Yesterday was the one year anniversary of the terrorist bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria. At least 23 people were killed in the suicide bombing, making it the single deadliest attack against the United Nations in the organization’s history. 11 of those killed were UN staffers with the UN Development Program, the World Health Organization, Unicef, UNAIDS, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
The Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the attack.
The attack in Nigeria was the latest in a sadly long list of attacks against the United Nations by al Qaeda inspired militants. This includes the 2003 bombing of the UN’s headquarters in Iraq; the 2007 bombing of the UN’s offices in Algiers; a 2008 attack on a UN compound in Somalia; the suicide bombing of the WFP’s offices in Pakistan in 2009; and several attacks against UN targets in Afghanistan.
Those attacks were the physical manifestations of a long and calculated war of words by Al Qaeda. Since the mid-1990s, al Qaeda leaders have been building a rhetorical case against the United Nations. In dozens of publicly released statements, Osama Bin Laden and his deputies have railed against the supposed injustices experienced by Muslims at the hands of the United Nations. Chief among their grievances was the UN’s role in establishing the state of Israel. After the 2007 bombing of UN headquarters in Algeria, Al Qaeda’s number 2 Ayman Al Zawahiri released this statement:
“The operation on the 11th of December was against the headquarters of the United Nations and the Constitutional Assembly and Police Academy, not against children’s schools or women’s hospitals. And the United Nations is an enemy of Islam and Muslims: it is the one which codified and legitimized the setting up of the state of Israel and its taking over of the Muslims’ lands.”
As the ideology of Al Qaeda spreads to groups that draw inspiration from Al Qaeda, like Al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa and Boko Haram in Nigeria, so too does the threat posed to the United Nations. The UN will not pull out of Nigeria or the Horn of Africa–two places where the kinds of health, humanitarian and institution-building work at which the UN excels is needed the most. Rather, humanitarians wearing the UN insignia or driving UN now have to accept that they are targets simply because of their affiliation with the UN.
This is very much a post 9-11 phenomenon and it is very disturbing.
I’m going to take a moment today to honor the memory of those killed in last year’s bombing by reflecting on the great risks that UN humanitarians take to promote the health, welfare and dignity of people around the world.