Sunday, January 20, 2013

Algerian Situation and Chemical Security

I had an interesting phone conversation yesterday with an individual who helped standup the CFATS program. He wanted to talk about how the terrorist attack on the Algerian gas production facility was a potential game changer for chemical facility security managers in the United States. He thinks that this marks a change in terrorist tactics and points out the vulnerability of chemical facilities in general.

Lessons for State-Side Chemical Facilities?

While it will be some time before we see any details about the Algerian attack (and more importantly the counter-attack by Algerian security forces, more on that later in the post), I’m not sure that this is a major shift in tactics by radical Islamic terrorist. We have seen attempted attacks on Saudi production facilities and successful attacks on Nigerian facilities (though they weren’t really jihadists), so the target wasn’t all that new. Hostage taking is not a new tactic either, though this is probably the first at a petro-chemical complex.

While this certainly points out the need for increased security protection at chemical facilities in North Africa, I’m not sure that any state-side security manager is going to do much to increase their security measures based upon the success of this attack. After all, that is in Africa, not Texas or New Jersey or California. That kind of stuff just doesn’t happen here (just a small touch of sarcasm).

To be fair, you are just not going to be able to harden a major petrochemical complex enough to prevent a determined commando-style assault on the facility. They are just too big, too complex, and too vulnerable to physical disruption. The only successful way to deal with this type of attack is to detect it and disrupt it before it gets anywhere near the facility perimeter. Fortunately, we haven’t seen this style of attack even suggested here in the United States.

Algerian Response

We have already seen a fair amount of ink (mostly electronic) spent here in the United States and in Europe complaining about the number of hostages and terrorists that were killed in the Algerian responses to this terrorist attack. Until (if) we see any of the details about the methods and tactics that the security forces used, it is premature to complain about the results. Rescuing hostages is always a risky business. In the words of John Ringo; it sucks to be a hostage.

No, I am much more interested in the apparent lack of significant damage to the production facilities through the initial terrorist attack and two counter-attacks by security forces. Don’t get me wrong, protecting human lives is more important that protecting facilities, but in this case the death toll could have been much higher if the production facilities had received significant damage. Fires, explosions and toxic chemical releases have a way of doing that.

Potential Dangers of Counter-Attacks

Military grade small arms fire can easily damage storage tanks, piping and ancillary equipment enough to cause leaks of flammable and toxic chemicals. And most people fail to realize that bullets keep going until they hit something. In the heat of battle few people take any interest in what is in the line of sight beyond their target when they engage with their weapons. In areas where there are large volumes of flammable gasses and liquids, this can have catastrophic consequences.

Even in standard operations there may be areas within the production facility that see transient periods where flammable-atmosphere situations exist outside of production vessels. This is why the industry works so hard to control the use of heat or spark producing equipment in production areas. In areas where an explosive atmosphere exits, the muzzle flash from a firearm can certainly set off a catastrophic fuel air explosion.

Why is the Facility Still Standing?

Given all of the potential dangers involved, I am amazed that the production facility is still standing and any of the people involved are still alive. I can think of a couple of reasons that this catastrophic result did not happen;

• The attacks were conducted in administrative areas separate from the production facilities;

• Special weapons and tactics were used to avoid collateral damage; or

• They got damned lucky.

When all is said and done I think we will probably find that it is the first possibility that is responsible for the outcome in this attack. If not, then I think the press owes a major apology to the Algerian forces; an armed assault on an actual gas production facility that does not destroy the facility is a major accomplishment. An attack like that would be studied for years in military academies around the world, trying to extract all of the lessons that would guide future combat operations in such environments.

Share the Information

The public will probably never see the details about the operation that rescued the hostages in this case. Hopefully, however, the US government will share some of the lessons learned with security managers at high-risk chemical facilities and the security response forces that would conduct similar operations here. It is always better to learn the lessons from someone else’s operation than have to learn them on the fly in your own.

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