he Islamist attack on the sprawling desert gas complex in southern Algeria that triggered one of the worst hostage crises in years was conceived in Mali and coordinated by a mystery Canadian named only as ‘Chedad’, the Algerian prime minister has said.
Five days after about 40 jihadist fighters raided the facility not far from the Libyan border and Algeria responded with a full-on military operation to kill or capture them, a picture of what happened is emerging. While some hostages escaped in the early stages of the crisis, hopes soon faded for dozens of others once the army decided to take on the raiders. Workers from the United States, Britain, France, Japan, Romania, Norway and the Philippines were either dead or missing, with the overall death toll among hostages and militants put at 67 and potentially rising by up to five.
Those who escaped had harrowing tales to tell. One Briton recounted how the attackers had strapped Semtex plastic explosive around his neck, bound his hands and taped his mouth. Another man hid for more than a day and a half under his bed as jihadist fighters searched the workers’ residential complex. Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said the plot had been hatched in war-ravaged Mali and the attackers had travelled through Niger and Libya before slipping into Algeria. The jihadists were said to come from Egypt, Mauritania, Niger, Tunisia, Mali, Algeria and, in one case, from Canada. The Canadian, identified initially as Chedad, was coordinating the raiders, Sellal said.
The In Amenas gas plant probably felt impregnable to those who worked there – fenced in, hundreds of miles from anywhere and with the Algerian army patrolling its desert approaches. That was a mirage. Libya, an ex-police state turned arms bazaar and now open for jihad, lies just 50 miles away. At least some of the Islamist guerrillas who stormed it before dawn on Wednesday had driven along smugglers’ tracks across the Libyan border, an Algerian security official told Reuters, citing evidence from mobile phones traced to the militants.
The militants arrived in nine Toyotas with Libyan plates and painted in the colours of Sonatrach, the Algerian oil and gas company that has a share in the plant, according to the Algerian daily El Khabar. The ease with which they entered the fortified housing compound and nearby natural gas plant 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,” was the immediate reaction of Anis Rahmani, editor of Algeria’s Ennahar newspaper and a writer on security issues who said he was briefed by officials.