LONDON/ALGIERS Jan 18 The In Amenas gas plant
felt impregnable to many who worked there - walled in, hundreds
of miles from anywhere and with the Algerian army constantly
patrolling its desert approaches.
That was a mirage. Libya, an ex-police state turned arms
bazaar and now open for jihad, lies just 50 empty miles away.
And in any case, the enemy was probably already inside the
At least some of up to 70 Islamist guerrillas who stormed in
before dawn on Wednesday launched their operation hours earlier,
barrelling over smugglers tracks across the Libyan border just
after midnight, an Algerian security official told Reuters,
citing evidence from mobile phones traced to the militants.
The ease with which they entered the fortified housing
compound and nearby natural gas plant also left Algerians in
little doubt the gunmen had allies among people at the site.
"They had local cooperation, I'm sure, maybe from drivers or
security guards, who helped the terrorists get into the base,"
said Anis Rahmani, editor of Algeria's Ennahar newspaper and a
writer on security issues who said he was briefed by officials.
Officials in this secretive country said they had discovered
cases before when Islamist rebels succeeded in having fellow
militants employed by international energy companies. One told
Reuters it was possible insiders had cooperated at In Amenas.
Locally hired workers who escaped told Reuters of seeing the
gunmen moving around the sprawling facility with confidence,
apparently familiar with its layout and well prepared.
The militants said they launched the raid to halt French
military intervention in neighbouring Mali, which began a week
ago, however the link is not yet clear. Several European and
U.S. officials said the assault seems too elaborate to have been
planned in such a short time.
It is possible the attack would have happened anyway, or
that the French military operation provided a trigger to carry
out an attack based on preparations done earlier.
Much may never become clear. The raid was carried out in a
region closed to outsiders within a country whose government is
unused to sharing sensitive information with the public.
First word of trouble came crackling over a walkie-talkie to
the communications room at In Amenas, where a 27-year-old radio
operator called Azedine logged a contact with a bus driver who,
at 5:45 a.m. (0445 GMT), left to take some foreigners to the
airstrip at the town of In Amenas, some 50 km (30 miles) away.
"Moments after the bus left, I heard shooting, a lot of
shooting, and then nothing," Azedine told Reuters on Friday.
Two people, one British, one Algerian were killed on two
buses heading for the airport. It is not clear whether that
incident was part of the plan that secured the militants access
to the compound. Almost immediately after the bus skirmish, they
were inside, in at least three vehicles.
People who have worked at the site, which sits with its back
to cliffs in the dunes, say there was normally an overnight
curfew on movement in the area, leaving it unclear how the
gunmen were able to get so close before being challenged. Their
initial approach may have been well off the main roads.
Freed hostages spoke of an alarm being raised, of frightened
people staying in their offices or accommodation.
Azedine saw a gunman put on the ID badge of a French
supervisor who had been shot dead.
Rapidly the area was surrounded by heavily armed Algerian
troops, with tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopter gunships
from a nearby military base. The government in Algiers vowed
never to negotiate.
People familiar with the site, operated by Britain's BP and
Statoil of Norway along with Algeria's state energy company,
said a barracks housing several hundred soldiers lies along the
three km (two miles) of road separating the many buildings of
the accommodation compound from the industrial plant.
A former senior Algerian government official said guards
appeared to have been caught napping: "They have all kinds of
equipment, detailed surveillance, cameras," he said. "They were
caught maybe at the right time, at five in the morning."
But he also acknowledged the militants may have had help
among the local workforce: "Out of 700 Algerians, I am sure they
will find a couple who will cooperate. It always happens."
Militant leaders like Taher Ben Cheneb, said by officials to
have led the operation and to have been killed on Thursday, have
stoked resentment among southerners at the way foreigners and
northerners dominate the better paid jobs in the oil fields.
Ben Cheneb, described as a high school maths teacher in his
50s, led the Movement of the Islamic Youth in the South.
Security expert Rahmani said he joined forces for this operation
with followers of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran of Afghan wars
and a leading figure in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
who recently formed a new group named Mulathameen.
The two men had cooperated before, Rahmani said, notably in
damaging an airliner in 2007 at Djanet, further to the south.
While Ben Cheneb's group appeared to have moved on In Amenas
from a base inside Algeria, Rahmani said, Belmokhtar's men, led
by Abu El Bara, appeared to have come in from Libya.
Noting the one-eyed Belmokhtar's reputation as a cigarette
smuggler as well as a holy warrior - locals call him the "Mister
Marlboro" - he added: "They use the same backroads as the
smugglers. You need a perfect knowledge of the Sahara to do it.
"They can use the same wells as the smugglers, the same fuel
dumps hidden in the desert."
More than a decade after Algeria's civil war killed some
200,000 people, Islamist fighters roam the sandy wastes of
Africa's biggest country, mixing smuggling and kidnapping for
ransom with opposition to the political establishment that has
ruled in Algiers since French colonists left half a century ago.
These groups have been energised by the return of heavily
armed ethnic Tuaregs and others from Libya, where they fought as
mercenaries for Muammar Gaddafi until his overthrow in 2011. The
new Libyan authorities are struggling to control their own deep
south and it provides a launchpad for raids across the frontier.
Images from Libya's civil war, of men in desert robes
powering across the dunes in pick-up trucks mounted with heavy
weapons ranging from machineguns to missile-launchers, have been
transferred, along with arms and men, to conflict in the Sahara.
Mali's army melted away last year, ceding control of
northern towns like Timbuktu as fighters came back from Libya.
While security forces seek to control their frontiers, the
tracts of sand are vast, borders among the half dozen countries
around the desert are unmarked, and the big money that can be
made from illicit trade or kidnapping tourists and Western
engineers can be used to buy favours from ill-paid officials.
Al Qaeda says it is fighting for a Muslim caliphate that
transcends artificial borders in the Maghreb set by colonial
Once inside the facility, militants, including bearded,
ragged fighters and others in more urban dress, herded groups of
Westerners together. Hundreds of Algerians were guarded more
loosely. One Algerian worker told Reuters the gunmen said they
were only interested in killing "Christians and infidels".
Several former hostages described the attackers, from their
accents, as appearing to be Libyan or Egyptian as well as
Algerian. Officials said many of 18 dead gunmen were foreign.
Algeria told Western governments, which voiced dismay at the
storming of the facility on Thursday, that troops moved in only
because guerrillas were trying to leave with hostages, possibly
hoping to reach the Malian border.
The captors loaded hostages into a convoy. Special forces
backed by helicopters moved in around noon, some 30 hours after
the plant was seized.
In what appears to have been the deadliest part of the
siege, as described by the family of Irish survivor Stephen
McFaul, government forces bombed the convoy, blasting apart four
vehicles full of hostages. McFaul was in a fifth truck which
crashed. He dashed for his life and escaped, and believes all
those in the other vehicles were killed.
During Thursday, most of the hundreds of people at the site
were able to flee.
By Friday night, it remained unclear how many of the gunmen
and their hostages were still in the facility - though both
groups might number in the dozens. Norway's prime minister said
the operation at the larger, residential compound seemed to be
over and troops were now surrounding the industrial site.
But this left Western governments and intelligence
officials, long used to difficult relations with Algeria which
is proud of its sovereignty, desperate for hard facts about the
fate of their nationals.