‘We Did Not Predict This': Top Algerian Minister Discusses January Hostage Crisis

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Algerian Minister of Energy and Mines Youcef Yousfi visits an injured former hostage from philippines, at the clinic Algiers Al Azhar, in Algiers, Algeria, on Jan. 18 2013.

In his first interview with a Western journalist since last month’s devastating hostage siege—which killed dozens of foreign oil workers, including three Americans—the country’s Minister of Energy and Mines told TIME that Algeria had failed to foresee a large-scale terrorist attack on its critical oil and gas facilities, and is scrambling to overhaul security procedures across its territory. “It is a tremendous shock to us,” Youcef Yousfi said during a wide-ranging interview in his office in the Algerian capital on Sunday. “We did not think that this massive attack, with such a large number of terrorists so heavily armed, was a possibility,” he said, admitting, “Yes, we did not predict this.”

Given the tragic outcome, the oversight in intelligence could have profound effects on this country, especially since Algeria’s government has for years staked its reputation on stopping al-Qaeda operatives from waging attacks on its territory. At least 38 hostages were killed in the attack, in a death toll which reflected the huge global interests in this perilous part of the world: Aside from the dead Americans, five British oil workers died, as well as 10 Japanese, five Norwegians and eight Filipinos.

In interviews with TIME with three counterterrorism experts in Algiers over the past week, the attack has been described as involving considerable planning well in advance, raising even more questions about the lapse in intelligence. The sprawling gas plant, near the frontier town of In Amenas, was the only one in Algeria close to the border with Libya, where armed militia groups have launched several attacks against Western interests in recent months.

Yousfi, 71, who has been a top government official for decades, including a stint as foreign minister, said that since Algeria had fought a brutal civil war through the 1990s against Islamic militants, officials believed that the country’s security forces were adequately prepared for an attack. “We have experience during the 1990s, when we had terrorists attacked some parts of our facilities, and pipelines,” he said. “We considered that the measures we had taken were enough to dissuade these people from attacking us.”

The attack was calamitous, and in truth, preventing it might have been almost impossible. The Jan. 16 assault was the biggest ever to occur on any energy facility in the world. The plant is jointly operated by BP, Norway’s Statoil, and Algeria’s national energy company Sonatrach, and produces about 10% of Algeria’s natural gas. The final death toll reflected the huge global interests in oil-rich Algeria—a country now surrounded by violent turmoil in Mali to the south and Libya and Tunisia to the east. Many of those slain died when Algerian special forces stormed the complex in a blaze of gunfire, determined to end the siege before the assailants had a chance to blow up the gas plant.

Algeria’s swift and brutal military reaction brought a furious response at the time from the White House, as well as the British and Japanese governments, none of whom had been informed ahead of time by the Algerians. Yet Yousfi said Algerian special forces had saved many lives in its bloody strike on the terrorist-held facility on Jan 18.

On the second day of the siege, Yousfi said, assailants became more intent on finding engineers capable of restarting the plant. They believed that was a prelude to blowing it up. The explosion would have set off a giant fireball, likely killing hundreds of people still trapped inside the complex. Yousfi said there appeared to be three major aims of the attack: To kill as many foreigners as possible, to blow up the facility, and finally to flee Algeria with whatever foreign workers were left alive.

The plant had been shut down and its equipment depressurized during the first minutes of the attack. That was thanks to the quick thinking of one lone Algerian worker, Mohamed Lamine Lahmar, who spotted the gunmen moving in, and pressed the specific alarm signaling that the plant was under attack. “This allowed everyone to understand immediately that this was a terrorist attack,” Yousfi said. “They shut down the plant and made all the equipment depressurized.” Lahmar, who was killed moments after pressing the alarm, has since become a hero among Algerians, and Yousfi told TIME that the complex would soon be renamed in his honor.

As the shock of the siege has worn off during the past few weeks, Algerian officials are now focused on reassuring Western oil companies that their country is still safe enough to drill in. While only a handful of the 32 attackers were Algerian, the operation was masterminded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Algerian head of a splinter group that broke away last December from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is now on the run in northern Mali, across Algeria’s borders.

Yousfi told TIME that a major security review was underway, aimed at tightening measures across the country and involving military directly in protecting oil and gas facilities, whose production contributes 98% of Algeria’s exports, and most of its GDP. “We have called all our security services to review the security around these sites, everywhere in the country,” Yousfi said. “Very tough measures will be taken, some of them immediately and others we are in the process of doing.” While Yousfi declined to specific exact new measures, he said, “our security services and military people are going to participate very actively in this security of our sites everywhere, in the North, in the South, everywhere, not only on the borders.” He said the new measures would be implemented “within one or two weeks, maximum.”

It is not clear whether that will be enough to reassure big oil companies, which have holed up in recent weeks assessing their risk in Algeria. “The biggest concern is that this would inspire copy-cat incidents on a smaller scale,” says Geoff Porter, CEO of North Africa Risk Consulting, Inc. in New York, which specializes in energy security. Still, he said that oil companies in no way blame Algeria for the attack, believing that it was the result of a tragic set of circumstances involving the deep turmoil in neighboring countries.

Three weeks ago, Porter held a round-table discussion in Houston about the Algerian attack, with officials from BP, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and three other oil companies, all of which are involved in the country or are weighing new projects there. “The feeling was that something on this scale was not likely to be repeated,” Porter says, speaking by phone from New York. “The trouble is, the international oil companies do not need something on this scale to be scared. They just need the possibility of one of their employees being killed to be scared.”

In his interview with TIME, Yousfi says Algerian officials plan their own discussions with Western oil companies, in order to discuss tighter security and to coordinate their plans. But he ruled out one possibility: allowing oil companies to add their own private armed security at the sites. “This is a question of sovereignty, no sovereign country would allow that,” Yousfi said. “It might be more dangerous for everyone when they know that there are foreigners with arms, they might be targets.” With more military and security forces on site, he says, Algeria should be able to reassure companies about operating here. “We want them to be comfortable working in this country, and to feel safe.”