The attack took place at the Tigantourine natural gas processing facility outside Ain Amenas, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Libyan border. Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia confirmed the attack in a televised statement, saying roughly 20 armed men carried out the operation. Members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade, led by Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, are holding between 20 and 40 foreign hostages, as well as dozens more Algerian captives, in a housing facility at the plant.
Kablia told Algerian state media that his government does not believe the militants came from Libya or another neighboring state, indicating that Belmokhtar's forces were operating from within the country. Algiers commands the most robust military and security forces in the region, but as evidenced by the attack, militants can use the vast distances and difficult terrain of the Sahara to help offset the challenge of operating under pressure from Algerian forces.
Subsequently reported details cite companies with operations at the plant and statements from the militants themselves, without further confirmation by the Algerian government. There may be 100-150 Algerian employees of French-based CIS catering in captivity, loosely guarded and separated from the Westerners.
In the pre-dawn hours on the day of the attack, a bus carrying foreign workers from the processing facility to the nearby airport at Ain Amenas was attacked by what Algiers has described as three cars of heavily armed militants. Although there were causalities, including two members of Algerian police or security forces and foreign nationals, the attack was successfully repulsed before any hostages could be taken.
At about 5 a.m., Belmokhtar's forces attacked the processing facility. It is unclear whether the attackers were the same group of militants that attacked the bus; more probably, a second group specifically targeted the natural gas facility. A few hundred hostages were initially taken, although most of the Algerian employees at the facility were released in small groups. Some of the hostages have reported through interviews by phone that a number of the hostages were made to wear explosive belts. This could be a lie by the militants, who may have forced the hostages to make the statements to deter a tactical operation against the militants.
The militants have reportedly taken 41 foreign nationals hostage at the plant, including seven Americans, 13 Norwegians and others from Japan, the United Kingdom and Ireland. The attackers clearly aimed to take Westerners hostage — a common tactic employed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Algerian energy infrastructure has historically been a strategic target of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its predecessor group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which employed the strategy during Algeria's civil war. Large natural gas and oil fields at Hassi Messaoud and Hassi R'Mel, while vital to Algeria's hydrocarbons sector, also host large Algerian military bases and thus present a much tougher target. Tigantourine presented a unique opportunity for Belmokhtar to target large energy infrastructure and a large concentration of foreign workers in a region not protected by an intense Algerian security presence. Other available soft targets do not fit both objectives.
Although the militants have not yet damaged any energy infrastructure, the kidnappings represent the first militant operations against Algerian energy facilities in nearly a decade and the most significant since the cessation of the civil war in 2002. The attack was probably directed mostly at the concentration of foreign workers and not the energy infrastructure itself; southern Algeria's oil and natural gas plays infrastructure hosts some of the few Westerners accessible to kidnappers in the country.
As the attack shows, militants are fully capable of hitting targets beyond the region of southern Algeria nearest to the Malian border. As the intervention in Mali continues, militants could flow across the porous, mountainous Algerian-Malian border in ever increasing numbers. The likelihood of attacks against Westerners and energy infrastructure will increase as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb seeks to inflict significant collateral damage in response to the Western intervention against their Malian base.
Algeria's Energy Sector
Algeria is one of the largest exports of light, sweet crude oil in the world and a significant natural gas exporter to Europe. The United States is the largest consumer of Algerian crude oil, consuming about 30 percent of exports, or approximately 375,000 barrels per day. Europe consumes another 40 percent of Algerian exports, with Spain and Italy also relying heavily on Algeria (Europe's second-largest supplier after Russia) for their natural gas needs. The Tigantourine site is a part of Algeria's larger Ain Amenas natural gas field complex, which produces around 9 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year, amounting to one-tenth of Algeria's natural gas production.
Algiers has worked diligently in recent years to reduce the threat al Qaeda-affiliated militants pose to domestic facilities, especially transport and energy infrastructure. Algerian security forces have increased their presence along the southern border with Mali in recent months — operating out of the southern command center in Tamranasset — as part of a critical effort by countries neighboring northern Mali to set up blocking positions to contain the militant threat in the region.
Algeria's challenges are enormous, however, given the vast expanse of the Algerian landscape. Algiers must concentrate forces along large population centers to the north — especially around the regional al Qaeda home base in the mountainous Kabylie region — and at critical oil and natural gas production sites at Hassi Messaoud and Hassi R’Mel. The vast southern border with Mali also demands Algiers' attention.
Hassi Messaoud and Hassi R'Mel enjoy a strong military presence and fortification, and Algerian security forces have increased their presence at the southern military base at Tamranasset and along the long, porous southern border with Mali and Niger.
There are hundreds of smaller oil and natural gas fields in between, to the west of Ain Amenas and around the central desert region surrounding In Salah. Algeria lacks the capacity to provide a robust security presence for all of these sites, nor can it afford to suspend operations given the aggressive oil and natural gas production expansions planned for 2013. Algeria cannot maintain a permanent security presence at every production site across its territory, but as evidenced by the Jan. 16 attack, it is capable of quickly organizing regional security forces at sites of unrest.
Algiers, in trying to protect its population centers and maintain a secure environment for energy investments, understands well the pitfalls of the Mali intervention next door. These concerns are what have driven Algiers to push for a negotiated political solution as the primary method to resolve the Malian crisis instead of a large-scale foreign intervention. As today's attack shows, Algeria still faces significant risk from its own domestic presence of al Qaeda forces. The attack also underscores the challenge its weaker and poorer neighbors in Mauritania and Niger face in trying to contain the fallout of French activities in Mali.