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I thought this week we should discuss somewhere a bit hotter than the weather we are experiencing in the UK at the moment. Most of the UK, except where I am based in Glasgow, is covered in thick snow and suffering all the results of snow such as power cuts, inability of some staff to get to work and public transport delays and cancellations.

Last week Al Qaeda linked terrorists mounted an attack on the Amenas Gas plant deep in the Saharan desert close to the border of Libya. About 30 terrorists stormed the plant and took a number of hostages from amongst the multinational staff who were working at the plant. Many staff managed to evade their potential kidnappers by hiding in their offices or accommodation block and then, with the help of local staff, were able to escape into the desert. The terrorists tried to take the hostages away from the plant back into the desert, but all their vehicles were destroyed in an air strike which killed a number of hostages as well as terrorists. Once the plant had been recaptured it was found that 39 hostages and 29 terrorists had been killed. There was some frustration from the British Government as the assault was carried out without warning and that the flow of information from the scene was limited. The surviving hostages have now all returned to their home countries.

There are a number of lessons to be learnt from this attack as business continuity managers, even if we don’t have facilities or staff in high risk areas.

  1. The site is a high profile site contributing to 10% of Algeria’s gas experts; it’s in a very remote location and was known to have a high population of foreign staff employed there. This attack was likely to have taken several months to plan and so it was not in direct response to the French intervention in next door Mali. It was well know that Al Qaeda had gained a foothold in North Africa and that they are likely to launch attacked on “suitable targets”. In retrospect this was a fairly obvious target for a terrorist attack and often terrorist attacks are on obvious high profile targets rather than some obscure facility in a little known city of town. Terrorists often go back to the same target they have attacked before as happened at the World Trade Centre ware there was a car bomb attack a few years before 9/11. There hadn’t been a previous attack on the Amenas facility, but it was a high risk site and the terrorists knew if they attacked it – due to the multinational nature of the staff – it was going to make headlines around the world. If you are a high profile site or a high profile organisation which would make headlines if attacked, then you are much more likely to suffer from a terrorist attack rather than if you are a less known organisation and in a less known place.
  2. Have you practiced and trained your staff what to do in a hostage situation or if terrorist attack your facility? Should they hide and hope that the terrorists don’t find then and then try and escape or should they give themselves up and then hope that they are rescued or returned through negotiation. I heard a very moving account of a camera man who had been held captive in Mogadishu in Somalia and had decided with his fellow captive to escape. He was captured very shortly afterwards. After he had tried to escape his living conditions were much worse and he was treated much worse than he was before. His view was that his escape stood very little chance of succeeding as the locals were hostile and the authorities were likely to give him back to the people who were holding him. His advice was that only try and escape if you are very likely to succeed and if you fail you maybe be killed or your living condition may be a lot worse so it was not worth it. Hostage taking may not just occur in remote gas plants in the desert but may take place in international hotels such as the attack on the Taj Mahal Hotel in 2008.
  3. The oil companies have good plans and procedures in place for bringing home their staff, keeping them informed, and looking after the families of those involved in accidents or terrorist attacks. In many cases senior managers personally kept families up to date with what was happing. Does your organisation have plans in place for looking after staff and keeping their families informed after they have been involved in a similar situation?
  4. The site is too important for the oil companies to put their staff out on a permanent basis so expatriate staff will return. I suspect the security will be a lot better on their return. It is likely then the terrorists will turn to a softer target so the oil companies should be doing their risk assessment and making sure that there were no sites which could be attacked in a similar way.

For me, this highlights the importance of risk assessment and making sure you identify your highest risk sites and ‘harden them’. If you make them more resilient to prevent an incident happening in the first case, this will help mitigate the effects of an incident should it occur.

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