Gas Refinery Attack in Algeria: The Lessons Learned (Mobile)

In the early morning hours of 16 January 2013, a coordinated band of terrorists attacked a convoy of gas refinery workers as they departed the housing area of the In Amenas Gas Refinery in eastern Algeria. The attack was described in a 25 January 2013 article – in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture – as the “most elaborate” to date on the African continent. Targeting critical infrastructure, the In Amenas attack is considered to be equivalent to India’s energy-sector incident in November 2008, which included a coordinated attack, hostage-taking, and three-day siege in Mumbai. The Algerian incident led to a four-day siege resulting in the deaths of 38 hostages.

The Situational Environment 

The In Amenas Gas Project is a multinational joint venture and the largest production wet gas facility in Algeria. The Tiguentourine facility, which is only 50 miles from the Libyan border, processes over nine billion cubic meters of natural gas annually. The desolate In Amenas area of Illizi province is also 717 miles from the population center of Algiers. According to Sonatrach, Algeria’s state-owned petrochemical company, more than 700 workers are assigned to the facility.

Among the workers present on 16 January were over 130 foreign nationals and expatriates from Norway, Japan, England, the United States, and several other countries. The site’s geographic isolation, which delayed response forces, coupled with the presence of large numbers of western workers, favored the terrorists’ objectives.

An Attack “Signed in Blood” 

According to a 21 January 2013 article in MacLean’s magazine, Algerian sources reported that at least one of the attackers had been a driver at the facility; an indication of insider-sourced pre-attack intelligence used in planning. The “Signed in Blood Battalion” – a self-named sub-group of the AQIM that is commanded by and under the operational command of Mokhtar Belmokhtar – launched the attack with a heavily armed team of 33-40 terrorists.

The terrorists first ambushed an escorted convoy of buses carrying workers departing along the single access road from the gas plant’s Al-Hayat housing complex, which is about 1.5 miles from the main plant. The terrorists then proceeded to neutralize the plant’s security checkpoint with small arms fire – but not before Mohamed Lamine Lahmar, a security guard later killed in the engagement, had activated the plant’s distress alarm. The terrorists then divided into several assault teams, executing coordinated operations against the Al-Hayat complex and the Tiguentourine processing facility.

At both locations, word spread quickly as workers responded to the piercing alarm, coupled with the information that they were under attack. Thanks to the early warning and to the quick thinking of many workers who adhered to the site protocols governing responses to terrorist attacks, some were able to escape or hide. Other workers in the plant’s process control room began shutting down processing units and gas feed valves; these actions also were consistent with the plant’s protocols for responding to alarms.

As the terrorists consolidated their control over the facility, the hostages were dispersed to various holding locations throughout the complex. According to at least some reports, the terrorists also rigged: (a) victim-operated improvised explosive devices (VOIEDs) and/or other booby traps at key access points; and (b) various other explosives at key processing locations (in an apparent effort to ultimately detonate the entire site).

The Response 

Algerian forces started their response within a couple hours after the attack started, but the remote location of the plant delayed the arrival of any sizable counterterrorist force during most of the first day. The remote location of the plant and complexity of the attack also made a situational size-up and the collection of ground truth intelligence more difficult. During the first night, however, the first Algerian forces arriving started to contain the site.

As the world’s attention became increasingly focused on the In Amenas hostage crisis, Algerian forces cleared and secured the Al-Hayat complex and security checkpoint, consolidating the government’s containment of the Tiguentourine processing facility. Communications between the hostage takers and government forces were unproductive and the terrorists escalated the situation by threatening to detonate the plant if a rescue operation were attempted. During the siege, AQIM announced two demands: (a) The cessation of French operations in Mali; and (b) the release of two prisoners being held in the United States: Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and Pakistani scientist Aafia Siddiqui.

Finally, on the fourth day of the siege, amid sporadic exchanges of gunfire with the terrorists, Algerian forces reported that, because of information about hostages being executed, government troops had started a rescue assault to regain control of the Tiguentourine facility. Participating in the counter-attack were a coordinated force of ground and air units – some of them in Russian-built T-72 battle tanks and armored personnel carriers – and special forces personnel on foot.

Lessons Learned 

The Refinery attack was in many respects a true watershed event because it demonstrates the will and ability of terrorist groups to plan and execute attacks on very difficult and even remote critical-infrastructure targets. Following, based on the lessons learned from this incident, are some important actions that should be considered to help strengthen risk awareness and also to reassess current response capabilities:

1. Improve Predictive Intelligence Analysis Capabilities – It has been reported that intelligence analysis of the regional, national, and site-specific threat dynamics of eastern Algeria led experts to warn of possible attacks on the multinational oil and gas assets in the region on at least two occasions in 2012.

2. Reassess “Hardened” and “Remote” Target Analyses – The remote geographic location of a critical infrastructure asset is often considered an attack deterrence. In the In Amenas incident, though, the remote location, combined with what seems to have been a lower local response capacity, may well have been viewed by the terrorists as an important operational advantage.

3. Prepare and Practice for Extreme Scenarios – Although the probability of multiple terrorist assault teams descending on a site seems to be remote, the adverse consequences to the site, its corporate assets, and the local community, coupled with broader cascading impacts, could be widespread. Official reports show that the efforts of one security guard, Mohamed Lamine Lahmar, saved numerous lives by the prompt and effective actions he took in the opening moments of the attack – actions that cost him his own life.

4. Prepare Responders for Special Site Hazards – Counterterrorism and police response preparedness to sites containing particular internal hazards require specialized awareness, analysis, and skills unique to responder disciplines and properly aligned with their own individual and team capabilities. Unfortunately, the Algerian response forces at the In Amenas Gas Refinery lacked the preparatory experience needed to cope with the hazards posed by engaging in live-fire interdiction in the areas around pressurized flammable gas processing units at the site.

5. Compartmentalize the Site – In addition to establishing security layers, concentric rings of ever-increasing monitoring and barriers to access include interior compartmentalization of critical assets and safe rooms for the staff in the area. At In Amenas, many workers used improvised hides such as under desks after locking and securing the doors.

6. Strengthen Staff Self-Reliance and Critical-Incident Decision Making Capabilities – Staff preparedness extends well beyond employees to include contractors and even visitors. The analysis of numerous survivor reports suggests that most workers at the In Amenas Gas Refinery were in fact prepared to respond appropriately to an alarm and/or the receipt of information of a terrorist assault in ways appropriate to their locations and to their collective as well as individual positional duties and responsibilities.

Joseph W. Trindal

As founder and president of Direct Action Resilience LLC, Joseph Trindal leads a team of retired federal, state, and local criminal justice officials providing consulting and training services to public and private sector organizations enhancing leadership, risk management, preparedness, and police services. He serves as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Justice, International Criminal Justice Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP) developing and leading delivery of programs that build post-conflict nations’ capabilities for democratic policing and applied modern investigative techniques. After a 20-year career with the U.S. Marshals Service, where he served as chief deputy U.S. marshal and ERT incident commander, he accepted the invitation in 2002 to become part of the leadership standing up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as director at Federal Protective Service for the National Capital Region. He serves on the Partnership Advisory Council at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST). He also serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Managers of Police Academy and College Training. He was on faculty as an instructor at George Washington University. He is past president of the InfraGard National Capital Region Members Alliance. He has published numerous articles, academic papers, and technical counter-terrorism training programs. He has two sons on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Himself a Marine Corps veteran, he holds degrees in police science and criminal justice. He has contributed to the Domestic Preparedness Journal since 2006 and is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council.



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