Algerian gas hostage crisis: Wired to a suicide bomber

A desert road sign near In Amenas, eastern Algeria (undated image)

Many questions remain about how a group of militants managed to overrun the In Amenas gas station in Algeria, resulting in the deaths of 48 hostages. A BBC investigation hears a disturbing account of what happened, looks at the levels of security at the site and asks whether the group had inside information that helped them plan the attack.

"I saw the foreigners tied up with a terrorist with explosives, a suicide bomber in the middle," says an Algerian BP engineer.

After trying to escape from the In Amenas gas complex, he had been caught by some of the armed kidnappers.

They had marched him back to the main accommodation building, which had been stormed by fighters from an al-Qaeda offshoot, Signed in Blood, run by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Algerian Islamist militant.

And in the middle of the compound, the BP employee, who does not want us to use his name, came across a disturbing sight.

Attached to a bomb

"There were about a dozen people to the left of the terrorist, some Americans, some English, some Norwegians, and on the right there were some Japanese, some Filipinos and I think some Chinese as well," he says.

"So they were attached by a wire to a bomb, with a suicide bomber in the middle, holding the wire and if our army were to attack, then they would blow the whole thing up."

We do not know if any of those hostages were among the 48 from Britain, Japan, Norway, the US and the Philippines killed during the four-day siege.

Our Algerian witness was one of the lucky ones who eventually managed to escape unharmed.

The site, run by BP, the Norwegian firm Statoil and Sonatrach, the Algerian state oil and gas company, is heavily guarded with an army base situated between the accommodation blocks and the main gas plant 3km (1.8 miles) away.

"All the oil company sites in Algeria are perfectly well protected, especially inland," says Abdulmajid Attar the former chief executive of Sonatrach.

"There is a sand barricade around every plant. There are double ring fences and sentry boxes."

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Media captionBP engineer: "They were attached by a wire to a bomb, with a suicide bomber in the middle"

"There is generally a posting of the army or the police, to protect the actual site, who are armed according to the size of the site."

But could more have been done to protect the In Amenas workers?

Compromised security

The security guards who man the gates and patrol inside the complex were not armed as they are at some other gas and oil installations in Algeria.

BP, Statoil and Sonatrach decided they did not need to be, as the army camp nearby provided enough protection.

It is not clear whether armed guards could have stopped the attackers getting in, but in the wake of what happened that is certain to be reviewed.

However, it is likely that security was compromised by insiders colluding with the attackers.

The Algerian Prime Minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, has said one former driver at the site had helped the gang.

These drivers are vital, used to ferry staff from the compound to the airport or on trips to wells.

BBC Radio 4's The Report programme has learnt these drivers, who are employed by a local agency, have been involved in a bitter dispute with Sonatrach for better employment rights.

Guards not interested

A BP field inspector who works at In Amenas says a drivers' strike was only resolved at the end of 2012.

He says: "They were very frustrated and went on strike.

"For the last two weeks of it there was a hunger strike, they even took people to the hospital."

He adds that tensions had flared up again. "The day before the terrorist attacks they were meeting and decided to start the strike again," he says.

The field inspector says during the period the drivers were striking he noticed security checks by guards at the complex were affected.

"I'm not saying anyone can enter but there was some non-rigorous checks because guards were not interested to work hard," he says.

When we asked them about security, BP, Statoil and Sonatrach either did not respond or said the Algerian government was conducting its own enquiry into the attack.

However, Mr Attar says these disputes are not new.

"There are always strikes," he says.

"I do not think that there is any link between this strike and the attack, it is practically impossible."

'Price you pay to get rich'

There are several potential lapses in security that sources in Algeria have told us are being investigated by the security services.

Image caption The Algerian military launched an assault when the hostage takers appeared to be leaving the site

One involves the possible employment at the In Amenas plant of a company run by a brother of the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

If it were proved to be true, this would be hugely embarrassing for BP and its partners.

No-one from BP, Statoil or Sonatrach responded to our requests for a comment about this..

Reports in Algeria also say 11 employees are being investigated for possible collusion with Signed in Blood.

Everyone we spoke to was convinced there was help from inside the plant.

Mr Attar says: "They couldn't have carried out their plan without some level of complicity from inside."

He defends the decision of the Algerian government to storm the complex, and suggests the West and Westerners are partly to blame for the attack.

"It is the price paid by those who are paid by their individual countries to come here and get rich, the price paid by those who armed them… and it is also the price paid by all the ransoms paid to terrorists."

Listen to The Report on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 31 January at 20:00 GMT. You can listen again via the Radio 4 website or The Report download.

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