Algerian hostage crisis In Amenas murders: coroner points to security flaws at Algerian gas plant
Inquest into deaths of seven workers at BP joint venture returns verdict of unlawful killing
The Guardian, 26 February 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/26/in-amenas-murders-coroner-finds-algerian-gas-plant-had-security-flaws
Flaws in security precautions at an Algerian gas plant partially operated by BP, where seven British residents were murdered by jihadis in 2013, have been highlighted by a coroner.
Delivering a verdict at an inquest in London on Thursday that the men had been unlawfully killed, judge Nicholas Hilliard QC drew attention to multiple failures by the plant’s management to upgrade protection – partly on the grounds of cost.
Security drills were rarely held, there were no armed guards protecting the foreign workers’ living quarters, risk assessment policies obscured the true dangers and Algerian gendarmes arrived well after terrorists had seized the main compound, he explained in his narrative verdict.
At one stage, the captors put explosive cord around the hostages’ necks, Hilliard said. Two men were singled out for execution if the jihadis’ demands were not met.
Responsibility for the deaths lay with the terrorists, the coroner said, even though they were killed by Algerian army bullets in the subsequent rescue operation.
BP could now face civil claims from the victims’ families. The In Amenas gas plant, which has reopened, is reported to generate $4bn (£2.6bn) worth of gas a year, with BP taking a quarter of the proceeds.
Evidence heard by the inquiry revealed there were no armed guards on the gates of the living quarters, in the compound’s 12 watchtowers or even in the immediate vicinity of the living quarters at the In Amenas site, which was jointly operated by BP, the Algerian state company Sonatrach and the Norwegian company Statoil.
The gas field was not far from the border with Libya, a failed state which was collapsing into civil war and awash with weapons. The front gates were said to have been frequently left open: the terrorists drove in at 5.48am, largely unimpeded.
The night before the attack, there had been a confrontational meeting between joint venture officials and local Tuareg staff, at the end of which one driver allegedly said: “You have made your law, but tomorrow when you wake up, you will have a surprise and blood will be shed.”
Six Britons and a UK resident died in January 2013 when the Algerian gas plant was targeted by al-Qaida-linked militants. Altogether, 39 foreign workers, an Algerian security guard and 29 militants were killed before Algerian special forces retook the gas plant after a four-day standoff in the Sahara desert.
There was an article in the Algerian El Khabar newspaper in the November before the attack, which warned that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were photographing petrochemical facilities in preparation for attacks.
The raid was launched by gunmen under the control of the Algerian jihadi leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
The Britons who died were Carson Bilsland and Kenneth Whiteside, both from Scotland; Sebastian John, from Norfolk; Stephen Green, from Hampshire; Paul Morgan and Garry Barlow, both from Liverpool, and Carlos Estrada Valencia, originally from Colombia, who lived in London.
Late last year, the Foreign Office resorted to the rarely used legal device of a public interest immunity (PII) certificate, allowing officials to apply to withhold material deemed too sensitive to be released in open court.
The inquest under Hilliard, who was appointed as assistant coroner, began last September. In an interim decision last month upholding the PII application, he said the government had received information from a local newspaper alleging that terrorists were seeking information about British workers in Algeria with a view to kidnapping them. The information was later deemed to be unreliable, the FCO said.
Key documents and forensic records have been denied to the inquest because the Algerian authorities are putting on trial several alleged militants who survived the attack. Some of those who died were killed by bullets fired by Algerian soldiers.
David Green’s 47-year-old son, Stephen, was one of those murdered during the assault. He had worked as a safety manager. His father said this week: “His murder was totally preventable and avoidable. The massive security improvements made by BP and others since the attack would have prevented the terrorists if performed earlier.”
When Stephen Green was captured, he and other hostages had explosives looped around them. The inquest heard that he refused to kneel down when the Algerian helicopters flew overhead and told his captors: “Show me the bullet that you will use to shoot me.”
He and and four hostages were later placed in a car, which drove at high speed away from the living quarters towards the gas plant. The vehicle overturned and caught fire; the other hostages escaped but Stephen died of a gunshot wound.
Hilliard said that the risk management policy operated by the joint venture obscured the likelihood of a terrorist attack by amalgamating it with the lesser expectation of damage to a pipeline – producing a combined lower score that did not trigger an alarm.
Andrew Ritchie QC, who represented Claudia Gaviria – the widow of Valencia, a BP vice-president – questioned whether the security patrols that were supposed to go into the surrounding desert were dispatched on the night of the attack.
The gendarmes, it emerged, had to borrow jeeps and drivers from the company to carry out their security sweeps. There was no attempt to ramp up security before the attack, Ritchie had told the inquest. Security was mainly left to an Algerian gendarme unit who lived 500 yards away.
Valencia was hit by Algerian army bullets – killed by the men who were supposed to protect him.
Gaviria, who attended the inquest, said: “It has been heartbreaking to hear the evidence presented and to feel that Carlos’s death could and should have been prevented. My husband had never been to In Amenas before and, as far as I know, he had no warning from BP about the risks that faced him there before he went.
“To this day, I find it very hard to comprehend how Carlos could simply kiss us all goodbye one day as he headed off to work, never to return. For so long, I was unable properly to grieve because I was kept in the dark over what happened to Carlos on those dreadful days.
“The evidence I have heard throughout the inquests has been truly staggering. It is now clear to me that very basic security mechanisms at the In Amenas facility were flawed and that security advice was simply ignored.”
Nicola John, the widow of Sebastian John, said: “I will always wonder if Sebastian’s death may have been preventable if all the security measures that had been identified as necessary for the protection of workers at the site had been implemented.
“I am angry that BP chose to send a young and inexperienced graduate to a risky destination such as In Amenas at a time of unrest in bordering Libya and Mali. My husband did not feel he had a choice to refuse this placement at a company he aspired to join.”
Ritchie said: “The In Amenas facility was only 48 miles [77km] from the Libyan border. It was a sitting duck. The Algerian military were regularly catching terrorists in vehicles in southern Algeria carrying weapons bought in Libya.”
Clive Garner, a lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, who is also representing the families of Valencia and John in their civil claims, said: “Our clients are very disappointed that BP continues to deny civil liability and we now invite BP to accept the coroner’s findings … If a negotiated solution cannot be reached very shortly, we will be commencing formal court proceedings against BP in the coming months.”
There was a dispute whether the plant was within 31 miles (50km) of the Libyan border: the Foreign Office in 2012 had warned that UK citizens should not go within that distance for fear of attacks by militants. Other gas plants in the region were said to have have better defences.
BP said: “[We] will now closely review the findings. Since the attack, BP and Statoil jointly carried out an extensive review of security arrangements in Algeria and have been working with the Algerian state energy company Sonatrach on a programme of security enhancements.
“The focus of BP and our partners in the In Amenas joint venture is to do all we can to prevent any such incident from happening again. Our thoughts remain with the families and friends of everyone who was affected by this tragedy – we will always remember them at BP.”