One year after the deadly hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria, which saw Islamist terrorists murder 39 foreign workers, FRANCE 24 met with one of the survivors of the attack and the son of one of the hostages killed.
On January 16th 2013, around 40 Islamist fighters stormed their way into the In Amenas gas extraction plant in Algeria, triggering the start of a long and bloody hostage crisis that would go on to claim the lives of 39 foreign workers.
One year on, and survivors and the relatives of those who lost their lives in the attack are still looking for answers as to exactly what happened.
Nurse Murielle Ravey was one of 800 people working at the In Amenas facility at the time of the attack, a workforce that included 140 expats from 12 different countries around the world.
She was among the lucky ones – managing to evade the gunmen and flee the complex on the second day of the crisis.
Speaking to FRANCE 24, she recalled hearing the plant’s emergency alarm sounding as the attack began.
“We had no idea what was going on, we were waiting for the control room to give us an update on the situation and we were wondering ‘why the alarm?’. Then an engineer came running towards us yelling ‘it’s a terrorist attack. They’re armed. Go and hide’.
“So we all started running looking for somewhere to conceal ourselves. We were told to lock ourselves in the offices or in our rooms and wait for the army to arrive. That’s what most people did if they could.
“I’m not saying that was why some of my colleagues were killed but many of those who hid in offices or their rooms ended up getting caught by the terrorists.”
At first, Murielle hid in her office as the sound of gunshots and explosions rang out around the complex. Listening to the radio she learned that buildings were on fire and that hostages had been executed.
After 25 terrifying hours waiting in vain for rescue, she decided to make her escape. Algerian colleagues hid her within their group, sneaking her under a boundary fence. Once on the other side, they walked towards an Algerian army unit with their hands up so as not to be mistaken for terrorists.
‘No cooperation at all’
When she first began working at the In Amenas facility, a vast compound located close to the Libyan border in east Algeria, Murielle says she raised the question of security.
“I was always told not to worry, that the compound was heavily guarded by the Algerian army, that this was a secure perimeter and difficult to penetrate.
“They said the place was so huge it was like a country within a country and you practically needed a visa just to enter the area. I was told there were army patrols, military vehicles stationed nearby and even drones circling the area. So there would be no problem.
“But what haunts me now is how these terrorists could have such easy access to the compound and the living quarters.”
Murielle has been unable to return to work following her ordeal and has spent the past year attempting to rebuild her life abroad. She has just finished co-authoring a book investigating the In Amenas crisis and remains hopeful that in time the full details of what happened will come to light.
But this will depend on whether the Algerian government is prepared to cooperate, she says.
“I’d like the Algerian government to share with us all the information they managed to extract from the terrorists they captured - tell us how the Algerian army led the assault. I do think they have precious information but so far there has been no cooperation on their side at all.”
Algerian troops launched an assault on the plant on the afternoon of Thursday, January 17th, but it was not until Saturday afternoon that they gained full control of the complex and the final hostages were rounded up from hiding.
Florian Desjeux’s father, Yann, was among those for whom the rescue effort came too late.
Like Murielle, Florian feels that Algeria and other governments whose nationals were killed in the crisis are yet to cooperate in providing a full picture of what took place.
“When I saw my father’s coffin surrounded by nearly 40 other coffins, I suddenly realised this had been a massacre and I vowed I would get to the truth of what happened,” he told FRANCE 24.
Following his father’s death, Florian quit his job to focus full-time on conducting his own investigation into the assault.
“We know for a fact people had access to the compound even though they should not have been there. The people in charge of security did not know these men were on site. We also know there had been several incidents with bus drivers threatening foreign workers saying they would die if they continued working there.”
As deputy head of security at In Amenas, Florian says his father was aware of the threat to workers’ safety and had asked for increased security measures at the plant, but these never materialised.
He believes that the detailed planning of the assault shows the terrorists were being helped by someone on the inside.
“When the terrorists stormed the place they had very detailed notes – names, room numbers, phone numbers. They even had the home addresses in Norway of Norwegian workers,” he says.
“The terrorists knew exactly what they were doing and they knew the place very well. They knew there were several VIPs, foreign delegates and company managers on site. There is no way they could have known all that without inside help.”
French prosecutors have opened a formal inquiry into the hostage taking and the subsequent Algerian army operation, but the success of the investigation depends on whether Algerian authorities will allow a French judge to inspect the In Amenas complex.
For now, Murielle, Florian and others whose lives were changed forever by the attack on In Amenas must continue their wait for answers.