Monday, February 18, 2013

More on Tigeuntourine Gas Refinery Attack

Joe Trindal, a long time reader and security expert, was kind enough to provide me with a copy of a slide presentation he used to present a case study of the recent Tigeuntourine Gas Refinery terrorist attack. I’m trying to get him to post it on the internet somewhere where all can see it, but he has given me permission to discuss some of the elements.

Collateral Damage

First off readers might remember that I noted in an earlier blog that I was surprised that there weren’t more deaths and destruction as a result of the counter-attack on the facility. While I haven’t heard Joe’s narration of these slide, it appears that the reason for the relative lack of collateral damage is due to the fact that the bulk of the fighting took place away from the actual production facility (see satellite photo, courtesy Joe Trindal). Only after the security checkpoint and the Al Hayat accommodations compound were secured did the terrorists seize the production facility. Essentially the same order was followed by the security forces when they re-took the facility.

Still flammable gasses and liquids are handled at the facility and damage to almost any of the processing equipment could lead to a serious conflagration or catastrophic explosions. Now this is a gas refinery so more of the equipment is hardened to handle high pressures. This means that it is less likely (though certainly not impossible) that a stray bullet would penetrate the piping resulting in a flammable gas/liquid release.

If the security forces re-taking the production facility were aware of the danger, and employed only pistols and sub-machineguns (lighter caliber weapons) then the danger would have been further reduced. Still they took a major risk when they decided to attack the facility that would be justified only if there were an imminent danger of the terrorists starting to detonate their explosive devices.

Lack of Will

Looking at Joe’s presentation and the satellite imagery, it seems clear to me that the terrorists who seized this facility lacked the will to become martyrs to their cause. They had a day to prepare for the security force assault on the process facility. If they had taken defensive positions within the processing equipment and prepared demolitions with dead-man switches, the facility would not be standing today. Based upon other attacks, we certainly cannot rely on future attackers lacking the will to die for their cause.

Attack Elements

Joe’s presentation reports that the assault team consisted of 33 attackers organized in three assault teams. They were equipped with assault rifles, light machine guns and rocket propelled grenade launchers; so roughly a light infantry platoon in personnel and equipment. A foreign raised terrorist force of this size would be difficult to get into place with weapons and equipment in the United States, but certainly not impossible. If we are looking at domestic terror groups pulling off this type of attack it becomes much more doable.

Few facility security forces would be able to withstand this sort of assault. Hitting in the early morning hours at three separate sites on a facility perimeter, most installations would fall within minutes, certainly before local police patrol forces could respond.

The force was prepared for a counter-attack by security forces. They:

• Dispersed hostages around the facility – making a single rescue move impossible;
• Set demolition charges on foreign hostages – making ‘high-value’ hostages harder to rescue;
• Set anti-personnel improvised explosive devices – increasing the effectiveness of a limited number of personnel; and
• Set demolitions throughout the facility – attempted to insure destruction of facility even if they were overwhelmed.

These actions certainly contributed to the high death toll amongst the hostages and terrorists.

Stateside Equivalent

Joe is convinced that the attack on the refinery in Algeria increases the risk for a similar attack on facilities here in the United States. An attack with even the limited success seen in Algeria (the facility was only down for a week so the attack was more of a propaganda success than anything else, unless of course you are a family member of one of the employees/contractors killed in the action/counteraction) would have a large psychological and propaganda impact if perpetrated in the US; at least equal to the funk seen after the destruction of the Twin Towers. If a mid-sized or large petrochemical refinery were seriously damaged or destroyed the economic impact would be huge.

Joe has more access to intelligence information than I do, but I don’t really see this type attack being conducted in this country by one of the al Qaeda affiliated organizations. The logistics of supporting an attack force of this size in this country would make it too easy for law enforcement and facility security to detect the attack in the preparatory stages.

I can see a Tom Clancy type scenario where a middle-eastern semi-military terrorist group (not necessarily affiliated with al Qaeda) works with a Mexican drug cartel to stage a cross border attack on a US refinery. If young Jack Ryan didn’t discover the attack in the preparatory stages this could be successfully done.

Having said that; we must remember that we have some homegrown groups that have the requisite quasi-military training and weapons necessary to pull off this sort of coordinated attack.


While this type of attack is a low probability event, it is not a zero probability. Given that, how do you defend against such an assault? Once three light-infantry squads start firing on your perimeter, you don’t. There is no company that can afford to have the type of hardened defenses and manpower on hand 24/7 to repel such an attack, particularly given the size of the perimeter of most refineries and the proximity of other businesses and houses. The oil business just isn’t that profitable.

The best way to stop such an attack is to arrest the perpetrators in the planning stages. The FBI and Homeland Security intel folks have been doing a good job at this type of thing. Local police and facility security forces have a strong part to play in this counter-intel type operation with an effective counter-surveillance program.


Sooner or later an attack like this (though probably on a smaller scale to avoid detection) is going to succeed. A team of determined terrorists who are willing to die are going to gain control of a portion of a large petrochemical facility. And someone is going to have to go in and dig them out without blowing up the facility.

This job will almost certainly fall to the local police swat team or their FBI counterparts. But before they go barging in with their high-powered rifles and flash-bang stun grenades, someone is going to have to explain the safety facts of life in a refinery to these head-strong folks.

High-powered rifle bullets will go right through storage tank walls, perhaps even pressure tank walls, and most piping. If there are liquids or gasses inside when those penetrations happen the stuff will come out. If that stuff is flammable (and most things at a refinery are) there is a good chance that an explosive vapor cloud will form and the next spark or muzzle flash may accomplish the terrorist aim of destroying at least a significant portion of the facility.

Someone is going to have to think long and hard about counter-shooter operations within refineries and chemical facilities. Action teams are going to have to have a thorough understanding of the hazards involved and in what parts of the refinery they are working; different parts have different hazards. Low powered weapons of limited range are going to be required. And most importantly, tools and weapons will have to be non-sparking, non-flame producing.

And, of course, now is the time to start thinking about things like this, not when there is a team of shooters emplacing explosive devices in your refinery.

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