Monday, October 13, 2008

UN Admits to Flawed Security System

The Washington Times' UN correspondent seems to be almost alone - certainly alone among Washington DC news media - in covering the United Nation's internal review of the car-bombing of its headquarters in Algiers last December. See Dual roles said to put U.N. staffers at risk , the text of which is copied below, and U.N. faults 7 in Algeria bombing.

The latest development is a heavily redacted report, released last week, that acknowledges systemic weaknesses in the UN's new Department of Safety and Security and its country threat assessments. In brief, Algiers was rated low on the UN/DSS threat ranking system despite having an active and long-standing indigenous terrorist threat and an emerging transnational threat. Apparently, the Resident Representative in Algiers and other UN officials did not wish to raise the threat ranking to a realistically high level for fear of offending the host government.

A low threat ranking has logical consequences when resources are allocated by the UN/DSS in New York, so Algiers did not receive the perimeter security enhancements its security advisor in Algiers had requested long before the December 11 attack. By the time the Algerians discovered evidence of targeting (a sketch of the UN's Algiers headquarters was discovered on a cell phone in the possession of an al Qaeda affiliate) it was far too late to start constructing the kind of anti-ram vehicle barriers that would have limited the damage done by a vehicle-borne explosive device.

There are two lessons to be learned here, both of which will be familiar to those of my colleagues who remember going through very lean years of security funding in the 1990s.

First, effective anti-ram barriers cost a lot of money, and they are notoriously difficult to incorporate into city streets, most of which are already full of buried water, gas, power and sewage lines that run where the barrier footings need to go. By the time you know for sure you'll need them, it's far too late to start the necessary planning, budgeting, and asking for municipal permission to tear up city streets.

Second, country threat ratings are an indispensable tool of risk management, and they are the only means of providing an equitable distribution of security resources. The threat rating system must not become a political football. [Since I'm trying to avoid discussing 'matters of official concern' I will bite my tongue rather than suggest the UN isn't the only organization to consistently under-assess the terrorism threat in Algiers.]


UNITED NATIONS Inherently flawed security is compromising the safety of tens of thousands of U.N. employees around the world, according to the organization's third report on the fatal Dec. 11 bombing of U.N. offices in Algiers.

Algeria, where an explosives-packed truck bomb killed 24, "was not on the radar screen" for U.N. security officials who, said the authors of the report, "were preoccupied with Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia and Sudan."

Ralph Zacklin, former U.N. legal adviser, led the five-person inquiry to assign responsibility for the attack. Seventeen of those killed were U.N. staffers.

On Sunday, Mr. Zacklin's panel submitted to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon an 88-page report with thousands of pages of annexes.

Mr. Ban's office has refused to release that document for security and privacy concerns, but on Wednesday distributed a four-page summary of the report.

Shortly after 9 a.m. on Dec. 11, 2007, a truck bomb barreled past a minimal barrier and slammed into an office used by several U.N. agencies.

Fire engulfed the building. In addition to those killed, scores were injured. Most were Algerian.

Responsibility was quickly claimed by a local insurgency called al Qaeda in the Maghreb, a group that had been publicly agitating against the presence of the United Nations and other foreign organizations in Algeria.

There had been several bombings in the capital over the preceding months that were claimed by the same group.

Nonetheless, out of courtesy to the Algerian government's political sensibilities, U.N. officials did not raise the threat assessment, nor vigorously demand additional security measures to be put in place, the report said.

Despite these threats, and the repeated pleas for assistance by local security officer Babacar Ndiaye to the U.N. Department of Safety and Security (DSS) in New York, nothing happened.

Mr. Ndiaye was killed in the explosion.

Marc de Bernis of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) was responsible for conveying security concerns to the Algerian government because he was the most senior official at the post. He was also responsible for running his agency's programs in the region.

Mr. Zacklin said this dual tasking, standard in most U.N. duty stations, is a "design flaw" that must changed.

"It's not hard to imagine that a person wearing two hats may find himself or herself in conflict," he said.

Mr. de Bernis, a French national who has since been posted by UNDP to Brussels, is currently on medical leave, according to a UNDP spokesman.

The UNDP Wednesday acknowledged the difficulty of the post.

"As Mr. Zacklin said, there are clearly built-in tensions between the twin responsibilities, of security and program delivery, assigned to the head of a U.N. field office," UNDP spokesman Stephane Dujarric wrote in an e-mail. "Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we address these built-in ambiguities in the U.N. system's security architecture so as to better clarify issues of functional and personal roles and responsibilities in the future."

The Zacklin panel also found that at U.N. headquarters in New York, the security department was hobbled by poor training and recruitment, limited resources and other problems.

Two previous U.N. reports on the Algeria bombing also paint a grim picture of an understaffed department constrained by hierarchy and turf wars, in which bad news was unwelcome.

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