The U.N.’s dead­li­est mis­sion

The al-Qaeda threat in Mali presents a new chal­lenge to U.N. peace­keep­ers

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - KEVIN SIEFF BY | IN GAO, MALI

Since World War II, U.N. peace­keep­ers have been dis­patched to 69 con­flicts — civil wars, bor­der dis­putes and failed states. But now they are con­fronting an un­set­tling new threat: al-Qaeda.

Here in the vast, law­less desert of north­west Africa, their con­voys are be­ing torn apart by im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices and their com­pounds blasted by 1,000-pound car bombs. It is a cri­sis that looks more like the U.S. ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than the cease-fires tra­di­tion­ally mon­i­tored by U.N. mis­sions.

In the past four years, 118 peace­keep­ers have been killed — mak­ing the U.N. mis­sion in Mali, known as MINUSMA, the dead­li­est ever. The blood­shed has raised ques­tions about how an in­sti­tu­tion de­vel­oped in the 1940s can serve a world un­der threat from the Is­lamic State and al-Qaeda. The is­sue is es­pe­cially po­tent given the ex­pec­ta­tion that U.N. peace­keep­ers will even­tu­ally go to places such as Syria and Libya.

“We are try­ing to learn these lessons here, rather than in Iraq, Libya or Syria,” said Dutch Col. Mike Kerkhove, com­man­der of the U.N. in­tel­li­gence unit in Mali. “This is not the end of this type of mis­sion. It’s the be­gin­ning.”

In 2012, Is­lamist rad­i­cals linked to al-Qaeda hi­jacked an up­ris­ing by eth­nic Tuareg peo­ple and went on to seize cities across north­ern Mali, hold­ing on for nearly a year un­til they were forced out by a French mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion. When 11,000 U.N. troops ar­rived in 2013, they were meant to pro­tect a fledg­ling peace

deal and train the Malian army. But Is­lamist ex­trem­ists re­grouped across the re­gion. It did not take long be­fore the mil­i­tants started tar­get­ing peace­keep­ers, whom they dubbed “Cru­sader oc­cu­pa­tion forces.”

The United Na­tions was re­mark­ably un­pre­pared for the threat. Most of its troops from Africa and South Asia brought tanks and ve­hi­cles that were easy tar­gets for ex­plo­sives, un­like U.S. mine-re­sis­tant ve­hi­cles. The U.N. com­pounds, dot­ted with metal stor­age con­tain­ers turned into of­fices and bed­rooms, had flimsy perime­ter se­cu­rity and were vul­ner­a­ble to the mas­sive car bombs used by al-Qaeda in the Is­lamic Maghreb (AQIM), the re­gional af­fil­i­ate of the ex­trem­ist group. For a while, U.N. forces didn’t have a sin­gle at­tack he­li­copter.

“We weren’t ready for these chal­lenges,” said Mo­hamed El-Amine Souef, a na­tive of the Co­moros Is­lands who is the top U.N. of­fi­cial in Gao, a city in north­ern Mali. Last year, Souef’s com­pound was struck by a sui­cide bomber, the shrap­nel bat­ter­ing his front door.

But the United Na­tions’ dilemma goes be­yond a lack of prepa­ra­tion or an­titer­ror­ism equip­ment. At its New York head­quar­ters and around the world, diplo­mats are de­bat­ing: Should U.N. forces be en­gaged in coun­tert­er­ror­ism at all?

“It’s time for us to re­al­ize that this kind of front-line role is cen­tral to the fu­ture of the United Na­tions,” said Peter Yeo, a se­nior of­fi­cial at the U.N. Foun­da­tion, a Wash­ing­ton-based non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports the goals of the world body.

Yeo and oth­ers ar­gue that with­out a coun­tert­er­ror­ism ca­pa­bil­ity, U.N. peace­keep­ers can’t op­er­ate pro­duc­tively in many of the world’s war zones.

But crit­ics say that such a role would vi­o­late the peace­keep­ers’ core prin­ci­ple of im­par­tial­ity and ul­ti­mately make them less ef­fec­tive.

“Peace­keep­ers are only meant to use deadly force to pro­tect civil­ians or to stop spoil­ers from threat­en­ing a peace process, not to pur­sue any group’s mil­i­tary de­feat,” said Aditi Gorur, di­rec­tor of the Pro­tect­ing Civil­ians in Con­flict pro­gram at the Stim­son Cen­ter, a Wash­ing­ton­based re­search cen­ter.

