- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. He previously wrote FP’s Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He was also the silver medal recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for a three-part series documenting the U.N.’s systemic failure to protect civilians in Darfur, Sudan. Colum’s investigations have uncovered an American spy operation in Iraq, Russia’s monopoly of the $1 billion-a-year U.N. aircraft leasing market, and a Chinese diplomatic campaign to silence U.N. investigators scrutinizing Chinese arms deals in Africa. His deep digs into the U.N. bureaucracy have exposed sexual misconduct by U.N. blue helmets from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and documented monumental dysfunction in the U.N. office charged with rooting out misconduct and corruption. He now devotes his reporting chops to documenting President Donald Trump’s efforts to reorder the international system. Born in Los Angeles, Colum received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. Before moving to FP, Colum reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. He has appeared frequently on national news programs, including the Lehrer NewsHour, as well as on MSNBC, NPR, and the BBC.
The Dutch military is planning to deploy a team of dozens of military intelligence operatives in Mali in the coming weeks, part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission charged with stabilizing the terror-afflicted northern part of the country and preventing the resurgence of Islamist militants that only year ago held sway over much of the country, according to the Dutch military.
The Dutch contribution — which will also include a team of special-forces troops and four Apache attack helicopters — marks a rare return by a European power to a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Africa, where debacles from Somalia to Rwanda triggered a retreat in the late 1990s. But what is perhaps even more striking is that the U.N.’s top brass are privately acknowledging that the U.N.’s blue helmets will be engaging in the business of spying.
Since the birth of U.N. peacekeeping in Egypt’s Sinai intelligence has been a dirty word in U.N. quarters, feeding suspicion among poor countries that Western spooks were secretly using the United Nations as a cover to spy on them, and giving fright to right wing Americans who fretted that U.N. storm troopers in black helicopters might swoop down to occupy the American prairie. In 1960, then U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold declined to establish a U.N. intelligence agency on the grounds that the U.N. "must have clean hands." In a sign of the enduring anxiety over big power espionage, Brazil and Germany this week pressed through a U.N. General Assembly resolution aimed at constraining massive data collection and digital eavesdropping, a move aimed at constraining the National Security Agency and other foreign intelligence outfits.
But in the U.N.’s far flung peacekeeping missions intelligence is no longer a dirty word. Herve Ladsous, the U.N.’s French chief of the U.N. peacekeeping department, will visit the Democratic Republic of Congo early next month to launch the flight of two U.N. surveillance drones — the U.N. prefers to call them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles — to keep track of potential threats from armed militias. If all goes well, these flying cameras could be introduced into peacekeeping missions in Mali, and possibly Ivory Coast and South Sudan.
The Dutch unit in Mali will operate electronic eavesdropping – or signals intelligence – operations targeting Islamic militants. But it will also engage in gathering human intelligence – low tech spying involving the cultivation of paid informants. "I would say this is precedent setting," Walter Dorn, a Canadian professor of Defense Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMCC), who has written extensively on U.N. intelligence gathering, told Foreign Policy. "The United Nations has been hesitant to use the word intelligence and engage in intelligence activities. But the necessity of being informed in situations where you have the fog of war, or the fog of peacekeeping, means that you have to have an accurate and timely information gathering and analysis units."
The actual threat to U.N. peacekeepers is by no means greater today than it has been in the past. So far this year, 82 U.N. blue helmets died serving in U.N. missions, fewer than half of the 173 fatalities suffered in 2010, and only a fraction of the 252 who died in 1993, when the U.N. was running high risk missions in Bosnia and Somalia. But the U.N.’s key powers, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, agree on the need to confront the rising threat to U.N. personnel by Islamic extremists.
The Islamist militant group, Al Shabab, has been targeting U.N. personnel in Mogadishu, Somalia, mounting a bold terror attack against the U.N.’s humanitarian compound in June that left eight people employed by the U.N. dead.( In that case, a U.N. intelligence unit actually received a tip that the attack would occur, but it was still unable to stop it.)
For instance, in Mali, where the U.N. is facing a challenge by Islamist insurgents, suicide bombers last month attacked a U.N. peacekeeping unit in the town of Tessalit, Mali, killing two Chadian blue helmets and a civilian.
The Malian crisis began in the beginning of 2012 when a coalition of Tuareg separatists and foreign Islamist extremists linked to Al Qaeda, reinforced by arms from the fallen former Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi’s arsenals, seized control of key cities in northern Mali. Malian army officers, citing the governments’ failure to adequately equip its troops in the battle against the insurgents, staged a military coup that sent the country into a state of chaos.
Fearing an Islamist offensive against the capital of Bamako, the French government launched a military offensive in January that routed the militants out of northern Mali. The French then helped organize a coalition of African countries that helped Mali drive the insurgents into retreat in the north. In July, the African troops were integrated into a new U.N. peacekeeping mission – the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stablization Mission in Mali(MINUSMA). The mission – which is headed by a Dutch politician, Bert Koenders- is serving along-side a separate French force of some 3,000 troops.
