‘We Knew They Were Coming’

The untold story of al-Shabab's murderous attack on the U.N. in Mogadishu.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

It started on an uneventful day in May 2013, three weeks before the United Nations’ newly minted special representative, Nicholas Kay, was due to arrive in Mogadishu. Kay’s presence would inaugurate a new era of international support for Somalia’s Western-backed government, which was not yet one year old. Behind closed doors, a U.N. security analyst received a troubling intelligence tip: Al-Shabab, Somalia’s then-dormant Islamist militant group, which would orchestrate the bloody Westgate Mall massacre in Nairobi just a few months later, was plotting a sophisticated terrorist strike against a list of Somali government facilities and outposts of its African and Western allies. The prime target, however, was the U.N.’s humanitarian compound in downtown Mogadishu.

The terrorist plot, hatched in coordination with al Qaeda’s East Africa cell, called for nearly a dozen militants disguised as security guards and contractors to board a passenger vehicle and shadow a U.N. convoy as it entered the compound. Once inside, al-Shabab’s assassins would open fire on dozens of unarmed international aid workers who had taken up residence in Somalia to deliver life-saving assistance to the country’s poor. The terrorists’ ultimate goal: drive the U.N. out of Somalia, and thereby deprive the struggling new government of the international lifeline it depended on for survival.

"This threat information is without doubt the most specific that we … have received in the past two-and-a-half years," read a highly confidential e-mail the U.N. security analyst wrote on May 20 to top security officials in Mogadishu and New York. The threat described in the e-mail, which was obtained exclusively by Foreign Policy, has never before been made public. "The level of detail, as well as the comments about the source’s reliability, strongly suggests we should take it very seriously, though the possibility of intended or unwitting misinformation cannot be excluded."

The tip — the first of two detailed warnings of an al-Shabab plan to strike the U.N. in Somalia — was deemed credible enough to require several measures to reinforce the U.N.’s defenses, including the placement of a machine gun at the main guard tower. But the measures proved deadly inadequate.

Less than a month after the first warning, al-Shabab’s terror squad struck with lethal force. A suicide bomber drove a silver Toyota Noah packed with explosives right up to the compound and blew open the front steel gate, blasting a hole in the outer wall and filling the street with smoke. Six additional militants dressed in uniforms from Somalia’s national forces slipped through the opening, firing on Somali guards and trying to hunt down U.N. relief workers inside.

By the end of the June 19 raid, the militants had killed eight people employed by the U.N. At least six Somali nationals were killed outside the building, possibly from the blast, but potentially from crossfire. All seven of the militants died. Even as the fighting in the compound raged, al-Shabab crowed in real time on Twitter about the "clueless foreigners" inside the U.N. compound "who were lulled into a false sense of security by a strong disinformation campaign!"

"The UN, a merchant of death & a satanic force of evil, has a long inglorious record of spreading nothing but poverty, dependency & disbelief," the group tweeted on its official account, which was later shut down. The U.N., al-Shabab added, is "serving #US goals" and thwarting "Allah’s Law on earth & must therefore be dislodged."

The tragedy in Mogadishu is raising questions inside the U.N. about whether the Somali government or the organization’s own security detail in Mogadishu undertook reasonable steps to defend against the attack. A ring of concrete barriers rested within feet of the compound walls, providing only limited protection against a large truck explosion. The weakest point of entry — a steel boom and a metal gate — crumpled from the force of the car bomb. There was little sign that the Somali police stationed outside the compound engaged the militants.

Troublingly, the analyst who first delivered the warning has since resigned from the U.N. The analyst expressed frustration to colleagues that others at the U.N. had not taken the al-Shabab threat seriously enough — that they had ignored a host of signs that the compound was vulnerable.

The concerns surrounding the Mogadishu attack extend to many others like it around the world. Over the past decade, political and humanitarian aid workers with the U.N. have become prime targets of some of the world’s worst terrorist groups. In September, for instance, scores of people descended on Turtle Bay to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the worst terror attack in the institution’s history: the Aug. 19 suicide bombing of the U.N. compound in Baghdad that killed 22 people, including the U.N.’s special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello. Moreover, since the summer of 2005, the U.N. has been attacked by armed extremists linked to al Qaeda nearly 70 times, with 68 people killed and more than 160 injured, according to internal U.N. figures.

What can be done to stop this trend? Is it reasonable to expect lightly defended U.N. relief workers to hunker down in the world’s most dangerous conflict zones, even when confronted with specific and potentially deadly threats? Is the U.N. doing all that it can to prevent attacks, and is it appropriately holding people accountable for failures to address warnings? To date, no one has been held professionally responsible for what happened — and didn’t happen — in Mogadishu.

