Since World War II, U.N. peacekeepers have been dispatched to 69 conflicts — civil wars, border disputes and failed states. But now they are confronting an unsettling new threat: al-Qaeda.

Here in the vast, lawless desert of northwest Africa, their convoys are being torn apart by improvised explosive devices and their compounds blasted by 1,000-pound car bombs. It is a crisis that looks more like the U.S. ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than the cease-fires traditionally monitored by U.N. missions.

In the past four years, 118 peacekeepers have been killed — making the U.N. mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, the deadliest ever. The bloodshed has raised questions about how an institution developed in the 1940s can serve a world under threat from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The issue is especially potent given the expectation that U.N. peacekeepers will eventually go to places such as Syria and Libya.

“We are trying to learn these lessons here, rather than in Iraq, Libya or Syria,” said Dutch Col. Mike Kerkhove, commander of the U.N. intelligence unit in Mali. “This is not the end of this type of mission. It’s the beginning.”

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