Today Algeria will mark the one-year anniversary of the devastating attack on the Tigantourine gas complex In Aménas, which left sixty-seven people killed, thirty-seven of whom were foreign nationals. This is a sad, but fitting timeline as international energy giants prepare to make a full return to the region. Whilst the day will likely go ahead without much fanfare, sombre reflection is expected among Algerian leaders, who are growing increasingly concerned about their country’s ability to put a stop to the tide of militancy that has swept the region in the wake of the 2011 uprisings. Meanwhile, foreign energy workers are likely to continue to press the government in Algiers for a greater security response, and present some tough inquiries to their Algerian partners. One question, in particular, remains: what, exactly, are Algerian authorities doing to quash fears of another terror attack?
Allaying Foreign Concerns
In early January 2014, representatives from Norwegian-based Statoil and London-headquartered British Petroleum (BP) confirmed they had reached an agreement with Algeria that would see both firms resume their operations with added security precautions. Among the stipulations made by BP and Statoil include the establishment of a runway, scheduled for completion sometime in February 2014, that will be set aside for employee-use light aircraft. The idea is that personnel would be able to quickly enter and leave the Tigantourine gas complex should another terror attack arise. Moreover, workers will no longer have to reside in the restive border area of Illizi, a region also used as a weapons magazine of sorts for militants. Instead, BP and Statoil have been allowed to move their facilities toward the comparatively quieter Hassi Messaoud, an area that has no recent history of assaults.
All progression aside, sources suggest that neither BP nor Statoil walked away satisfied. To be sure, both companies made a request to bring additional private security teams to protect their employees. An appeal for private security personnel was also made by the US-based Anadarko Petroleum Corporation (APC), which reportedly refused to re-enter Algeria’s El Merk complex, located west of the triangular border region of Tunisia and Libya, until the government acquiesced to this demand. Unlike APC, requests by BP and Statoil appear to have been denied by authorities in Algeria, a Maghreb state renowned for jealously guarding its sovereignty, and for preferring, instead, to rely on its own powerful national police, La Gendarmerie Nationale, and its ever-increasing military arsenal.
A Military Makeover
In addition to giving into – at least some – of the requirements made by energy firms, Algerian officials are also hoping to respond to questions regarding their terror-preparedness by ramping up their defence budget and upgrading their armoury. Over the next four years, Algeria is expected to bolster its spending on the sector by 6%. With this extra financial support, officials will replace outdated equipment with more advanced systems, including new helicopters, tankers and transport aircraft. Not stopping there, military higher-ups also have their sights set on the Adcom Systems Yabhon United 40 Block 5 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), which reports suggest will enter the Algerian arsenal sometime around May 2014. Interest in the drone became evident amid the Dubai Air Show in November 2013, when Algerian officials noted that they might consider acquiring the UAV as a means to boost the military’s intelligence and reconnaissance capacity along terror-prone borders. An increase in personnel is also on the top of the Algerian agenda in 2014. Already, some 6,000 troops have moved near the border with Tunisia. Reports suggest that as many as “20,000 troops” have also been sent to the Libyan frontier in anticipation of cross-border skirmishes, smuggling clashes and other nefarious activities. Among those deployed, include thousands of soldiers from Algeria’s Special Forces Team, who are expected to remain in place near Tunisia and Libya until at least 2014.
Although a boost in military capabilities is necessary to prevent further attacks around critical hydrocarbon installations, Algerian authorities are also keenly aware of the need to strengthen ties with their more militant-ravaged neighbours. Algeria’s powerful military intelligence apparatus has a stake in North Africa and the Sahel’s progress. To put it bluntly, it can ‘pull out all the stops’ when it comes to its counter-terrorism activities domestically; but so long as its regional neighbours are unable to match the Algerian military machine in these efforts, Algeria will suffer from more attacks.
Concerns over the increasing transnationalisation of militants in Mali and Niger to the South, and Tunisia and Libya to the East, have risen in the wake of the 2011 upririsings and the 2012 Bamako crisis. Further political stalemates in neighbouring countries (i.e., Libya), allows militants to strengthen their foothold in already precarious locations, such as Tunisia’s Jebel Chaambi Mountain range, an area which lies frighteningly close to Algeria’s north-eastern frontier. Fears that setbacks in Tunisia could eventually haunt the home front have prompted authorities to set up a “direct line of communication” with their counterparts in Tunis.
With regard to Libya, the Algerian Government faces even stiffer challenges. Relations between the states hit a roadblock in October 2013, when rumours circulated that Algerian authorities “refused” to cooperate with Libya’s Ministry of Defence (MoD)-supported Border Agency over accusations that the post-Gaddafi protection service was – and remains – nothing more than a group of poorly trained “militias from the Tuareg tribes and Zintan”. In effect, Tripoli’s perceived ineptitude when it comes to amalgamating its own security forces may have increased the risk of attacks against hydrocarbon installations at home in Algeria. To be sure, as far back as 14 March 2012, The Inkerman Group noted that former Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) militant, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who helped mastermind the In Aménas attack, had been spotted in Tripoli. There, Belmokhtar allegedly spent eighteen days searching for deals on light and heavy weapons. Eventually, he found what he was looking for, and did so without suffering abuse from Libyan forces. Worryingly, Libya has not made significant gains in the security arena since 2012. The shared border region with Algeria is still rife with individuals who would love nothing more than to attack energy assets in Algeria. In particular, Algerian intelligence officials believe that a militant organisation, based in the Libyan border town of Ghad, is planning to launch a revenge terror attack near In Aménas within the coming months. For Algerian leaders, these threats cannot be taken lightly. The group is believed to be led by the revenge-bent brother of late militant leader Mohamed Lamine Bencheneb, who was killed by security forces during the infamous January 2013 siege.
The Right Question?
Overall, the Algerian Government’s precautionary measures around hydrocarbon assets should be commended. Despite setbacks, officials appear steadfast in their goal of regional cooperation, a plan that marks a shift in attitude from traditionally inward-looking Algeria, and demonstrates the Maghreb state’s willingness to seek outside help to alleviate fears of another terror attack. However, even adjustments, such as additional defence spending or greater regional coordination, may not be enough for energy giants, who note that Algeria still maintains an uncomfortable level of nationalism, which could ultimately determine their willingness to stay. To begin with, Tayeb Louh, Algeria’s Minister of Justice, reiterated on 10 January 2013, that his country has the “sole right” to investigate the 2013 attack. This independent take could be the reason why, one year later, the Algerian Government has only detained three of the thirty-two alleged In Aménas assailants.
The tradition of sovereignty does not just hamper Algeria’s ability mitigate terror risks. It also impacts business. Case in point: in May 2013, BP CEO Robert Dudley announced that, as a result of the lacklustre security conditions, his company had considered indefinitely delaying energy projects. Most reports cite security as the main reason for Dudley’s declaration; others, however, have conveyed the real motivation: Algeria’s hyper-nationalist attitude towards foreign investment. Sonatrach CEO Abdelhamid Zerguine had previously stated in July 2012 that Algeria would revamp its state-biased economic laws in favour of providing “incentives for foreign investors that will develop non-conventional resources”. Despite these assurances, real change has yet to materialise. One noteworthy law apparently still on the books is the stipulation that all hydrocarbon operations be divided between the state and international energy firms, leaving Sonatrach to control at least 51% of discoveries. Perhaps the right question ought to be asked: how can Algerian authorities prevent foreign energy giants in country from leaving altogether?