A debate on these questions is unfolding as the U.N. expands its role in hotspots like Somalia, Mali, and Syria and confronts violence perpetrated by al-Shabab and other extremist groups. Indeed, in the wake of the 2003 Baghdad attack, the U.N.’s humanitarian agencies have strived to maintain a presence in even the most dangerous field missions. The "stay at all costs" spirit was even codified in a Jan. 1, 2011, directive that changed the U.N. Security Phase System, which required withdrawal when a certain threshold of risk had been reached, to what’s called the Security Level System, which aims to reorient "security thinking from ‘when to leave’ to ‘how to stay.’"

"The U.N. does continue to work in areas that we probably would not have worked in 10 [or] 15 years ago," said Kevin Kennedy, a former U.S. Marine colonel who heads the U.N. Department of Safety and Security. The department has responsibility for securing several hundred facilities in 187 countries. Kennedy defended the U.N.’s effort to hang tough, saying it is immoral to abandon the legions of national staff to their own devices in the face of a threat. He said that, on a typical day, he may receive multiple warnings against U.N. personnel in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Sudan. He also recalled being shot at twice during a three-and-a-half-hour tour of Damascus, Syria. "We have become a target; we have been hit enough," Kennedy said.

In Mogadishu, threats are nothing new. A recent one involved a team of al-Shabab frogmen emerging from the shark-infested ocean and approaching an airport compound shared by the U.N.’s political leadership and African Union (AU) peacekeepers. (Ironically, the scenario is somewhat similar to the attempted U.S. SEAL team raid on the home of a suspected al-Shabab leader on Oct. 4, in retaliation for the Westgate attack.) Officials slept with their guns, but the threatened attack, like many others, never materialized. "Every day there are warnings," said Stephan Smith, the chief of operations for the South African contractor Mechem, which helps manage U.N. missions in Somalia. He noted that it is always easy to find fault in hindsight. "We expect attacks every day."

Yet the deadliness of the June 19 tragedy, and new information about what the U.N. knew in advance and how it may have failed to protect itself in Somalia, drives home the importance of enhanced diligence and better preparation, especially given the now-routine targeting of the U.N. around the world. The following account of the deadly attack is based on internal U.N. documents, e-mails, and interviews with officials in Mogadishu and elsewhere.

The Attack

It was nearly 11:30 a.m., when Abdiqadir Abshir Mohamud, a Somali security guard, peered out from his station at Guard Tower #1 and noticed a suspicious vehicle approaching the U.N.’s front gate. Instinctively, he picked up his radio and sent out an alarm to his colleagues. Before he had time to fire, the suicide bomber drove up to the front gate and triggered an explosion that blew a steel door from the compound entrance. In an instant, Mohamud was dead, killed by the force of the blast.

The scene inside the U.N. compound was immediately chaotic.

Ibrahim Hassan Abdille, a Somali security guard posted at the front gate and his supervisor, Arshur Hussein Hashi, were injured by the blast. Shaken badly, Hashi crawled on his hands and knees for cover. The last thing he saw before he passed out was a militant entering the blown-out entrance and one of his guards, Dahir Abdulee Mo-alim, lying mortally wounded.

Bayhal Mohamed Osman, another Somali guard, survived the explosion, taking cover behind a row of concrete Hesco barriers that formed an inner wall of security separating the majority of U.N. staffers from their predators. His training had taught him to anticipate a second stage of attack. "When I heard the first boom, I knew they were coming," Osman later told U.N. officials.

Within moments, Osman heard gunfire as four heavily armed men dressed in Somali military uniforms entered the breach in the wall. He returned fire, killing a militant armed with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher and drawing a volley of return fire from the militant’s comrades.

Two more militants entered the compound through an opening in the main gate and hurled two hand grenades in Osman’s direction. Osman — who received a bullet wound in the leg during the fighting — kept firing, killing a second militant as he climbed the central Guard Tower to deprive al-Shabab’s killers of a sniper perch that could have proven deadly.

Dewaine Farria, a U.N. security officer from New Jersey, was in the radio room when the blast went off. He instructed staff over the U.N.’s public address (PA) system to remain in their rooms or offices and "duck and take cover." More than a year earlier, Farria, a former Marine with experience protecting U.S. embassies, had written a blog post asserting that "Shabaab is on its heels." Since taking back Mogadishu from al-Shabab in 2011, this had become a view shared by U.S., African, and U.N. officials with a stake in the future of Somalia.

But, on this day, it was the U.N. that was on its heels.