If peace­keep­ers had a more ag­gres­sive coun­tert­er­ror­ism man­date, she and oth­ers ar­gue, that could hurt the United Na­tions’ abil­ity to me­di­ate be­tween war­ring groups, which some­times in­clude vi­o­lent Is­lamists.

Al­ready in Mali, the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross has de- scribed the United Na­tions as a “party to the con­flict.”

In the slide-show pre­sen­ta­tion he shows to vis­i­tors at his base in Ba­mako, the cap­i­tal of Mali, Kerkhove, the in­tel­li­gence unit com­man­der, in­cludes an aerial photo taken last year of a com­pound that ap­peared to be used by a ter­ror­ist group. When he re­ceived the photo, Kerkhove de­bated what to do.

The men inside might be plan­ning an as­sault on U.N. per­son­nel, he thought, or a strike against civil­ians. Over the past two years, ex­trem­ist groups have used Mali as a stag­ing ground for at­tacks on luxury ho­tels, beach re­sorts and restau­rants in West Africa. In 2016, al-Qaeda and its al­lies and af­fil­i­ates launched at least 257 at­tacks in the re­gion, ac­cord­ing to the Long War Jour­nal. But Kerkhove knew that the near­est bat­tal­ion of U.N. troops, from Sene­gal, didn’t have the weapons or air sup­port to en­gage in a fight with transna­tional ter­ror­ists. Ul­ti­mately, U.N. forces de­cided not to ap­proach the com­pound.

The Mali mis­sion is the only one of the 16 ac­tive U.N. peace­keep­ing op­er­a­tions that au­tho­rizes troops to de­ter and counter “asym­met­ric threats” — that is, ter­ror­ist groups — that could harm its work or civil­ians. Last year, the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil said the mis­sion should be­come “more proac­tive and ro­bust” — lan­guage that some read as en­cour­ag­ing more of­fen­sive op­er­a­tions.

“We need to be able to hit the ter­ror­ists where they are, be­fore they hit us,” said Souef, the U.N. of­fi­cial in Gao.

But peace­keep­ers worry that they don’t have the tools to deal with armed ex­trem­ists.

“We are gath­er­ing the in­tel­li­gence, but we lack the forces who can act on that in­for­ma­tion,” said Swedish Lt. Col. Per Wil­son.

Richard Gowan, an ex­pert on U.N. peace­keep­ing at New York Univer­sity’s Cen­ter on In­ter­na­tional Co­op­er­a­tion, said that U.N. mis­sions lack the re­sources and doc­trine for coun­tert­er­ror­ism work. He noted that even well-equipped Western mil­i­tary forces were out­ma­neu­vered by ter­ror­ists in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It is rea­son­able to ask why on earth the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil thinks that a U.N. force can do any bet­ter in Mali, even with Euro­pean re­in­force­ments,” he said.

Over the years, the United Na­tions has in­creas­ingly had to con­front the scourge of ter­ror­ism. Mil­i­tants blew up its po­lit­i­cal as­sis­tance of­fice in Baghdad in 2003, killing 22 peo­ple, in­clud­ing the U.N. en­voy, Ser­gio Vieira de Mello.

But the Mali mis­sion marks the first time a sig­nif­i­cant peace­keep­ing con­tin­gent has been sent to help a state re­gain con­trol over ar­eas con­tested by ter­ror­ist groups.

In a re­view in 2015, a panel of U.N.ap­pointed ex­perts said that peace­keep­ing forces were “not the ap­pro­pri­ate tool for mil­i­tary coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions.” But it noted they do de­ploy in ar­eas threat­ened by armed ex­trem­ist groups “and must be ca­pa­ble of op­er­at­ing ef­fec­tively and as safely as pos­si­ble therein.”

On their pa­trols through the sandy side streets of Gao, an an­cient city along the Niger River lined with mud-brick houses, U.N. con­voys are greeted by throngs of res­i­dents.

The lo­cals al­ways have the same com­plaint, said Sene­galese Capt. Di­agne Meth, stand­ing out­side his ar­mored per­son­nel car­rier dur­ing one pa­trol: “They want us to do more.”

Specif­i­cally, he said, they ask for more of­fen­sive op­er­a­tions, tar­get­ing rad­i­cal Is­lamists as well as crim­i­nal groups.

