London, United Kingdom - An inquest into the deaths of seven UK residents in a brazen attack on a major gas plant in Algeria partly operated by BP has exposed a litany of shortcomings in the provision of security at the site.
Six British nationals and a Colombian based in the UK were among 40 workers killed in the siege of the In Amenas gas facility between January 16-19, 2013. The plant was operated by a joint venture of BP, Norway's Statoil and Sonatrach, the Algerian state-owned energy company.
Twenty-nine al-Qaeda-affiliated assailants were killed and three captured after Algerian special forces stormed the facility.
The inquest, which concluded last month, was not intended to determine criminal or civil liability for the deaths. But in the course of 30 days of witness statements over several months, HM Assistant Coroner Nicholas Hilliard heard evidence that pointed to serious gaps in security strategy and implementation at the site, close to the Libya border in the south of Algeria.
The inquest found security measures in place at the plant, including a warning alarm, procedures controlling the access of vehicles to the plant, and a "ring of steel" around the plant supposedly provided by the Algerian government, were not operating as planned.
BP's methods for calculating the level of risk at the facility were criticised, and the joint venture failed to monitor whether security measures outside the site were properly implemented, the inquest found.
There were two security gates at the entrance to the In Amenas facility. On the first day of the attack, a 4x4 vehicle full of heavily armed men drove through the outer gate and "crashed through" the inner gate.
A security directive stipulating both gates be left closed at all times had been relaxed in order to allow ease of traffic flow at busy times.
Plant procedures also stipulated in the case of a security event, residents of the site were to stay in their room, while in the case of a fire they were to assemble at a designated muster point. But in one part of the plant - the central processing facility - there was no security alarm, and on the day of the attacks the fire alarm sounded instead.
One of the British men killed, Garry Barlow, who was celebrating his 50th birthday on the day of the attack, responded to the fire alarm by going to the muster point with American colleague Gordon Rowan.
"He wasted valuable time going to the muster point," Jan Barnes, Barlow's sister, told Al Jazeera.
"Those critical first five minutes are like the golden hour when someone has a stroke - time to make that decision whether to hide or to run. He didn't have that time. I have no doubt that it cost him his life."
The inquest stated "there was insufficient time for Garry and … Rowan to avoid being seen by the terrorists".
There were "a number of watchtowers" around the staff living quarters where many lost their lives, but they were not manned by Algerian gendarmes guarding the site, the inquest found.
However, correcting the shortcomings in security was no guarantee of preventing the entry by heavily armed attackers, said Hilliard.
But, he concluded, "it might have slowed the terrorists down for a short time".
'Flawed' risk assessment
The inquest acknowledged the security of the Sahel region had been "deteriorating" in the years leading up to the attack, and in particular since the collapse of security in Mali and Libya, Algeria's neighbours, in 2011-12.
It was "well known that there were significant security risks to Westerners throughout the Sahel region, including southern Algeria", said Hilliard.
In 2012, attacks had begun on gendarmerie posts and military bases "well within Algeria's southern borders", said Hilliard.
|Algerian firemen carry a coffin of a person killed during the 2013 hostage siege [AP]
The attack on In Amenas was planned in Mali and launched from Libya.
But despite an awareness of the risks, a security analyst giving evidence at the inquest found the assessment strategy of BP and the joint venture was "flawed".
One of those killed, 26-year-old BP employee Sebastian John, was classed as not essential to the operation of the facility and was working at the plant as part of a career development programme.
"I will always wonder if Sebastian's death may have been preventable if all the security measures that had been identified as necessary for the protection of workers at the site had been implemented," said his widow Nicola John.
At the time, the UK Foreign Office was advising against "all but essential travel" to anywhere in Algeria within 50km of the border with Libya. The In Amenas plant is located about 78km from the Libyan frontier. BP staff were not required to undergo any type of hostile environment training before their deployment.
"I am angry that BP chose to send a young and inexperienced graduate to a risky destination such as In Amenas at a time of unrest in bordering Libya and Mali," said Nicola John.
"My husband did not feel he had a choice to refuse this placement at a company he aspired to join."
'Ring of steel'
Foreign companies operating in Algeria are not allowed to provide their own armed security, but the option of recruiting Algerian civilian armed guards was declined, according to a security management plan drawn up .
The presence of armed guards at the entrance to the site "might have delayed them [the attackers] just long enough for the quick reaction force to attend", said Hilliard.
Mangement had left the burden of responsibility for preventing an attack to the Algerian government.
There remain very serious concerns as to how this catastrophe was allowed to happen and why the safety precautions at the facility failed to protect the lives of those men who were working there.
Deputy general manager of the plant, BP's Mark Cobb, described the security supposedly provided by the Algerian government as a "ring of steel".
"Protecting the southern desert and the zone outside the plant was the responsibility of the Algerian government through its armed forces," said Hilliard. "They were not able to fulfil that responsibility."
Little is known of the details of the Algerian response to the attack.
Several of the hostages were killed while being transported in a convoy by the attackers across the site, most likely as a result of gunfire from Algerian forces.
Irwin Mitchell, a law firm representing the families of John and another of the UK-based victims, Carlos Estrada Valencia, said it is considering launching a lawsuit against BP.
"There remain very serious concerns as to how this catastrophe was allowed to happen, and why the safety precautions at the facility failed to protect the lives of those men who were working there," said Clive Garner at Irwin Mitchell.
"Our clients are very disappointed that BP continues to deny civil liability and we now invite BP to accept the Coroner's findings, to work with us, to give us full disclosure of evidence and to provide a full and fair settlement for the families of those who died, including the families of Carlos Estrada Valencia and Sebastian John.
"If a negotiated solution cannot be reached very shortly, we will be commencing formal court proceedings against BP in the coming months."
A spokesman for BP said the company would not comment on any civil action until it is launched.
Source: Al Jazeera