January 17, 2014 1:00 pm JST

Algeria still fighting Islamic terrorists a year after attack

SHINYA OSHINO, Nikkei staff writer

About 40 workers were killed when Islamic militants attacked this gas processing plant in Amenas, Algeria, in January 2013.

CAIRO -- A year has passed since Islamic militants attacked an Algerian natural gas facility in Amenas, killing about 40 workers, including several Japanese.

     The Algerian government has been fighting the terrorist group in the border areas with its neighboring countries, seeking to wipe it out, since the Jan. 16, 2013 incident. But the group, which operates on both sides of Algeria's poorly defended borders, has proved elusive. Japanese plant engineering firm JGC and other foreign companies whose workers were killed in the terror attack are cautiously resuming their operations in Algeria by stepping up their security measures.

     Earlier on Jan. 10, the Algerian foreign ministry defended its handling of the terror attack again, issuing a statement saying that Algerian forces' actions were necessary to protect the strategically important facility and the several hundred workers there.

     After the attack, the Algerian government reinforced its security forces protecting the facilities run by foreign corporations. It said that its forces had killed senior leaders of the AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), a terrorist organization based in Algeria.

     But the truth is that the Algerian forces are having a hard time in their mop-up operations against the AQIM in the desert and mountainous areas in the south, according to informed sources. Close cooperation with the neighboring countries is essential to preventing arms and armed militants from sneaking into Algeria, but the governments in neither Libya nor Mali are functioning well, so Algeria's borders with these countries remain porous.

     Algeria's proved natural gas reserves amount to 4.5 trillion cubic meters, the 10th-largest in the world, according to BP. Its government relies on natural resources for some 60% of its revenues, but few new energy projects have gotten off the ground since the terror attack a year ago.

     JGC, BP and Norwegian state oil company Statoil, whose workers were killed in the attack, are calling on the Algerian government to bolster security around their facilities in the country to prevent similar incidents from happening again. Statoil appears to have begun to return its workers to facilities near Amenas, but not to the Amenas facility itself yet.

     It is still unclear when the Amenas facility will resume operations. The Algerian government must prove that the security situation has improved significantly in the area before the facility resumes operations.

     All employees at JGC's head office in Yokohama observed a moment of silence at 3 p.m. on Thursday to mourn those killed in the attack a year ago. The Japanese plant engineering company runs two facilities in Algeria, in addition to the gas processing plant in Amenas.

     The firm halted work at all its facilities in Algeria and repatriated some 100 workers stationed in the country immediately after the incident. It resumed operations at one site in April and at the other in June, after confirming that the security situation had improved sufficiently. It is consulting with BP, the principal contractor for the project, on what new measures must be taken to improve security at the Amenas facility. JGC has also bolstered the functions of its domestic security planning office, increasing the staff from four to 13.

     "We will never leave Algeria simply because we have suffered casualties in the terror attack. Our business plan (in Algeria) remains the same," said Yoshihiro Shigehisa, the head of the JGC group. In fact, JGC has submitted bids on three new projects in the country since the incident a year ago.

     Meanwhile, Mitsubishi Corp., a Japanese trading company, in April set up a task force charged with protecting its workers stationed overseas. It is also bolstering its crisis management capabilities.

     Mitsui & Co., another trading company which runs harbor facilities in northern Algeria, stopped dispatching its workers to Algeria immediately after the terror attack. But it lifted the ban partially in March, so its workers are now allowed to visit Algiers, the nation's capital.