By Betsy Pisik
NEW YORK — U.N. and Algerian officials were warned in advance of a December terrorist attack in Algiers that killed 17 U.N. staffers but they failed to boost security measures at the U.N. compound, a preliminary report says.
"The hostile intent against the U.N. in Algeria was present and well-known before the attack," David Veness, U.N. undersecretary general for safety and security, wrote in a 20-page preliminary report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.
Six months before the attack, "the media branch for [al Qaeda in the Maghreb] issued a direct threat against the U.N.," Mr. Veness wrote.
Beginning in April, the U.N. security coordinator for the Algerian compound sent a series of urgent messages to headquarters in New York, warning that the likelihood of an attack on the compound housing seven U.N. agencies was "high" and that damage would be "severe."
In subsequent warnings, Babacar Ndiaye of Senegal, the U.N. security coordinator, sought barriers to protect the compound and other measures.
Despite the warnings, the compound remained at "Phase 1" of a five-level security system used by the United Nations — a level considered safe enough for U.N. staffers to bring their families to live overseas.
Mr. Ndiaye died in the Dec. 11 attack that killed 17 and injured at least 40.
Shortly afterward, al Qaeda claimed credit for the bombing, boasting that it used nearly a ton of explosives against "the den of international apostasy."
Local press reports shortly after the attack quote Algerian Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni as saying that the government had reason to expect an attack because in April, authorities had arrested a man with surveillance video of the site on his cell phone.
That man, an al Qaeda associate, was wanted in connection with an April 11 attack on the presidential palace in Algeria and a nearby police station.
It was the deadliest attack on the United Nations since the August 2003 Baghdad bombing that killed 22, and forced the organization to leave Iraq for more than a year.
Islamist turmoil has plagued Algeria for years. Up to 200,000 people were killed in a civil war that began in 1992 after the army canceled elections that a now-banned Islamist party was poised to win.
The war ended a decade later, but an Islamist insurgency continued.
By 1996, however, the situation was calmer and the Algerian government began complaining to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that security precautions stigmatized Algeria with "an undeserved bad image abroad to the extent that it kept out foreign investment," according to the Veness report.
The U.N. subsequently lowered the threat level in stages, ultimately to its lowest level.
Mr. Veness also wrote that the Algerian government was slow to respond to repeated requests for additional security.
He said "care has been taken not to apportion blame or responsibility."
The warnings were received at the U.N. headquarters in New York, but it is not clear from the Veness report how the U.N. responded.
The U.N. Staff Union, a New York-based organization that represents many but not all U.N. employees, has called for a full investigation to find out why better protections were not in place.
The group has publicly questioned why the formal risk assessment for that duty station was so relaxed, given the threats and attacks on foreigners and government buildings.
Just two weeks ago, the United Nations announced the formation of a seven-member panel to review U.N. security arrangements around the world.
Though the review is in response to the Dec. 11 attack, it will not focus on how so many red flags were missed in Algiers, said senior U.N. official Lakhdar Brahimi, who is in charge of the project.
Mr. Brahimi told a press conference last month that the blue and white U.N. flag was no longer a symbol of neutrality and protection, but in fact a target.