“Red Light” in Western Africa – The rising Terror Risks Energy Infrastructures and Threatens Economy

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By Meir Gershuni

10735086_sThe continent of Africa, and in particular the countries south of Sahara, are center of wide scale activity for Israeli companies who have been acting at the area since the end of 50`s. The activity was first led by the Foreign Office, who in a very short time established tens of Israeli representation offices in African countries, and in this way laid the foundations for activity in the fields of agriculture, security and infrastructure development. Later on, more and more private companies from Israel entered Africa, and performed impressive projects in various areas. During the years the business relations had their ups and downs that were influenced by political moves and events like the Six Day War and Yom Kippur War. Nevertheless, along the entire period a massive Israeli business presence was established in Africa in various fields. The present deterioration in the level of terror threat and crime at the continent of Africa is a blinking red light considering the substantial risk requiring security arrangement against it. However, and since this is the situation, this is also an opportunity for Israeli security companies specializing in management of risks of this type, to provide security solutions for each foreign organization intending to act in these countries, in order to protect the well being of its personnel and safeguard its assets.

An impressive show of force of the radical Islamic organizations in Northern Africa took place last January, when 41 foreign hostages (citizens of USA, UK, Japan, Norway, Philippines, France, Malaysia and Romania) were kidnapped by Islamic extremists at the Amenas gas field near the Algiers-Libya border.   This event demonstrates the freedom of action that the terror organizations enjoy at the arena, as the result of lack of organized government and security systems, with an emphasis on countries like Mali and Libya. Also in apparently more stable countries there is a growing trend towards terror activity. Such is happening each day in Nigeria.

More than 230 foreign citizens have been kidnapped at the Delta area in Nigeria since January 2007. In the recent years there is an ever worsening trend, for execution of kidnapping and bombing attacks using a variety of operational methods, focusing at the energy facilities (oil and gas). In addition to the repeating damages to the oil pipelines, also the ships used by the maritime oil production facilities and oil rigs placed opposite the Delta are a prominent target for terror acts.

Since January 2007 till June 2012 there were no less than 79 terror acts and bombing attempts at the Sahel arena only. Nigeria is the greatest oil producer at the African continent, and it is also a model for a security problem and the high level of threats against the energy facilities located in the country.

But the main problem is not just the deteriorating security in Nigeria, but the absence of stability in Western Africa in general. Africa serves at the recent years as a safe haven and operation base for activists who were trained in fighting at the tribal areas in Pakistan. As a result of the massive pressure on Al Qaeda in Afganistan-Pakistan, the substantial threats are not coming anymore from the “original” Al Qaeda, but from organizations identified with Al Qaeda and in particular the ones operating in Africa, such as the Islamic Maghreb Al Qaeda (AQIM),  El Shabaab in Somalia and the Nigerian organization El Bioko Haram, who have become a real threat at the African continent in general and at the Sahel area in particular. The “production line” for the continent`s terror factors at the continent has been focused recently in Mali, that has become a “safe haven” for terror activists, and it was not by chance that the French government decided on the Seval operation, aiming to  crack down on the Al Qaeda nests in the country.

No country has felt the impact of the fall of Gadafi regime more substantially than Mali, which experienced already in the past lack of stability, coups d’état acts, revolts of the Tuareg  population and the influences of terror and crime organizations. But during the recent year Mali experienced all the problems simultaneously.

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Focusing of the threat on oil and gas sector at the Sahel area

In the last decade a number of terror acts took place in various places worldwide against oil and gas industry. A representative sample:

  • In February 2002, a hell boat loaded with explosives crashes against the wall of the giant French oil container ship MV Limburg next to Yemen shores. As a result of the explosion one crewman was killed, others were wounded and 90’000barrels of oil were spilled into the sea. The Ql Qaida organization took responsibility for the operation.
  • In February 2004, Osama Bin Laden encourages his soldiers to “concentrate actions against the oil facilities and in particular in Iraq and the Persian Gulf”. Trying to justify such a move, he explained that the US is using the energy resources of the Arab countries for a ridiculous price.
  • In 2006, Al Qaeda tried to blow up a car bomb in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia, One of the largest refineries in the world. The bombing attempt failed at the breaking in stages into the well protected site.