With the al-Shabab fighters breaching the compound, U.N. staff that were able to fled to a secure compound bunker, but others were forced to wait to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. They frantically called friends and loved ones for what they feared would be the last time.

Fatuma Muhumed, 30, a Kenyan staffer with the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), was fetching a cup of coffee for a friend when the attack began. Muhumed, a mother of two young children, hit the deck, struggling to reach the compound bunker, when she spotted a colleague, Mark Richmond, a security officer with the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP). "I was rolling and crawling on the ground to reach the bunker, when the shooting suddenly stopped, and Mark Richmond found me and whispered that I could take cover in his house,” she recalled in an interview with UNFPA. "He… hid me in the wash room," supplied her and another woman with helmets and other protective gear, and periodically provided updates on the state of the siege, received by telephone from Farria.

Hasan Mohamed Mahamoud, one of several Somali snipers who formed a last line of defense in a series of interior guard towers, opened fire with an AK-47 rifle on the intruders, pinning them down in the compound entrance and preventing them from breaking through an interior ring of concrete barricades that protected humanitarian workers inside a hive of offices and residences.

But the militants found an escape hatch.

The compound was designed to ensure that, even if militants breached the entrance, they would be confined to a secure vehicle search bay where they could be more efficiently pinned down by armed snipers. But the al-Shabab fighters were able to break through an armored side door that allowed them a way out of the search bay and a clear line of movement in the direction of a cluster of exposed offices used by contractors from Mechem. The militants quickly overran the offices, taking up positions inside the building and returning fire at several guard posts.

Morne Lotter, 41, a South African contractor with Mechem, and his colleagues were trapped. Lotter’s phone rang. It was his boss, Stephan Smith, asking what was happening. "I could hear gunshots in the background," Smith told Foreign Policy. "He said, ‘They are shooting the shit out of us.’" Suddenly, the phone went silent. U.N. officials throughout the compound, meanwhile, heard the sound of two explosions, probably hand grenades, ring out from the Mechem offices, raising concerns that Lotter and his colleagues had been killed.

As U.N. officials fretted about the fate of the Mechem employees, they also realized that the Shabab militants were trapped. Having taken up positions inside the Mechem offices, they could not leave without exposing themselves to sniper fire. But the U.N.’s Somali guards were running low on ammunition and lacked the firepower to dislodge the militants.

Shortly after the attack began, Dewaine Farria had reached out for help, requesting back-up from African peacekeepers and Somalia’s security forces. Ugandan peacekeepers arrived on the scene about 30 minutes after the attack began, but they declined a request to enter the compound to take on the remaining al-Shabab militants, saying that was the job of Somali security forces. Instead, they focused their efforts on setting up a cordon around the compound’s outer perimeter.

The final assault had to await the arrival of the Alpha team from the Somali National Intelligence and Security Agency. For the next 30 minutes, armed with an RPG and assault rifles, the Alpha team unloaded massive firepower into the building, killing the last four al-Shabab fighters. Farria, meanwhile, hustled U.N. staff stranded throughout the compound to the bunker. (They were later evacuated to the airport compound, where many passed the evening drinking at the bar The Little Kruger.)

When U.N. and Somali security officials entered the now-clear Mechem building, they found the scene that they had feared: Morne Lotter; his colleague Alan Simpson, another South African national; Isak Mohammed Osman, a Somali electrician; and Rita Muchucha, a Kenyan national and the only U.N. staffer lost in the attack, were huddled together — all dead.

"Our office was just in the wrong place," Mechem’s Smith said in the interview. "To be honest, I was very, very proud of the Somali guards; they fought to protect the U.N. with everything they had. It was a failure for al-Shabab; they didn’t kill any U.N. members inside the main compound."

The Post-Mortem

While the response to the al-Shabab attack revealed acts of bravery, an examination by Foreign Policy also shows that the U.N. failed to address key vulnerabilities before the event. This started with the decision to erect a U.N. compound along a busy, urban road and extended to the failure to erect obstacles to prevent a car bomb from reaching the front gate, with various other problems and errors in between

The U.N. compound opened in early 2012, a time of increasing optimism in Somalia. Al-Shabab had been driven from the capital by a force of Western-trained Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers. The U.N. was keen to underscore its support for the country’s Western-backed transitional government by expanding its presence in Mogadishu. Relief agencies were offered a space on the fortified AU compound at the Mogadishu airport, which also houses U.N. political and demining offices, but they wanted to be close to the Somali government and the Somali people they were there to help.

In the months leading up to the attack, said one U.N. official in Mogadishu, there was an increased push by the U.N.’s chief humanitarian agencies to expand their presence in the Somali capital. The pace, according to the official, didn’t always "account for the fact that this is one of the most dangerous places on the planet." The same can often be said of U.N. activity in other unstable areas and conflict zones.

