Hostage crisis: Energy needs ensnare Europe in the Sahara

The hostage situation has highlighted the precarious situation of energy production in Algeria, which is Europe's third-largest natural gas producer but is also home to an Islamic insurgency.

Reuters TV
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks to Parliament in London on Friday about the hostage situation in Algeria. Mr. Cameron said he was disappointed Algeria had not informed him in advance of its operation to rescue hostages being held in a desert gas facility, but said fewer then 30 Britons were still 'at risk.'

Still reeling from a deadly Algerian military attempt to free hostages held by Islamist militants at a natural gas installation, European governments, resource companies, and other investors are considering how large amounts of personnel on the ground in the region can be protected from future attacks.

Dozens of energy workers remained unaccounted for Friday following the operation to free hostages from at least 10 countries, as well as many local workers at the Ain Amenas plant. Two Japanese, two Britons, and a French national were among at least seven foreigners killed, according to an Algerian source quoted by Reuters Friday.

However, security experts warned of broad implications for protecting hundreds of specialist foreign workers and thousands of locals manning operations across North Africa, where the energy implications for Europe mean that simply pulling out is not an option.

“This will be a wake-up call because of the scale of this attack against Amenas,” says Anthony Skinner, an analyst at risk analysis company Maplecroft, which ranks Algeria as one of 22 states where there is an "extreme" risk of kidnapping and the 21st highest risk out of 197 countries.

“I think there is going to be a very significant revision to security measures. There needs to be almost a program put in place by individual investors that goes overboard in terms of security because of the scale of this particular incident.”

London-based BP, a joint operator of the gas plant, has been evacuating staff from Algeria – 11 were flown back to the UK Thursday – and the British government is providing a back-up service. Staff were also being flown out by Norway’s Statoil, which runs the Tigantourine gas field with BP and Algeria's national oil company. Statoil said eight Norwegian employees were still missing.

Spain’s Cepsa was also pulling staff out of Algeria, which produces more than 1.2 million barrels of crude oil daily and is Europe’s third-largest supplier of natural gas.

In practical terms, Mr. Skinner says that corporations could look at increasing the number of perimeters around installation as a step towards protecting workers against the region's militants, whose capabilities have been expanding. Though the militants have always been able to move easily across porous frontiers, they now have access to more sophisticated weaponry following the fall of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi across the border from Algeria.

Skinner cites Iraq, host to a large amount of foreign oil firms, as an example of how bolstered security can work. “If you look at the total number of terrorist attacks between 2004 and 2011, 3 percent of all attacks were targeted against energy infrastructure and the bulk of those targeted soft entities – pipelines, gas stations, and transport.”

“A small minority of that 3 percent actually targeted harder targets, pump stations and the like. So if you have the right security measures in place, the security risks can be mitigated.”

The Amenas incident could also tip the balance towards foreign companies and governments when it came to negotiating future security arrangements with local authorities.

Skinner adds, “Governments and investors are going to be particularly concerned that they are in control of security measures. Algeria has acted without engaging [diplomatically] with the militants and we have seen the result of that with many deaths. This will also enable multinationals to negotiate their way to ensure that they have greater control over security measures on the ground.”

Some analysts elsewhere suggested that the security challenge could be much less, pointing out that the isolated nature of Algeria’s oil and gas fields make them relatively easy to secure and that local authorities would now be on a higher state of alert.

Amid a still confusing picture at the plant, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said today that the number of British nationals at risk had “quite significantly reduced" from a figure of less than 30 last night.

He added that he was "disappointed" not to have been told by Algerian authorities about the operation before it began. "I offered UK technical and intelligence support – including from experts in hostage negotiation and rescue – to help find a successful resolution,” he told MPs in Parliament after chairing a meeting of Britain’s national security committee, Cobra.

Mr. Cameron's criticism was far more muted than was suggested by reports that he, like other European leaders, was "furious" not to have been informed of the Algerian operation beforehand.  But his language was likely tempered by Algeria's importance to Britain and Europe, both as an energy supplier and as a partner in anti-Islamist efforts in the region.

Cameron defended Britain’s involvement in the French-led intervention in Mali and its provision of two C-17 transport aircraft, for which the militants have reportedly claimed the Amenas attack was in revenge.

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