A big mistake is being made by governments by treating the Ain Amenas gas plant terror attack solely as Algeria’s responsibility. They have not yet realised that this incident involving 37 foreign hostage deaths is the emergence of yet another innovative pattern, like 9/11, to disrupt global business development by hitting such vital but isolated targets. India has been one of the earliest sufferers of this pattern of attacks in Afghanistan, where our infrastructure development workers were targeted by terrorists. At least 22 Indians have died working for Afghan projects since 2003. The rest of the world treated this only as a problem to be tackled by India and Afghanistan.
Soon after 9/11, counter-terrorism groups tried to prognosticate terrorist threats to national or international business groups. Although, the United Nations had formulated counter-terrorist cooperation protocols, no practical measures were brought in for dealing with situations like Amenas, where the host country’s security machinery might have fallen short of the expectations of protection of foreign personnel. Ain Amenas represents a typical multinational venture where the British BP signed a production sharing contract with Sonatrach (1998), transferred 50% of its interest to Norway’s Statoil (2003) and started production in 2006. BP was awarded three blocks for exploration in 2005. Two of these are located in the Illizi basin close to Amenas. The principal contractor for the project was a joint venture between the Japanese Gas Corporation of Yokohama, and Kellogg, Brown & Root. 136 foreigners of 26 nationalities were working there.
Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal revealed that this terrorist operation was planned two months ago. Did Western intelligence falter in appreciating the developing situation, especially the close relationship between Mali and Algerian terrorist streams? The Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was established in Mali after the Algerian Civil War (1991-2002), which took nearly 2 lakh lives. This also saw different insurgent groups coming together in 2006 on Ayman al-Zawahiri’s initiative. Initially, US intelligence had correctly appreciated this by forming a “Pan-Sahel Initiative” in 2002 for containing regional terrorist groups. However, the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, the experience of rescuing and evacuating thousands of foreign workers from that war torn country even by using Special Forces, and suspicion of Al Qaeda being involved in the 11 September 2012, Benghazi attack, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens, should have warranted closer international intelligence cooperation. That is not the impression one gets from a Washington Post report (1 October 2012) saying that the United States was aware of the strengthening of Mali Al Qaeda, its connection with AQIM and “acquiring weapons from post-revolution Libya”, but had decided “right now, we’re not in position to do much about it”. As for UK and Japan, they only frowned upon the Algerian action of storming into the plant without consulting them.
The Algerian terrorist operation seems to have been planned perfectly, almost like 9/11 or 26/11 (Mumbai). One report said that they had obtained the plant layout map by subverting some employees. Prime Minister Sellal said that the terrorists had travelled through Niger and Libya. They were dressed in Algerian army uniforms and armed with AK 104, 60mm mortars and F-5 rockets supplied to Libyan rebels by foreign powers. To confuse the plant security, the terrorists came in vehicles painted with Sonatrach colours. Terrorists from Egypt, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Tunisia and Algeria participated in the operation. Suspicion about a Canadian terrorist leadership arose when some identity cards with a common Arab surname “Chedad” emerged from the scene. Afghan war veteran Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed credit for the attack, saying that it was to retaliate against the French attack on Mali, which is obviously false, since the French operations started only on 11 January.
The prevention of such attacks is a great challenge to the global business leadership and to the governments concerned. Initiative for this cannot be left to host governments alone. Also, the presence of Canadian identity cards is no indication on the origin of the terrorists. During the 26/11 attacks, all the ten Pakistani terrorists carried Indian ID cards with Hindu names. But for the supreme sacrifice of Mumbai police officer Tukaram Omble, who apprehended Ajmal Kasab alive, the rest of the world would have believed that they were Indians and shared the present Union Home Minister’s recent political outburst on “saffron terror”.