Tuesday's twin car bombing in Algiers was more than just another attack in a strife-torn nation. While previous attacks have tended to focus on government institutions, this one also targeted the United Nations—a signal that the world organization has become a new target of terror. The Algerian attack was the most deadly on a U.N. office since 2003, when insurgents killed 22 people in U.N. offices in Baghdad and forced the organization to temporarily leave the country. At least nine U.N. workers were among the 31 confirmed dead in this week's attack in the Algerian capital, which also affected the offices of the country's Constitutional Council.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the U.N. will remain in Algeria, where a group calling itself Al Qaeda's Branch in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the attack. The Qaeda group was also behind Algeria's first known suicide bombing back in April. NEWSWEEK's Jesse Ellison spoke to Bruce Hoffman, professor of security studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and the former acting director of the RAND Corporation's Center for Middle East Public Policy, about the implications of the attack and whether the Al Qaeda-linked group was likely to expand its terror operations into Europe. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Has the United Nations become a specific target of terrorists?
Bruce Hoffman: [Osama] bin Laden has made no secrets about his enmities to the United Nations for years. It certainly wasn't to be unexpected that he wouldn't at some point strike at a U.N. target. Al Qaeda in the Maghreb has as its model the attack on the Canal Hotel in Baghdad in August 2003, which deliberately targeted the U.N. [and] killed the chief U.N. official there, Sergio [Vieira] de Mello, and ultimately drove the U.N. out of Iraq. I think that's also a model for Al Qaeda to isolate the Algerian government, and any international aid, as well as striking at what they see as the symbol of antiquated hegemony propagated by the West.
How should the U.N. in Algeria respond?
Well, Algeria is not Iraq in the summer of 2003. I think if they're trying to force the U.N. withdrawal, obviously, the way to show that terrorism doesn't pay is not to allow this to dictate policy, not to concede to terrorist demands or allow one's policy to be dictated by the whims and vicissitudes of murderers. But at the same time, I think this will understandably necessitate that U.N. presence throughout the world be strengthened. This comes to no surprise to the U.N. They know that they have been very much a focus of bin Laden, or a source of bin Laden's animus and enmity. Thirdly, the legacy of the Canal Hotel has caused them to look seriously and systematically at security. But this will necessitate a strengthening of U.N. facilities that might be targets.
What do attacks like this mean for the future of peacekeeping missions?
It shows how much the nature of warfare has changed in the 21st century. On the one hand, our principal enemies appear to be nonstate actors rather than state. And even worse, we see that these nonstate actors don't abide by the same norms, conventions, rules of warfare that have been traditional and that are the foundation of the international order. Targeting an international organization like the U.N. on a humanitarian mission is something that would be considered a war crime in any circumstances. This is the deliberate, wanton targeting of civilians, neutrals on an aid mission. It shows how much the nature of conflict is changing that the old rules don't apply to this new category of adversary.
How does the fact that the U.N. is becoming a specific target affect its ability to carry out its missions?
It's much like the problem of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams that the United States fields in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're the personnel that are going in to improve the conditions--health, socioeconomic, educational--of indigenous populations in need of that aid, but they find they can't do their job unless they're heavily protected. The heavy protection and the security requirements inhibit them then from doing their job. It's just going to become more difficult for the U.N. to do what it does as part of rebuilding societies and ameliorating some of the conditions that compel people to become terrorists. For terrorists, the U.N. is the ultimate soft target. It's about peace, and it engages in peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. You can encode layers of security around U.N. activity, but it's going to make it more difficult for the U.N. to do what it does.
In the past, the U.N. has been seen as impartial body that acts separate and apart from conflict. Can it go on functioning in that way, or will it have to redefine itself?
It's going to have to wake up to the reality that the world has changed from the time the U.N. was created and when it had, not just the status as a force for good in the world, but also as an inviolate force, because it was engaged in relief and humanitarian assistance activities that it somehow was sacrosanct and enjoyed a protective status. It's very clear that that status has dramatically eroded. The attacks in Algeria are further proof of that.
Why Algeria and why now?
I think the explanation is more that the group that used to call itself the Salafist Combat Group has rechristened itself Al Qaeda in Maghreb and has pledged its fidelity to bin Laden and Al Qaeda. People don't become terrorists or join terrorist groups to sit on their hands. They join to engage in violence. I think they wanted to do something dramatic and spectacular, particularly against a foreign or an international target to put themselves on the map. Also to further bin Laden and Al Qaeda's goals and ambitions, which is in part to target the United Nations, because bin Laden sees the U.N. as a tool of the West.
What does the attack tell us about this particular group?
The Salafist Combat Group has been one of the most vicious and active terrorist groups around for some time. They were always ideologically in Qaeda's orbit. In fact they broke off from the Algerian Armed Islamic Group because the GIA [the French acronym for the Armed Islamic Group] wanted to pursue a local revolution within Algeria itself. So [the Salafist group] recently changed its name and hitched its fortunes to bin Laden's star, but it's always been an enormously violent, deadly group. It's just broadening its target set beyond Algerian targets to international ones now.
Is this ringing more alarm bells for Europe?
Certainly a major attack like this just across the Mediterranean raises concerns in Europe given the large Algerian immigrant population. Many European countries now may fear being infiltrated by this group. Certainly I think U.N. security everywhere will be redoubled out of fear that this may be the first of a coordinated series of attacks. Or that perhaps the ease with which this group may be perceived to have engaged in this attack may encourage copycats.