Earlier this month, the Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert announced that some 380 Dutch military personnel would serve in the U.N. mission, aiding an increasingly well-armed mission – which includes a combat-ready Chinese guard force – to restore security and stability in northern Mali. They will be headquartered in Bamako and Gao, where their primary job will be gathering, processing and analyzing intelligence. "In addition to special forces, we will deploy our sensor capability, unmanned systems and 4 Apache attack helicopters," she said. "We will be the eyes and ears of the U.N., enabling them to operate more effectively.
Jean Marie Guehenno, a French national who headed the U.N. peacekeeping department from2000 to 2008, said that the move to formally integrate intelligence gathering activities into U.N. peacekeeping missions reflects a growing recognition of the dangers facing blue helmets, particularly from an array of terrorist organizations and non-state armed militias.
"Traditionally, [U.N.] member states have been a bit reluctant to permit intelligence gathering activities because of concerns over the potential violation of a country’s sovereignty," Guehenno said, noting that revelations of NSA spying has in some way reinforced those concerns. "Spying makes people nervous."
"On the other hand, there is a mounting sense that the safety and protection of troops benefits a lot from effective intelligence," he said. "It’s harder for the members’ states to say it’s horrible to collect intelligence if you have human lives lost. So, I think the U.N. is in a stronger position to say you put us in a dangerous environment we need to cope with it and the only way to cope is to have some kind of intelligence. I’m convinced there were a few situations where peacekeepers died and their lives might have been saved with better situational awareness intelligence."
Despite the political constraints, U.N. commanders, including those serving in Hammarskjold’s day, have long recognized the importance of tactical intelligence gathering in complex missions, erecting make-shift intelligence units to spy on potential enemies. In early 1961 in the Congo, the U.N. set up its first serious intelligence unit — known as Military Information Branch – the word intelligence was "banned from the U.N. lexicon," to oversee aerial surveillance, radio intercepts, and of informants, Dorn wrote in a history of the Congo operation. The practice was largely suspended in the ensuing Cold War decades, only to resurface after the Cold War ended, giving way to a major surge in U.N. peacekeeping operations.
Since the turn of the century, U.N. personnel in places like Sierra Leone and Somalia largely relied on foreign government spooks to supply them with tac
tical intelligence on enemy intentions. But more recently the U.N. has begun to formalize intelligence collection in missions in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where units with names like the Joint Mission Analysis Centers and Joint Operations Centers – collect information the old fashion way: through the cultivation of spies. In Port au Prince, U.N. blue helmets paid Haitian informants to expose the hideaways of famously unpopular gang leaders’ in the deepest slums. Even their lovers could be relied upon to reveal the location of where they were sleeping for arrest. Informants were sometimes dressed in U.N. uniforms but with their faces covered to avoid detection.
"The U.N. was able to tap into the wide-ranging disaffection with the gangs in order to procure plenty of actionable information," Dorn wrote in a study of the U.N. mission in Haiti."Intelligence-led operations helped the United Nations to take the initiative, to control the "battle-space’ and minimize the risks to both its own personnel and innocent bystanders. The mission was successful in overcoming gang rule of entire districts, but not without initial opposition from within the emission, from Haitian officials and, of course, from the gangs themselves."
Patrick Cammaert, a retired Dutch general who served as the U.N. Secretary General’s chief military advisor from 2002 to 2005, said it was a "un uphill battle" to convince the U.N. political leadership, and member states, to collect intelligence. In 2003, Cammaert urged the U.N. peacekeeping department to contract a private company to conduct aerial surveillance for a newly established mission in Liberia. Two years later, when he was reassigned as the U.N.’s eastern division commander in eastern Congo, Cammaert finally succeeded in securing funding, around $5 million, in the mission’s budget to conduct aerial surveillance missions to track the movement of militias and human rights violators, including Bosco Ntganda and Laurent Nkunda. It never happened. "All the documents were cleared, but the proposal was firmly killed in DPKO[The U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations] because people didn’t like it,"he said.
The constraints forced him to improvise, cultivating a team of informants. "You had to be creative; I sometimes had to pay informants from my own daily subsistence allowance because we didn’t have funds for that," he said. "I managed to get a number of people trust worthy people — don’t ask I how I found them – but I’d put them on a Moped and tell them to drive somewhere and come back and tell me what you saw."
Cammaert said the recent change in attitude reflected a growing recognition that U.N. peacekeepers "are dealing with a threat that is asymmetric, much more sophisticated, and much more dangerous, not only to local population but to peacekeepers was well " As a result, he said, "the word intelligence is not such a dirty word anymore."
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