In the recent years the terror has spread against oil infrastructures, and it is no more limited to the Gulf area and the Middle East. In 2007, Al Qaeda published a press message on its intention to attack interests and energy facilities of United States in other countries: “The oil facilities that the United States is enjoying, will be attacked in all areas [of the world], and not only in the Middle East”. The above implies Al Qaeda intention for attacking targets in Northern Africa and the Sahel area, where, since 2006, the organization enjoys local support of Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Before the establishment of this group, the GSPC organization was operating in this area, focusing on actions again Algerian oil facilities as the preferred target. The organization executed a series of terror acts against workers and facilities of the oil companies Sonelgaz, Sonatrach and ENTP, operating in the south of Algeria. Tens of people were killed in these terror acts and extensive damage was caused to the oil producing facilities. However, none of these terror actions was similar to the spectacular terror bombing executed on January 16th, 2013 in the natural gas facility in Amenas, in eastern Algeria.  At least 4o terrorists who entered Algeria from Libya and the north of Mali, attacked two buses transporting workers from the natural gas field , and in parallel attacked and took control – actually quite easily, in the absence of a reasonable security force  – on the gas facility, while taking hundreds of workers as hostages. After futile and unprofessional attempts to negotiate with the kidnappers, two actions of taking control and rescuing were executed by an elite unit of the Algerian army. The disastrous results of the operation were followed by much western criticism. At least 39 hostages were killed and many others were wounded. The Algerian army killed most of the terrorists and caught 3 of them. According to a declaration of the involved organizations, the action was executed as an act of revenge against the French intervention on Mali.

Also in Nigeria, the greatest oil producing country in Africa, The terror threat has grown substantially since the beginning of French intervention in Mali, following support of the French military steps by the Abuja government.

The French family in captivity of Boko Haram

french family2

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The French intervention against Islamic groups in north of Mali – the area where the Islamic groups are strongly linked, ideologically and operationally, with Boko Haram  – accelerates the extension of the terror threat to the countries in the south, where most of the western oil facilities are located. In this context, I have to note the possibility that the Nigerian Islamist terror organizations may try to “market” their terror actions (kidnapping and acts against infrastructures) to local organizations located in the south, like the MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta). Even though there is no concrete evidence of such an operative cooperation between the south and the north, western organizations and companies acting in the region should take this into account.

 Five terror groups are threatening at present the oil companies acting in Sahel and Western Africa : Al Quaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in Western Africa (MUJAO), the Nigerian Boko Haram and its separatist section Ansaru, and MEND  (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta). Leaders of all these groups have declared on their intention to harm western interests in the area, and in particular the workers and energy infrastructures of the oil companies, which are their main and preferred target.

In 6th of April 2013 the MEND organization attacked a police ship sailing at the Delta. Twelve policemen were killed in the terror act. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) took responsibility for the terror act, and threatened to continue its violence against the Nigeria government and the oil companies (mostly foreign) in the area.

The threat by MEND came as a reaction on the jailing of its leader, Okah, by a court South Africa, for 24 years. The organization`s spokesman published a press announcement, according to which “All the oil companies and the public are asked to ignore the false feeling of security that the government is trying to sell…”

These terror attacks are causing critical disruptions to the oil industry, as expressed recently by shutting down the Bonny oil pipeline, that was leading over 150,000 barrels per day !!, following repeating sabotage actions on the pipeline . At the end of 2013’ also Shell company announced on its intention to close the main Nigerian pipeline, Nembe Creek Trunkline, for an unlimited period, following sabotage actions and oil stealing in unprecedented rates last year.

