On 16 January 2013, the AQIM splinter faction ‘Signed in Blood Battalion’, a group which normally operates in southern Algeria, attacked a natural gas facility near In Amenas in Western Algeria.
Terrorist Attacks on Business Operations
The operation commenced when vehicles transporting expatriate and local workers from the facility to the nearby airport were intercepted by what appeared to be security personnel, based on the use of false uniforms and vehicle markings, an act of perfidy which disguised the militants and prevented the workers from escaping.
Another group assaulted the main gate of the complex, employing RPG and heavy machine gun fire to suppress local security personnel, enabling them to enter the facility and start taking hostages. This included going from room to room at the residential complex immediately outside the facility, dragging out Western expatriates who were hiding from the danger. The hostages were gathered in groups and forced to wear explosive belts, and many others were bound and gagged.
Within an hour, the facility was surrounded by Algerian military forces, preventing escape. It is likely that this may have been according to plan for the militants, as their leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, specialized in kidnap-for-ransom operations. Another indicator is the relatively light damage sustained by the complex itself, indicating the militants did not intend to remain and destroy the facility.
The Algerian government, which has a firm no-ransom policy, always takes a hardline approach with militants. As such, it should come as no surprise that they launched attacks without consulting with foreign governments, some of whom could have provided valuable hostage rescue capabilities. A series of armed assaults over several days, which included the use of tanks and helicopters, resulted in the deaths of 39 expatriate workers, as well as over 20 militant fighters.
Although the operation failed to achieve a ransom, and the entire attacking force was either killed or capture, one desirable outcome for Belmokhtar was that he earned notoriety and prestige among other militants. This was important because he was a rival of the AQIM leader, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud.
- Local security forces are not always reliable. The government security forces did not detect nor intercept the attacking force prior to the assault, despite the importance of the plant. However, on the other hand, the attack also highlighted the difficulty in preventing terrorist attacks by a determined adversary, which is a problem that is not unique to Algeria.
- Suspected subversion among the staff. It is probable that some staff members may have provided intelligence to the militants, which enabled the attack. This reinforces the importance of independently vetting locally employed workers.
- Local security guards were overwhelmed. They could not hold out against the superior firepower of the attacking force, and thus were unable to deny penetration of the facility.
- Lack of ‘panic rooms.’ Expatriate workers were unable to access any fortified facilities to ensure their safety, as these facilities did not exist. A residential area may, therefore, benefit from a central location that can be defended until reinforcements arrive.
- The militants made no distinction between the nationalities of the expatriate workers. Those who were killed came from ten different countries, ranging from the US, to the UK, to Norway and Japan.
- Algerian government maintained no-negotiation policy. The government of Algeria has a policy that it will never negotiate with terrorists, and the attack in Amenas was no exception, even though there were a large number of foreign citizens in danger. It is likely that Algiers regrets the loss of expatriate lives, however, it sees their actions as a necessary requirement; they successfully proved their commitment to destroying terrorist groups. Furthermore, the Algerian Army lacks the training, experience, and equipment to undertake hostage rescue operations that minimize the risk of casualties among those taken hostage.