Getting Ahead of the Next Wave: Lessons from the Attack on the Algerian Gas Plant
*This is a joint post with Jennifer Giroux, Fatima Mohammed and Shadé Brown
A coalition of trans-national militia groups attacked the In Amenas gas facilities run by BP, Statoil and Sonatrach (Algeria’s state-owned energy company) in southeastern Algeria, resulting in a four-day stand-off that cost dozens of lives, traumatized thousands, deprived the country of over $10 million in lost revenue daily, and will cost millions more for reconstruction and additional security. Another casualty of this incident is the notion of relative security in the fragile Maghreb. While questions are being asked about the nature, timing and implications of the Algerian government’s response, even more fundamental questions should be answered about our understanding of the vulnerability of energy infrastructure in violence-prone regions, as well as the motivations and modalities of non-state actors in the 21st century.
The Energy Infrastructure Attack Database, developed by the Zurich-based Center for Security Studies (ETH University) in collaboration with the Paul Scherrer Institute, indicates that average annual attacks on energy infrastructure have risen from just over 200 worldwide from 1980-99 to 380 over the last decade, 2000-11. Not only do attacks tend to cluster in certain regions, they also occur in waves. The crests of these waves are related to flashpoints of instability that are characterized by localized ‘bursts’ of violence aimed at energy infrastructure. Reducing the vulnerability of energy infrastructure in violence prone regions is not simply a matter of hardening assets but also involves unpacking and understanding the complexity of actors, interests, and relationships.
In Algeria, shifting and complex regional dynamics reveal a mosaic where ideology, culture, ethnicity, economies and criminality are deeply interconnected and nested within each other. In addition, violent non-state actors are numerous, influential and fluid. They leverage geography, networks, and technology to their advantage. This is why securing energy infrastructure and protecting lives in places like North Africa and the Sahel must be nuanced, focused and flexible. The Algerian response to the In Amenas crisis was largely predicated upon the assumption that they were dealing with a group of (domestic) extremists that should thus be dealt with swiftly and aggressively. In reality, the threat came from a multi-national assembly of groups with shifting (and sometimes conflicting) motivations.
Although the militia group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for the Algerian hostage crisis, other groups (like those led by Taher Ben Cheneb and Libya-based Abu El Bara) are reported to have joined forces with Belmokhtar. Media reports suggest that participants hailed from more than half a dozen African and non-African countries. Although the ostensible reason for occupying the gas plant and taking hostages is still not clear, the underlining motivations point to political and financial factors, broader terrorism concerns from non-African groups, ethnic tensions between the Tuareg and Fulani groups, the spillover from post-Ghaddafi Libya and retaliation for French involvement in Mali. Demands from extremists with links to Al Qaeda clearly exacerbated an already complicated situation.
Four important lessons could be gleaned from USIP's project on the vulnerability of energy infrastructure. First, energy infrastructure attacks historically occur in 'waves' and we might be at the start of one such wave in the Maghreb and the Sahel. Second, attacks are likely to cluster around natural gas and oil installations because they are often far removed from major administrative centers and because they present a wide variety of high-value targets. Third, the interconnected nature of causative factors demands a much broader definition of energy infrastructure to include physical, human and cyber elements. Fourth, violent non-state actors are less likely to be homogenous groups with a singular focus. However, this complexity need not be an insurmountable challenge. It could be an opportunity because it presents a range of potential entry points.
Algerian troops may have dislodged the militia but the problem is not resolved. To get ahead of this new 'wave' of potential energy infrastructure attacks, remedial strategies should, therefore, incorporate physical, human and cyber dimensions. And engagement must be sustained, not sporadic.
*Shadé Brown is a consultant at USIP's Center for Sustainable Economies. Jennifer Giroux is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies, ETH in Zurich, Switzerland. Fatima Mohammed is an Associate with INCAS (International Conflict and Security) in Abuja, Nigeria.