The leader of the organization was sentenced to 24 years of imprisonment in South Africa, following execution of two car bombings in the Nigerian capital Abuja and killing of 10 persons. The organization was almost inactive following an agreement with the government that the leaders and many of the organization`s members will be granted amnesty (this is the reason the leader was sentenced in South Africa and not in Nigeria) and even generous payments in order to keep an “industrial peace” (in both meanings). In spite of the agreement, the organization admitted responsibility for sabotage action on the crude oil pipeline owned by the Italian national gas and oil company, ENI, last year.

Picture: MEND leader on trial in South Africa


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The rising rate of sabotage and terror action is undoubtedly a major problem for the international organizations acting in Nigeria who are already forced to cope with oil theft on an industrial scale – one fifth of the daily oil production – 2,000,000 barrels – is being stolen, worth about 1 billion dollars per month (!), according to the government estimates.

Although Nigeria “leads” in scope and severity of the terror acts, other African countries are influenced by the terror acts of the terror organizations and Islamic groups in the Sahel.

It is known that most of the activity of the above groups is to establish  local infrastructure in the neighboring countries and even more distant countries (see South Africa). This includes countries like Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea Conakry and Senegal, where AQIM and MUJAO are acting quite intensively. Senegal, whose population is 90% Moslem, and in which the path to establishing dormant terror cells is quite short, is a prominent example.

Except for the concrete threat accompanying the daily activity of the energy companies at the arena, the oil and gas companies in the area are expected to become more and more exposed to harassment in the field of Cyber. The threat in this field is higher than in other business area, since most, if not all, of all the operational systems of the energy facilities are controlled remotely by computerized .(Please refer to the Cyber attack executed at the end of 2012 on the Saudi oil company Aramco).

This subject is worth a separate dedicated discussion.

In Summary, Western companies and in particular the companies active in the energy field, operating oil infrastructures (workers, production facilities, refineries, distribution points, maritime platforms, service ships etc.) from Mauritania to Chad, Algeria and Nigeria, are all exposed to growing terror threats, that for quite a long time are not limited only to the lawless Sahara area, but are in a process of accelerated expansion to the west and center of the African continent.

Kidnapping of the French family in 19th of February 2013 at the border of Nigeria with Cameroon demonstrates the severity of the threat also in countries where till now there was a relatively quiet situation. By the way, the family was released at the end of the week 20/4.

The decision of the giant oil producing companies to cancel or postpone business activity, such as BP announcement immediately after the Amenas terror act on immediate stop of their drilling operations in Libya’ as well as the decision by Shell to stop the flow of oil in the main oil transport pipeline in Nigeria, are a sign of the companies` recognition of the size of threat on their workers and facilities, implying also that they don`t have an adequate security answer to the  present threats.

It can be assumed with a high degree of certainty that already in the near future the companies working in the area, and in particular the oil and gas companies, will be asked to increase their insurance and secondary insurance payments for energy projects, to pay higher bonus payments for foreign workers employed in dangerous areas and in parallel to improve the safety and security means, standards and procedures in the various oil sites.

The increased terror and crime threats create a new economic and social reality, influencing the availability of resources abundant in Africa and needed by the whole world. As stated, this is a blinking red light indicating the threat on foreign factors wishing to operate in this area. Relieving these threats depends on the existence of effective intelligence and security arrangements that will be able to deter opponents, thwart attempts of impairing human life and causing damage, while providing an effective answer on emergency situations. There is a particular identity of interests in joining together these two points. On one hand this an existential threat for companies and business organizations operating on the continent, and on the other hand it is a business opportunity for security companies, specializing in risk management, providing consulting services  and guidance in establishment of suitable security arrangements.

Written by: Meir Gershuni


The author is a former Head of Division at the ISA, and at present Senior Vice President of the MAYDEX AG specializing in energy infrastructure security planning and a Senior Lecturer in the School of Security and Emergency Management at the Wingate Academic College.

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