Algeria Attack Raises Security Alarms For Energy Firms Islamic militants' attack on a huge gas plant in the Sahara underscores the dangers that energy companies face when they do business in politically unstable places. Such facilities can be hard to protect and fences alone don't do the job, security experts say.
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Algeria Attack Raises Security Alarms For Energy Firms

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Algeria Attack Raises Security Alarms For Energy Firms

Algeria Attack Raises Security Alarms For Energy Firms

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The prime minister of Algeria is defending his government's response to last week's attack, which left at least 37 hostages dead. He says militants would have killed far more people if they hadn't been stopped. The attack happened at a huge, internationally-operated facility in the Sahara Desert.

And as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, it underscores the dangers energy companies face when they do business in unstable places.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: A few years ago, Luke Janger went to work helping to monitor oil wells at a base camp run by a major energy company in Chad. Security at the camp was minimal, just locals carrying billy clubs.

LUKE JANGER: There was no question in your mind that if the base was actually attacked in any way, especially by something similar to what's going on in Algeria, there is no way that we could have defended against them.

ZARROLI: The fifth week he was there, rebels attacked the capital 60 miles away. And for several days, employees at the camp were unable to find out what was happening. The oil fields were a huge source of revenue for the government and Janger knew they were vulnerable.

JANGER: Since the Chadian government couldn't keep the rebels out of the capital, it was clear that they weren't going to be able to keep them out of base, either.

ZARROLI: Eventually the company evacuated its employees, but Janger says for a year afterward he had trouble sleeping and drank a bit more than normal. And the recent attack in Algeria brought some of the fear back to him.

JANGER: Immediately, I think that there but for the grace of God went I, because it definitely could have happened. The location of the base, someone could have hit us hard and fast.

ZARROLI: For as long as big energy companies have been doing business in foreign lands, they have had to contend with occasional instances of political instability. It's the price they pay for the riches they pull out of the ground in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. And companies pour a lot of resources into security measures.

STEVEN COLVILLE: There are people in our companies who think about this all the time; that's what they do.

ZARROLI: Steven Colville, president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, says the incident in Algeria is forcing companies to take another look at security.

COLVILLE: It makes everybody look again at what they're doing. It makes everyone reassess those challenges. Let's add this into the scenario.

ZARROLI: And attacks are virtually certain to happen again, says Jim Reese, president of the security company TigerSwan, which has a lot of experience overseas. Reese says plants like the one in Algeria can be hard to protect. He says you have to set up concentric rings of security, fences inside fences. You have to use security cameras and dogs. It can be tough to do, he says.

JIM REESE: The size of these organizations are very difficult to secure. You know, security can be a very expensive line item in a budget for a lot of corporations. But it's got to be done.

ZARROLI: And even fences aren't enough. He points out that members of terrorist groups have sometimes managed to infiltrate plants by getting hired. Reese says the local population can help alert a company to threats it faces, but the company needs to stay in the community's good graces. That means providing jobs to locals and being a good steward of the environment.

REESE: So it's not just putting a fence up and, OK, we're safe now. There's a very holistic approach, what I would call the unblinking eye, that needs to be put in the approach for your security.

ZARROLI: At the same time, there are limits to what a big energy company can do to protect itself. Companies doing business overseas are at the mercy of their host governments. And as the Algeria incident suggests, the outcome of an attack can sometimes be outside their hands.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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