Half a century on from the Sea Gem disaster, BP still faces scrutiny over the security of those at the front line of its operations. This year an inquest into the death of six British nationals and a UK resident in the In Amenas terrorist attack exposed glaring lapses in security. At such a huge human expense, did BP learn any lessons from this debacle?
The In Amenas gas plant in Algeria was operated by BP as part of a joint venture with the Norwegian firm Statoil and the Algerian state company Sonatrach. On 16 January 2013, al-Qaeda-linked militants attacked it. A four-day siege ensued which saw over 800 hostages taken and 40 foreign nationals killed, six of whom were British. Despite the magnitude of its scale, the attack should not have come as a surprise to the commercial entities involved. The Maghreb's recent history has been plagued with terrorist atrocities.
At the inquest, I represented the widow of the youngest British victim, Sebastian John, who was killed only a week after his arrival in Algeria. On closer inspection of the circumstances of Sebastian's deployment, it is easy to conclude that BP should have never sent him to In Amenas in the first place.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had issued a clear warning against all but essential travel to the area at the time.
Sebastian was a 26 year old graduate and the inquest ruling confirmed that his placement was indeed "not essential to the running of the plant" but merely "an aspect of career development". Surrounded by an unstable Libya and a northern Mali beset in turmoil, Algeria was hardly an ideal destination for such a learning opportunity.
Sebastian arrived at a time of unrest and discontent amongst drivers who escorted the foreigners around the facility. The drivers had earlier staged a hunger strike over changes in Algerian employment legislation. BP had withdrawn all but essential staff in the summer of 2012 and only started to redeploy them after the strikes were suspended in December 2012. The drivers were threatening to strike again by the time Sebastian arrived on site in early January 2013.
At a meeting the day before the attack there was a clear breakdown between drivers and management. A witness at this meeting described the atmosphere as "heavy and explosive". In a fiery exchange, a Touareg man was heard to say: "you have made your law, but tomorrow, first thing, you will have a surprise and blood is going to flow." That comment was not translated and the intention behind the message was debated in the evidence. However it did become clear that the terrorists had inside help and the discontent amongst the drivers may well have provided the context for this.
The joint venture's approach to risk assessment was heavily criticised at the inquest. Although it had identified a 'high' risk of a terrorist attack, this was diluted into a medium risk when combined with other threats.
Evidence at the inquest made it clear that for BP and the joint venture, the main risk emanating from a terrorist attack was seen in terms of operational rather than human cost. When asked about the potential human loss, Bill Johnston, BP business support manager, said they "never got to that".
In fact, the joint venture's security liaison team, of which BP was a member, had recommended numerous improvements to security, some of them several years before the attack. These included improvements to the perimeter fencing, replacement of pedestrian gates with electronic turnstiles, upgrading the vehicle entry gates to motorised, sliding gates and external parking. By the time of the attack none had been implemented.
Mark Cobb, the deputy general manager, explained that he believed there to be a "ring of steel" around the plant. Michael Docherty, a survivor, in his oral evidence, described it to be "more like an elastic bans". Like many BP employees and sub-contractors at the site, Sebastian did not undergo any hostile environment training and though he had a security briefing upon arrival there were rarely any drills.
Security was simply left to the Algerian security forces. BP had no direct lines of communication with the Algerian military as to their resources or strategy and claimed there was no way to influence this. However, Acting Coroner HHJ Hilliard concluded that the joint venture did not track the distance, location and timing of gendarme patrols of the plant and surrounding areas and as a result were not in a position to assess the likelihood of a patrol detecting an attack .
By contrast, the terrorists clearly had inside knowledge of the failing security system at the In Amenas facility and took advantage of it. When they arrived at the plant in the early hours of the morning of 16 January 2013, they found the gates to the main accommodation site left open, the result of a JV decision to ease traffic flow during 'peak times', contrary to security advice.
Unlike BP, Statoil conducted its own investigation into the attack and published a report with its findings in September 2013. This move was praised by the assistant coroner who concluded that the Statoil investigation demonstrated "how an effective, timely and constructive inquiry can be held by a commercial organisation".
As a result, there is now a security committee to monitor risk, and the flawed risk assessment policy of combining risks is no longer in use. There have been significant changes to perimeter security, procedures and practices and only 'essential workers' are now being sent on site. The new security measures involve a 'closer working relationship between the JV and the military and gendarmes' providing a significantly safer environment for employees.
These changes came too late for Sebastian John and the wife and baby son he left behind. BP has sustained further reputational damage by failing its own workers yet again. The urgent question now for all UK businesses which seek to operate in conflict zones is how to properly protect the people who work in them.
Beth Handley is a solicitor at law firm Hickman & Rose.