In Algeria, Foreign Companies On Alert

Since terrorists seized an oil and gas site in the Algerian desert in January, foreign companies operating in the country have been worried about keeping their personnel safe. And in Algeria, that problem is compounded by the war in neighboring Mali against Islamist extremists.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Ever since terrorists seized an oil and gas site in the Algerian desert last January, foreign companies operating there have been worried about keeping their workers safe. That challenge is made even more difficult by the war in neighboring Mali against Islamist extremists.

Eleanor Beardsley visited Algiers and filed this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET NOISE)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The kidnapping and execution of dozens of foreign and Algerian hostages at the In Amenas gas plant sent shivers as far as the country's gleaming capital on the northern Mediterranean coast.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER AND GATE CLOSING)

BEARDSLEY: Austrian telecom company Kapsch has a subsidiary in Algiers. Like other foreign companies here, it operates from a villa behind security gates. Canadian Etienne Legendre is director of the company's Algerian operations. He said after the incident, Kapsch put a halt to all personnel travel within Algeria.

ETIENNE LEGENDRE: And they were even considering repatriating me, which I found a bit silly at one point, because here in Algiers the life has not changed really much. We didn't feel the event here in Algiers. I cannot say that I've seen more police or more roadblocks than usual. And the general feeling of my Algerian friends was that this event was very localized in a remote area.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

BEARDSLEY: It's true, the streets of Algiers were crawling with police and there were road checkpoints everywhere well before the attack in the desert. The heavy security is a consequence of the brutal civil war between the military-backed government and Islamist militants during the 1990s. Today, Algeria, with its vast oil and gas wealth, spends far more than any other African country on its police and military. But since the attack on the In Amenas site, many foreign companies operating here have brought in their own experts to reassess security. But foreign security personnel are what compromised the site in the first place, says newspaper editor Mounir Boudjemaa, who tracks jihadist movements.

MOUNIR BOUDJEMAA: (Through translator) British Petroleum, which ran the site, hired a French security firm. They were among the best on security but they didn't know the environment, so they weren't able to properly vet their employees and check their connection to Islamist networks.

BEARDSLEY: Bujimad says many of the Islamists who carried out the attack at In Amenas fought the Algerian state in the '90s. Consequently the Algerian government knows them and has vast intelligence on the different Islamist figures and networks operating in the region today. The Algerian military and police control the two outer rings of security at all of the country's energy sites. The innermost ring of protection is operated by the company running the site. Bujimad says the terrorists worked for years to infiltrate that inner ring. He says the informant was most likely a young driver.

BOUDJEMAA: (Through translator) The terrorists knew exactly how many foreigners there were on the site and where they were located. So there absolutely was complicity from the inside in planning this attack.

BEARDSLEY: BP has since changed its entire security team at the site. Bujimad says there is talk of enacting a law that would allow only Algerian private security firms, which would be privy to government intelligence, to secure the country's energy sites. Analysts predict there will be more attacks like the one on In Amenas because of the war next door in Mali. French involvement in Mali against Islamist militants has given the disparate groups of bandits and jihadists roaming the desert a new cause, says Mohammed Chafik Mesbah, a retired Algerian colonel who fought the Islamists in the 1990s. Mespah says a traditional army cannot beat a guerilla force.

COLONEL MOHAMMED CHAFIK MESBAH: (Through translator) When the French army arrived at many of Mali's cities, the terrorists had already gone, dispersed in the desert. They will wait and come back when the French leave. We're seeing a regeneration of the terrorist movement into a new form in the Sahara and Sahel region of Africa, and I think it is durable for the near future.

BEARDSLEY: Both Mespah and Bujimad say the only way to beat the African terrorists is to deal with the root of the problem, which is Libya, not Mali. They say the uncontrolled borders, lawlessness and flow of arms since the dictator Moammar Gadhafi was killed is feeding a new spring of jihad in North Africa. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News.

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