LONDON/ALGIERS, (Reuters) – The In Amenas gas plant felt impregnable to many who worked there – walled in, hundreds of miles from anywhere and with the Algerian army constantly patrolling its desert approaches.
That was a mirage. Libya, an ex-police state turned arms bazaar and now open for jihad, lies just 50 empty miles away. And in any case, the enemy was probably already inside the gates.
At least some of up to 70 Islamist guerrillas who stormed in before dawn on Wednesday launched their operation hours earlier, barrelling over smugglers tracks across the Libyan border just after midnight, an Algerian security official told Reuters, citing evidence from mobile phones traced to the militants.
The ease with which they entered the fortified housing compound and nearby natural gas plant also left Algerians in little doubt the gunmen had allies among people at the site.
“They had local cooperation, I’m sure, maybe from drivers or security guards, who helped the terrorists get into the base,” said Anis Rahmani, editor of Algeria’s Ennahar newspaper and a writer on security issues who said he was briefed by officials.
Officials in this secretive country said they had discovered cases before when Islamist rebels succeeded in having fellow militants employed by international energy companies. One told Reuters it was possible insiders had cooperated at In Amenas.
Locally hired workers who escaped told Reuters of seeing the gunmen moving around the sprawling facility with confidence, apparently familiar with its layout and well prepared.
The militants said they launched the raid to halt French military intervention in neighbouring Mali, which began a week ago, however the link is not yet clear. Several European and U.S. officials said the assault seems too elaborate to have been planned in such a short time.
It is possible the attack would have happened anyway, or that the French military operation provided a trigger to carry out an attack based on preparations done earlier.
Much may never become clear. The raid was carried out in a region closed to outsiders within a country whose government is unused to sharing sensitive information with the public.
First word of trouble came crackling over a walkie-talkie to the communications room at In Amenas, where a 27-year-old radio operator called Azedine logged a contact with a bus driver who, at 5:45 a.m. (0445 GMT), left to take some foreigners to the airstrip at the town of In Amenas, some 50 km (30 miles) away.
“Moments after the bus left, I heard shooting, a lot of shooting, and then nothing,” Azedine told Reuters on Friday.
Two people, one British, one Algerian were killed on two buses heading for the airport. It is not clear whether that incident was part of the plan that secured the militants access to the compound. Almost immediately after the bus skirmish, they were inside, in at least three vehicles.