THE dusty compound of the Tigantourine gas facility is a remote, lonely place. Hundreds of miles of empty desert surround the Algerian gas field, stretching as far as the borders of Mali and Nigeria.
For the plant’s 700 staff, a mixture of foreign nationals and Algerians, the daily routine is insular and monotonous, as workers engage in adding extra compression to maintain gas output levels and strive to add a new “slugcatcher” – a system that separates liquids from gas to prevent overload of a connected gas pipeline.
At Tigantourine, a complex of buildings spanning several acres, there is no such thing as popping out after work for a drink. Staff are essentially kept on lockdown, a move that is chiefly for their own safety in an isolated, unstable corner of the world where Algerian troops regularly patrol the perimeter.
Free time is spent watching DVDs, going for runs round the walls of the compound in the desert heat, or communicating with loved ones back home.
“Once you are there on site, you don’t go wandering about,” one oil industry source explained last week.
Last Wednesday morning, at about 5.45am, the relative peace of Tigantourine – part of the In Amenas gas field run jointly by Algeria’s state oil company Sonatrach, British oil giant BP and Norwegian firm Statoil, and responsible for more than 10 per cent of Algeria’s natural gas output – was shattered, when up to 70 kidnappers heavily armed with guns and explosives stormed the accommodation block, taking hundreds of workers, including foreign nationals from nine countries, hostage.
For most workers, many of whom were still asleep in bed, the first they knew of the dawn raid was when the compound’s alarm system began to blare through the corridors, bedrooms and canteen. Many were unsure whether it was a real emergency, or merely a drill.
The sound of multiple shots being fired soon confirmed that it was real, as the terrorists blasted their way into the accommodation block.
What few at the plant knew was that the attack had actually started several hours earlier, under cover of darkness, on the road to the airport. The kidnappers, who had travelled hundreds of miles overland by convoy – most likely from Libya across old smugglers’ tracks – had attacked two buses transporting workers to the airport, killing everyone on board, including one Briton.
The militants were members of an al-Qaeda linked organisation known as the Masked Brigade and, sometimes, the Signed-In-Blood battalion. They claim their cause is to halt the French military intervention in neighbouring Mali.
Their leader is a hardened Algerian terrorist called Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed war veteran with the nickname Mr Malboro (because of a lucrative sideline in cigarette smuggling) who received al-Qaeda training in Afghanistan as a teenager, was a former leading light in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb until last year, and has been active in sub-Saharan terrorist circles for more than 20 years.
Having murdered the occupants of the buses, the terrorists proceeded towards Tigantourine to execute the second part of their plan. What happened next was like something out of a nightmare.
After overpowering security staff – a move accomplished with such ease that many suspect they must have had inside help, which raises the chilling possibility of al-Qaeda infiltrators within international oil companies – the terrorists stalked the corridors of the compound’s residential quarters, hunting for westerners to take hostage.
Smashing down doors as they went, they made it clear that they were only interested in expatriates, shouting: “If you’re Algerian you can go, get your stuff and get out!”
Three Britons hid in silence between the ceiling and the roof of their accommodation block for two days in an effort to go undetected.
Those who were found were rounded up, tied up and hustled away. Many of them had explosives strapped to their bodies so that the kidnappers could blow them up at will. They were referred to as “Christians and infidels” by the terrorists.
Some Algerians did their best to protect their western colleagues. One freed Frenchman, Alexandre Berceaux, told on Friday of how his fellow Algerian workers had kept him hidden, risking their own lives to save his. Somewhere, someone in the plant turned the gas flow off.
In the outside world, meanwhile, confusion reigned. The UK government initially claimed that the number of British nationals involved in the attack was “very small”.
As the day progressed, it emerged that hostages from nine foreign countries had been kidnapped, including Americans, French, Brits, Irish and Japanese. It had been staff changeover day at Tigantourine, with the buses attacked full of employees going home, which added to the confusion about numbers and identities and may well have been deliberate.
The militants, meanwhile, had contacted a Mauritanian news agency to claim responsibility for the attack, and demanded to be allowed to leave the country with the hostages in tow. This was swiftly rejected by the Algerian government.
Algerian workers, freed by the militants and forced to leave their foreign colleagues behind, emerged telling tales of horror inside.
By Thursday morning, the Algerians had lost patience. In keeping with their hard- headed approach to military operations, Algerian Special Forces mounted a rescue mission without consulting foreign governments. To the dismay of many countries, including Britain, the assault turned into a fierce and bloody battle as Algerian helicopters fired on the plant, killing both militants and hostages.
During the fighting, a group of terrorists, with western hostages in tow, attempted to escape in a convoy of five Jeeps. The Algerians promptly bombed the vehicles, wiping out four of them and killing all occupants. The fifth Jeep crashed. One passenger, Stephen McFaul, 36, from Northern Ireland, had had Semtex strapped to his neck and had been told that it would be detonated if there were any rescue attempts, was able to escape after the Jeep crashed. According to his brother Brian, he had been forced to sleep with the Semtex round his neck. His hands were bound and his mouth taped.
Help offered by the British government was rejected by the Algerians, as were similar offers of assistance from other foreign nations. Later that day, Algeria claimed special forces had killed 18 militants, and freed more than 100 hostages.
Iain Strachan, a Scot from Renfrewshire, who was among those freed, said the Algerian forces had been “fantastic”. He told reporters: “I’ve never been so relieved as when they came and got us off site, so we thank them very much for that.”
On Friday it was confirmed that the eight Scots involved in the attack were free, safe and well, including 29-year-old father of one Mark Grant, from Grangemouth, and a father of two from Fife who now lives in South Africa. They were freed unharmed, along with Strachan, who said: “We still don’t know what’s happening back on site.
“As much as we are glad to be out, our thoughts are with colleagues that are still there at the moment.”
The numbers of hostages still being held remained unclear, but by Friday night unofficial reports were suggesting that between seven and ten attackers, armed with explosives, were holed up in the gas plant’s machine room. There was a sense that the siege was entering its endgame.
Last night, Algerian special forces again stormed the plant in what it called a “final assault” aimed at ending the crisis. There were reports of a fire inside the facility, which forced the soldiers to intervene. It is believed that 11 militants and seven hostages were killed. British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said, with no small sense of relief, that the crisis had been “brought to an end”, but added that the loss of life was “appalling and unacceptable”. He laid the blame squarely at the feet of the terrorists.
Over the past few days, oil companies operating in the region have been quietly evacuating hundreds of workers, leaving plants such as Tigantourine even more remote and empty than before. The siege may be over, but the families of those killed and injured, for the oil companies, the Algerian military and a host of foreign governments, still want answers.
The difficult questions, such as how an al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group managed to take almost 700 westerners hostage and hold much of the western world to ransom for almost a week, are just beginning.