The pipeline itself did not actually sustain damage in the attack — in fact, it is still online — so the security personnel guarding the pipeline likely were the intended targets. And if the guards were the intended targets, the attack methods used would resemble those of the group believed to be responsible.
That group, according to an Algerian security source speaking to TSA Algerie, is an Algeria-based group called the al-Farouq Brigade, which conducted several suicide attacks from 2008 to 2010 but largely has been inactive since. The source said the group boasts some thirty members who hail from Djebahia. The al-Farouq Brigade has ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and historically has been led by some of the most loyal followers of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leader Abu Musab Abd al-Wadoud.
The site of the attack, Bouira, lies in the heartland of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb activity, and in the past jihadists have been known to attack local security patrols. Usually they engage in roadside ambushes and sometimes employ improvise explosive devices. The target and location of the Jan. 27 attack further support the claim that a group affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was responsible for the attack.
It is likely that the militants meant to attack the security personnel, not the pipeline, which is much easier to strike. Pipelines are long, linear targets that often are hundreds of kilometers long. As such, they are very difficult to secure entirely. If the militants had chosen to attack the pipeline, they could have done so easily. However, isolated pockets of soldiers can be vulnerable to ambushes and surprise attacks since the enemy can mass resources against them at a time of its choosing.
Layers of Protection
Attacking hard targets like the Ain Amenas facility is far more difficult than an attack against a pipeline, and it requires a high level of collusion. Algeria has a three-layer security system at all energy installations. The first layer consists of a local armed security company that is authorized by the Interior Ministry and that has a permit from the Defense Ministry to equip its personnel with light arms. These private firms, which have a reputation for being corrupt, operate within the oil installations. Before reaching the electronically activated gate leading to the installation, vehicles must negotiate a strip of concrete barriers roughly 50 meters (164 feet) long, a feature built to slow approaching vehicles down.
The second layer consists of heavily armed gendarmes. The gendarmes guard the outside perimeter of oil installations and the gates leading to them. Gendarmes must assist the armed security personnel in patrolling the installation, especially production equipment.
The third layer consists of police units, which are equipped with armored personnel carriers in urban areas, and army units, which are equipped with tanks and helicopters in desert areas. Though all energy installations have this three-layer insulation of security, the quality of the security diverges. Hassi Messaoud, the country's most important oil complex, and Hassi R'mel, the country's most important natural gas complex, are the most tightly guarded in the country. Pipeline infrastructure and guard posts in more remote areas, however, are much more difficult for Algerian security forces to adequately cover and defend.
Notably, the timing of the Jan. 27 attack was significant in that it closely follows the high-profile attack at Ain Amenas. Although the Bouira attack does not appear to have been carried out by the same militants responsible for the previous natural gas plant operation, such high-profile attacks often inspire other militants in the region to launch attacks. The fact, however, that the energy pipeline itself does not appear to be targeted indicates that this al Qaeda-affiliated group does not appear to have altered their targeting of security forces.
But just as the attacks often serve as a call to action to other regional militants, they also precipitate heightened security at potential targets. In the case of Algeria, security at energy sites will be strengthened significantly, forcing jihadists to attack softer targets in the short term. It can be expected that there will be continued attempts to target vulnerable security patrols and other regional infrastructure being overlooked in the face of increased security at energy locations.