Seven years ago today, an al Qaeda affiliate blew up the UN headquarters in Iraq, killing the diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello and 23 others. This was the single deadliest attack on UN civilian staff in the field and for the past two years August 19th has been honored as World Humanitarian Day.
One unmistakable trend since that terrible day in August seven years ago is that the UN has emerged as a preferred target of al Qaeda and other militants inspired by radical form of Islam. Statements released by al Qaeda leadership frequently invokes anti-UN rehtoric. “The United Nations…are not humanitarians but a tool for the biggest criminals against humanity,” Al Qaeda’s second in command Ayman al Zawahiri said in typical audio tape released in 2008. “The Muslims have only witnessed prejudice and transgressions from them.” This kind of rhetoric–and dozens of other statements like it–has translated into deadly attacks against the UN. Since 2003, the United Nations has been the victim of suicide attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Algeria, and Somalia.
In places like Afghanistan and Iraq, the United Nations is responsible for standing up nascent governing structures – something that puts the UN directly at odds with insurgent groups. In Afghanistan for example, it is the UN that organizes elections, is helping to establish a judicial system, and supporting other aspects of Afghan nation building. The UN’s work in Afghanistan has in effect made it a partner in the American counter- insurgency strategy to boost the Afghan government and marginalize the Taliban. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban have clearly noticed. In October 2008, a suicide bomber blew himself up in 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. Five UN employees were killed in that assault. Attacks against the United Nations, however, have not been limited to regions where the UN is transparently supporting American-led military operations. The second deadliest terrorist attack in UN history occurred in Algiers, Algeria in December 2007 when 17 UN workers were killed in twin suicide bombings of two UN offices.
The UN is used to working in dangerous environments. It has never, however, faced the kind of sustained and multi-front assault on its staff and property that it is experiencing today.
Something to think about this World Humanitarian Day. Here is a PSA from the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: