Terrorism Center.
The most prominent of these attacks have been perpetrated by anti-American jihadist groups in Iraq, Algeria, Somaliland, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and now Nigeria. While impossible to verify in all instances, it seems likely that the UN was targeted because of its association with the United States. As former Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi put it in his claim of responsibility for the 2003 Canal Hotel attack: “We destroyed the UN building, the protectors of Jews, the friends of the oppressors and aggressors. The UN has recognized the Americans as the masters of Iraq.” Likewise the Taliban, which claimed responsibility for a 2009 attack on the UN’s food agency in Islamabad, Pakistan, is believed to have authorized the suicide bombing in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed its leader Baitullah Mehsud.
To be sure, the UN has, at times, conceded that it is perceived as “an instrument of powerful member states.” But this is a bit misleading as to what’s driving the violence against the UN. After all, when people are mad at Russia or China, they don’t attack UN compounds. Yet even everyday citizens in countries where the UN has missions often rally against the UN for what happens in the States. Take the example of this year’s demonstration in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, against the Koran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones. Protestors marched on the UN’s offices in April to voice their disdain for the pastor’s tactics, sparking violence and leaving eleven people dead, including seven UN-affiliated workers.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Boko Haram’s attack in Nigeria fits a similar pattern. Until last year, the group had been preoccupied largely with regional interests. But after pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2010, Boko Haram launched a staunch anti-American public diplomacy campaign by declaring, “Jihad has just begun. O America, die with your fury.” And how did Boko Haram make good on that pledge? By attacking the UN.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon denounced the recent attack—the deadliest in the UN's history—stating, “This was an assault on those who devote their lives to helping others. We condemn this terrible act, utterly.” But to terrorists dead-set on targeting the UN as a proxy for U.S. power, the Secretary-General’s words are meaningless. The UN must come to terms with the fact that its detractors do not see the organization as a benign player pursuing an impartial agenda focused on peace and humanitarianism. Instead of reacting to the Nigeria attack by empanelling yet another all-star group of experts to determine what went wrong, this time the UN should take serious steps to address the criticisms laid out in expert reports it has already commissioned, especially the particularly harsh Zacklin report on the 2007 Algiers bombing.
To date, the UN has relied on the host country for providing security to its missions. But as all the major attacks cited above show, host countries are often unable to provide the kind of assistance that the UN’s field facilities require. The UN therefore has no choice but to “harden” its sites. Four measures will drastically increase the safety of UN personnel: install traffic barriers that prevent unauthorized vehicles from getting close to the buildings; increase “stand-off distances” by extending the grounds and gates to a length far enough away that a car carrying a bomb could not impact the buildings; restrict traffic in front of UN buildings; and install impact-absorbing windows. Such measures have been successful in reducing the vulnerability of American embassies and bases abroad. They should go a long way in improving the security of the UN as well.
Of course, hardening UN sites is not cheap, and increasingly militarized compounds will likely reinforce the perception that the UN is an alien presence in many countries. But in a world where people ask, “The UN? The U.S.? What’s the difference?” the alternative appears far more costly.
Louis Klarevas teaches international relations at New York University. You can follow him on Twitter @Klarevas.