Consider Algiers

Bowden, a British citizen, was a seasoned veteran of African humanitarian affairs. Early postings with the UK Ministry of Overseas Development led to 20 years with the international NGO Save the Children, mostly in East Africa. He joined the UN in 2001 as chief of OCHA’s Policy Development and Studies branch in New York. After a tour in Sudan, he became Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia in May 2008.

Bowden wore many hats for the UN in Somalia, and each role affected his thinking about the raid on the Baidoa compound. As Resident Coordinator, his concern was promoting Somali development. As Humanitarian Coordinator, his focus was channeling aid to needy Somalis. But what first framed Bowden’s thinking about the Baidoa crisis was a third role: that of Designated Official (DO) for Security.

In the United Nations security management system, the DO had responsibility for the safety and security of all UN staff members, operations, and property at the duty station. While day-to-day security matters were handled by DSS and a Security Management Team, an incident like the raid in Baidoa came straight to the DO.

The Baidoa incident reminded Bowden powerfully of Algiers. In December 2007, 17 UN staff members were killed and 40 injured in a truck-bomb attack on the UN headquarters there. In a report on the incident, a UN review panel cited the Resident Coordinator for security failures. Like Bowden in Somalia, the Algiers officer was both RC and DO. While acknowledging the inherent tension between the programming role of the RC and the security role of the DO, the review panel charged that the Algiers field office had been inattentive to local security threats, failed to provide senior guidance and supervision, demonstrated poor judgment, and exhibited a fatal “lack of urgency.” [28]

The Algiers bombing had had a chilling effect on UN field operations worldwide, and Bowden knew there would be hell to pay if a misstep in Baidoa caused harm to UN staff or operations. “After Algiers, it was very clear that the Designated Official would be held absolutely accountable and actually, usually blamed,” Bowden remembers. “It created a culture of risk avoidance.” [29]

Hargeisa . Three weeks after the Algiers report was released, Bowden had faced a terrorist crisis of his own. On October 29, 2008, five months after Bowden took over as RC/HC/DO for Somalia, a car-bomb ripped through the UNDP compound in Hargeisa, capital of the semiautonomous region of Somaliland. Two UN staff members were killed and six injured. [30]

Mark Bowden on safety concerns.

Nonetheless, after the bombing Bowden pushed hard to resume humanitarian efforts in Somaliland. He resisted pressure from UN headquarters to pull back in the region, and the Hargeisa offices remained open. Walking the line between mission and security, Bowden in general favored a policy of “stay and deliver.” Now he had to make the choice a second time. As he considered the first reports from Baidoa, he was wary. “I wouldn’t say I’m overcautious,” Bowden says. “But clearly the first thought when you have something like Shabaab coming in is for the security and safety of staff.”


[28] “Report of the Independent Panel on Accountability,” Executive Summary, October 2008. See: http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/terrorism/Executive_Summary_RIPA.pdf .

[29] Lundberg interview with Mark Bowden in Nairobi, Kenya, on May 2, 2012. All further quotes from Bowden, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[30] “Deadly Car Bombs Hit Somaliland,” BBC News, Oct. 29, 2008; see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7696986.stm ; UNDP in Somalia, “Two UN Staff Killed in Hargeysa UNDP Compound Attack,” Oct. 30, 2008; see: http://www.so.undp.org/index.php/Press/Two-UN-Staff-killed-in-Hargeysa-UNDP-Compound-Attack.html