“But I have to tell them, ‘That’s not what we’re here to do,’ ” Meth said.

Al­ready, the United Na­tions has tried to adapt in Mali. It has a fleet of sur­veil­lance drones. It has the first U.N. in­tel­li­gence cell, a Ba­makobased unit with an­a­lysts spread across the coun­try. It has counter-IED spe­cial­ists. It also has thou­sands of Euro­pean troops, in­clud­ing large con­tin­gents from Ger­many, the Nether­lands and Swe­den, with sol­diers ex­pe­ri­enced in fight­ing in Afghanistan.

Other U.N. mis­sions have evolved in recog­ni­tion of new threats. In Congo in 2013, for ex­am­ple, the United Na­tions launched its first brigade de­signed for of­fen­sive op­er­a­tions.

But the ter­ror­ism threat in Mali sets it apart.

“Send­ing out a pa­trol might work to de­ter an armed group in the Congo from en­gag­ing in vi­o­lence, but it has the op­po­site ef­fect in Mali, where ter­ror­ists are specif­i­cally try­ing to tar­get peace­keep­ers,” said Gorur, of the Stim­son Cen­ter.

More than a year and a half ago, Mali’s gov­ern­ment signed a peace deal with sep­a­ratist rebels in the north from the Tuareg and Arab com­mu­ni­ties. Au­thor­i­ties hoped the rad­i­cal Is­lamists who had once aligned them­selves with the lo­cal rebels — and later fallen out — had been driven away. But to­day, the ter­ror­ists ap­pear stronger than ever.

The French mil­i­tary con­tin­ues to con­duct its own coun­tert­er­ror­ism mis­sion across north­west Africa, in­clud­ing in Mali. The United Na­tions shares in­for­ma­tion with the French if it is deemed use­ful for pro­tect­ing the lives of troops.

On Jan. 18, Is­lamist ex­trem­ists drove a truck laden with ex­plo­sives into a com­pound in Gao where the United Na­tions was pro­tect­ing Malian forces. Seventy-six men — from na­tional forces and armed groups that had joined the peace process — lost their lives in the blast. (No peace­keep­ers were killed.) The at­tack was claimed by al-Qaeda in the Is­lamic Maghreb, which said it in­volved one of its al­lies, al-Moura­bitoun.

The ex­plo­sion was stag­ger­ing, but so was the lack of se­cu­rity at an in­stal­la­tion os­ten­si­bly pro­tected by peace­keep­ers. Three days be­fore the at­tack, a vis­it­ing Wash­ing­ton Post reporter saw only a few Bangladeshi peace­keep­ers sit­ting inside a per­son­nel car­rier out­side the com­pound. Ter­ror­ist groups had al­ready struck U.N. fa­cil­i­ties in the city sev­eral times, but the base was pro­tected by only a flimsy metal gate.

Souef, the U.N. of­fi­cial, ac­knowl­edged that his com­pound in the city was vul­ner­a­ble.

“We shouldn’t be liv­ing in a place like this,” he said.

“It’s time for us to re­al­ize that this kind of front-line role is cen­tral to the fu­ture of the United Na­tions.” Peter Yeo, U.N. Foun­da­tion se­nior of­fi­cial

JANE HAHN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

U.N. peace­keep­ers from Sene­gal on an early-morn­ing pa­trol in Gao, Mali. Is­lamist ex­trem­ists tar­geted Mali’s peace­keep­ers soon af­ter their ar­rival in 2013.

PHO­TOS BY JANE HAHN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: A U.N. po­lice of­fi­cer stands guard on a night pa­trol in the north­ern city of Tim­buktu. The U.N. mis­sion in Mali marks the first time a sig­nif­i­cant peace­keep­ing con­tin­gent has been sent to help a state re­gain con­trol over ar­eas con­tested by ter­ror­ist groups. ABOVE: Women buy fresh pro­duce at a mar­ket in Gao.

PHO­TOS BY JANE HAHN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Chil­dren play in a court­yard in Tim­buktu. ABOVE: Mem­bers of for­mer rebel groups wait to be reg­is­tered at a po­lice sta­tion in Gao to par­tic­i­pate with the Malian mil­i­tary in joint pa­trols as part of a peace agree­ment. BE­LOW: A Swedish peace­keeper launches a sur­veil­lance drone to mon­i­tor se­cu­rity dur­ing a pa­trol in Tim­buktu.

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