On June 1, three weeks before the attack, the same U.N. security analyst who had received the first warning obtained new information reinforcing the earlier tip. (Efforts to reach the analyst were unsuccessful.) The leader of al Qaeda’s East Africa branch, a Somali-born Kenyan named Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir also known as the Ikrima, had given the order to strike two targets: the compound at the airport, and the U.N. humanitarian compound in Mogadishu. The strikes, according to information obtained by the U.N., were expected to take place before early July, the start of Ramadan. (Abdulkadir has been identified by U.S. officials as the target of the Navy SEALs’ Oct. 4 raid on al-Shabab, according to the Associated Press. However, there was enormous confusion over the weekend about the target’s identity, as well as erroneous reports that he had been captured.)

In the wake of the warnings, the U.N. took a series of steps to reinforce security. This included enhanced training for security guards and residents and tightened rules governing the entry of vehicles into the compound. A security guard was assigned the job of monitoring the activities of day workers to ensure they weren’t casing the building. The Somali interior minister was also asked to post a couple of additional police outside the compound to control traffic.

But two weeks after the second warning, the U.N. had grown complacent. Satisfied that they had done all they could to defend against an attack, the U.N.’s top security brass didn’t even discuss the threat at a June 13 meeting.

Philippe Lazzarini, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator for Somalia and the man responsible for overseeing the U.N.’s security in Mogadishu, defended the U.N.’s response in a prepared statement to Foreign Policy, saying the threats were taken seriously. "When we received specific threats, we put in additional mitigating measures which did contain the impact of the complex attack," the statement said. "Much was done to reinforce our procedural and physical security but unfortunately determined attackers did penetrate the outer perimeter."

Lazzarini said the threats were "not discussed further at the 13 June… meeting because there were no new elements of the threat and that mitigating measures were put in place." The U.N. security team, he said, "were all focused on the threat and the security measures to mitigate it."

But other U.N. officials have questioned the thoroughness and effectiveness of the security response.

"The guards and the [U.N. security officials] at the compound during the incident did a very good job, and no doubt a massacre was avoided," said one U.N. official in Mogadishu. "This, however, was more luck than planning…. The preparation for such an incident was poor."

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, pointed to both the insufficient reaction to the two specific warnings and several general problems with the compound’s position and structure as factors that allowed the incident to happen — and that continue to make the U.N. vulnerable to additional attacks. For instance, the official said there is scarcely any "standoff area" between outside traffic and the entrance to the U.N. compound, making it easy for a car bomb to breach the entrance. Additionally, there is the issue of the supposedly secure vehicle search bay, which the al-Shabab militants broke out of with relative ease. "The fact that they are occupying this compound with its inherent weaknesses is a concern," the U.N. official said.

Even prior to the threats of attack, U.N. officials in New York had also harbored misgivings about the security of the compound. One senior official said that the U.N. leadership had urged the AU to take over security from the Somali guards, who had been hired by the compound landlord and offered additional training by U.N. officials. But the switchover never happened. "I feel we didn’t push hard enough," the official said.

Lazzarini said the U.N. "deeply regret[s] the loss of life and the injuries sustained" in the June 19 attack. He said, however, that the vehicle search bay had functioned properly, delaying the attackers’ access to the Mechem offices and thus preventing them from reaching the main residential and office areas of the compound. "The vehicle trap was designed to contain the explosion of a car bomb, which it did," he added. "The boom gates were only partially damaged and the second steep gate was not compromised. The guards on shift at the search bay were protected behind blast barriers and they reacted immediately, killing some of the attackers. All other attackers were channeled and pinned down immediately by defensive positions."

On a broader scale, Lazzarini noted, risk is an inevitable part of the U.N.’s life-saving efforts in many of the world’s most forbidding places. "We can never avoid risk completely in Mogadishu, which is a high risk environment," Lazzarini said, noting that U.N. employees are aware of dangers and trained to deal with them. "U.N. staff who work there do so voluntarily."

Still, critics insist more can be done to mitigate risk, however willingly U.N. staff confront it — both in Somalia and beyond. "There is still a lack of an understanding that an attack on the U.N. makes news, and this trumps the fact of whether the U.N. or its [various agencies] are seen as neutral or not," said the anonymous U.N. official in Mogadishu. "The insurgents will attack any newsworthy target they can reach, and they can certainly try and reach the U.N. [compound] again."

Colum Lynch writes Foreign Policy‘s Turtle Bay blog. Follow him on Twitter: @columlynch.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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