Multiple Interests

Then there was the reaction from UN headquarters. On July 21, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had condemned the looting of the Baidoa compound.[41] The same day, UNPOS head Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah in his daily situation report had painted a grim picture of the Baidoa raid, calling Al Shabaab “one of Somalia’s extremist groups” and reporting they had “ransacked” the compound “with impunity.” He surmised that the insurgents aimed at “scaring the international partners from Somalia.”[42]

Ould-Abdallah was also the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) to Somalia, the top UN position for Somalia. By coincidence, the day of the raid he had published an op-ed denouncing Somali extremists and foreign fighters linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He had called on the international community to exert counter-pressure on the insurgents, warning that “the credibility of the United Nations and others is threatened if they stand by and allow… a takeover in Somalia.”[43] Might Baidoa become a test case for Ould-Abdallah’s exhortation to push back against al-Shabaab? If so, what would that look like?

NGO reaction. Some outspoken international NGOs operating in Somalia also held strong views. Bowden had already heard reports that a group of nine was distressed over the UN’s handling of the Baidoa expulsion. They included the Danish Refugee Council, International Rescue Committee, Islamic Relief, Oxfam, and Bowden’s own former employer, Save the Children. The NGOs had long objected that the UN failed to distinguish clearly between humanitarian efforts and political activities—jeopardizing everyone. Just 18 months earlier, policy analysts at Médecins Sans Frontières had faulted the UN’s “integrated” approach to humanitarian aid. They wrote:

The UN’s vision has grown into a highly coordinated system where humanitarian action is structurally subordinated to economic, military, diplomatic and security visions. In the often volatile and dangerous areas where humanitarian agencies try to deliver aid, neutrality or, more importantly, the perception of neutrality, facilitate access and acts as a guarantee of security for both those providing and receiving aid.[44]

This time they were apparently furious about UN statements that the expulsion of UNPOS, UNDP and UNDSS would damage humanitarian relief—even though none of the targeted agencies had a humanitarian mission. Would sending OCHA officers back into Baidoa help alleviate their concerns?

Short phone call. Bowden appreciated these subtleties. Yet he saw no way around direct contact with Al-Shabaab if he wanted to maintain coordinated humanitarian aid to Somalia. On Saturday, July 25, his staff were able to put him through to Shabaab security chief Derow. Bowden wanted to discuss what conditions would need to be met before the UN humanitarian agencies could return to Baidoa. He reached Derow in Mogadishu. According to notes taken, Bowden said:

Looking at the immediate future we would like to be able to resume humanitarian operations because there are high needs among the population, you also know about these needs. We want to discuss with you about how operations can be resumed and what could be the security arrangements to allow this resumption.

In response, Derow wanted to know if any UN staff had felt at any point in danger. As Bowden started to reassure him that they had not, the sound of fighting could be heard in the background. The conversation was broken off and the UN could not reestablish contact.

[41] United Nations, Department of Public Information, “Secretary-General Condemns Looting of United Nations Offices in Somalia,” Document SG/SM/12375, July 21, 2009.

[42] Based on an internal, unpublished document.

[43] Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah,“The International Community Faces a Test in Somalia,” Washington Post, July 20, 2009. See:

[44] Eric Stobbaerts, Sarah Martin and Katharine Derderian, “Integration and UN Humanitarian Reforms,” in Forced Migration Review, Issue 29, Dec.2007, pp. 18-20. See: