Algeria attack no outlier as oil targeted three times a week

While the attack in Algeria that killed at least 38 hostages was the deadliest raid on the oil industry in five years, it’s far from unprecedented.

From Colombia to Yemen, oil workers have suffered violence for decades as militants strike an industry seen symbolizing political and economic power. The bloodiest attack came in 2007 when 72 people died after a secessionist group in Ethiopia overran a camp run by China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (386), according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database. Each week about three attacks were made worldwide on oil employees and installations in 2011, the data show.

“This attack has surely got some attention, but I wouldn’t say it’s an outlier,” said Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington. “If you want oil and gas you have to go to these places. This is the cost of doing business.”

Oil companies, and the states where they work, tend to react to attacks by improving security rather than scaling back operations, said Charles Bird, a former U.K. diplomat who’s now a fellow at St. Andrews University. Saudi Arabia responded to terrorist threats by establishing a special force of 35,000 to defend oil installations. Producers use private security contractors to protect people and plants in dangerous countries.

‘Remain Committed’

“We have high-quality assets in Algeria, where we’ve been present for 60 years,” said David Nicholas, a spokesman for BP Plc (BP/), joint operator of the In Amenas plant attacked last week. “We remain committed to operating there.”

Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA), Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) and Italy’s Eni SA still operate in Nigeria after years of kidnappings, raids on oil platforms and pipeline bombings by militants demanding a greater share of oil wealth. Paris-based Total SA (FP) continues to work in Yemen in the face of regular attacks. BP remained in Colombia as rebel groups targeted the industry, including a pipeline explosion that killed 45 people in 1998.

“Companies will still be attracted to places with high risks because they offer higher returns,” Chakib Khelil, who was Algerian oil minister from 1999 to 2010, said in a phone interview from Washington. “They need to look at what went wrong, and what was the defect in security and reinforce it. That’s all you can do.”

PT Pertamina, Indonesia’s state-owned oil company, will proceed with a $1.75 billion bid to buy stakes in three Algerian oil fields from ConocoPhillips, a deal agreed before the attacks, Ali Mundakir, vice president of corporate communications, said at a conference in Jakarta yesterday.

Groups linked to al-Qaeda have targeted the oil industry. In 2004, Osama bin Laden declared energy installations a legitimate target because higher oil prices would damage economies in the U.S. and Europe, according to Daniel Yergin’s “The Quest,” a contemporary history of the energy industry.

Abqaiq Attack

In 2006, Saudi Arabian insurgents tried unsuccessfully to attack the Abqaiq oil processing plant, which handles 8 percent of the world’s crude oil production, according to Yergin. That followed the 2004 killing of 22 foreigners at two oil industry buildings at Khobar on the Gulf coast.

Last week’s attack was carried out by a group led by a former leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, raising concern of an Islamist campaign against the industry across northern Africa. Algeria’s neighbor Libya, where government control remains flimsy after 2011’s overthrow of Muammar Qadaffi’s regime, is also a major oil and gas producer.

“It’s the strength and severity of this attack that’s shocking,” said Valerie Marcel, a fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House who’s based in Toronto. “It shows a security vacuum in the desert. It means that oil facilities in Libya and elsewhere in Algeria are bigger potential targets than we thought.”

Pipelines

The figures taken from the Global Terrorism Database figures include attacks on pipelines, wells and oil companies. They exclude attacks on gas stations or government officials working in the oil ministry.

“It doesn’t mean people are going to invest less, there’s still a lot of money to be made of out of oil and gas,” said Bird, a fellow at St. Andrews’s Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. “It will mean that costs will be higher because of problems of providing security.”

Statoil ASA (STL), who operates In Amenas with BP and the Algerian state oil and gas company Sonatrach, said it will remain in the country.

“We neither will nor can let terrorism dictate our strategy or our choices,” Chief Executive Officer Helge Lund said Jan. 21. “We have a responsibility to run our business and support daily operations.”