An insider at an Algerian BP gas plant provided terrorists with vital information as they stormed a BP gas plant in Algeria and executed seven Britons, an inquest heard today.
Kenneth Whiteside, 59, Carson Bilsland, 46, Sebastian John, 26, Stephen Green, 47, Paul Morgan, 46 and Garry Barlow, 49, were shot dead by extremists as Algerian special forces moved in on the In Amenas desert complex in January 2013.
Carlos Estrada, a Colombian who lived in Chelsea, west London, was also murdered by the terrorist group, which has links with al Qaeda.
They were among 40 hostages killed at the the BP run facility in the north African country during a four-day siege.
The terrorists went ‘unhindered and unnoticed’ across the Sahara desert to the facility, which is divided into two compounds linked by an access road and has been in operation since 2006.
Measures to deter militants had not even been discussed in the months before the attack at the In Amenas plant.
Even standard precautions, such as reinforced steel gates and speed bumps to slow approaching vehicles were absent when al Qaeda seized control in January 2013.
Approximately 800 people worked in the plant, including 130 non-Algerian nationals from 30 different countries.
Recorder of London, Judge Nicholas Hilliard, QC, sitting as an assistant coroner at the Old Bailey, said the rise of Islamic terrorism increased the risk to foreign nationals working at the complex.
He returned his first verdict that Paul Morgan, 46, from Liverpool, was unlawfully killed by the extremists.
‘The evidence I have heard has been detailed and wide ranging,’ he said.
‘In the course of the inquest many questions have been asked about the security at the In Amenas site.
‘The security of the area around the plant were state functions, hence the responsibility of the Algerian government,’ he said.
‘The internal security of the plant became the responsibility of a wholly Algerian security team in 2011 – including employing civilian guards and access control.’
The guards would also staff the gates, conduct searches, log the presence of staff and patrol the perimeters.
‘The evidence was that searches were not always carried out thoroughly and that guards would allow some Algerian workers through without searching them at all,’ Judge Hilliard said.
‘Algerian staff movements would sometimes not be logged by the guards, contrary to procedure.’
Workers inside the plant were told in the event of gunfire to lock themselves in their rooms, turn the lights off and lay on the floor, the court heard.
Following a security meeting in 2012 a decision was made that vehicles kept would be kept open for a half-hour period between 5.45am and 6.15am at one of the site entrances.
‘It had been stressed that the creation of an external parking area would minimise the risk, but the In Amenas site had rejected this idea as being unnecessary,’ Judge Hilliard said.
Judge Hilliard described the outbreak of the siege and the shooting of Mr Morgan, a former soldier in the French Foreign legion who fought in the first Gulf war.
He was working as a liaison between gas field workers and local security staff and was leaving the complex in a bus convoy in the early hours of 16 January to catch a flight.
As the convoy approached a checkpoint he was shot through the front of the vehicle, while his driver was shot through the foot.
‘Paul Morgan sustained two gunshot wounds to the head – one through the front and one through the left cheek,’ Judge Hilliard said.
‘Both would have been fatal.’
By 6.55am the military had arrived from a garrison in a town nearby.
Judge Hilliard said the terrorists had driven vehicles into compounds gates to gain access.
‘It’s clear that the Central Processing Facility (CPF) and the living area had been breached by the terrorists within a few minutes of the first assault on the bus,’ he said
‘They began to search for expatriate workers – asking for French, British and American hostages specifically.
‘The terrorists appeared to have had plans of the site and to have had help from inside information.’
Judge Hilliard said the terrorists were seen with lists of names, and calling for an American deputy manager in particular.
Judge Hilliard said a statement from the Algerian Prime Minister indicated that a former driver at the plant provided information to the terrorist and joined in the attack.
Previously wives, parents and loved ones have demanded ‘truth and justice’ for the men and aised concerns about the security on the site.
Members of the families earlier read emotional statements at the inquest when it began at the Royal Courts of Justice last year.
Two of the gang, Xristos Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej, met in London and both were radicalised through associates in the community, according to a Met Police counter-terrorism unit.
The pair embraced extremist Sunni Islam soon after high school and both flew to Morocco in the spring of 2011, where they attended Islamic schools and travelled in the region before the attack.
Medlej was arrested at a hotel in Mauritania with a group of suspected terrorists in November 2011 but let go in January 2012.
Katsiroubas became one of the leaders in the attack and voice of the terrorists.
Over the three-day seige he used hostages’ phones to communicate with Andrew Collins, a BP vice-president in England.
Katsiroubas called himself Shedad, and demanded the terrorists get safe passage to neighbouring Mali.
‘You need to stop the Algerians so we can deal with this or everybody’s going to be dead, we’re going to blow up the factory,’ he said.
The terrorists travelled 30 miles across the Sahara from the Malian border with Algeria unchecked.
Almost 800 people were at the desert complex when heavily armed militants entered at dawn on January 16 last year.
Heavily armed gunmen attacked two buses carrying foreign gas workers at the plant before taking hostages at the plant’s living quarters.
The gas facility, in eastern Algeria, is a joint venture run by Statoil, the British company BP and the Algerian state energy firm Sonatrach.
Andrew Ritchie QC, for Mr Estrada’s family, previously said BP may have failed to ensure there was a strong security presence around the In Amenas complex.
He said that security guards were left unarmed and that two vehicles, belonging to BP which went missing on the day of the attack, have still not been accounted for.
‘Only one track leading to In Amenas had checkpoints on it, and there were two vehicles which went missing ahead of the attack’, Mr Ritchie said.
Mr Estrada had worked for BP for 18 years and had risen to the post of Vice President for North Africa when he was taken captive and killed.
Mr Whiteside, who had lived in Johannesburg for 30 years with his wife and two daughters and Mr Bilsland, of Bridge of Cally in Perthshire, were also shot dead.
Some 29 of the hostage takers died, while three were captured by Algerian troops during a special forces mission to end the bloodshed.
Mark Cobb, BP site manager, hid under documents and maps while the terrorists searched his office.
He said he phoned the Gendarmerie to tell them to cut a hole in a fence for them to escape through.
Mr Cobb described how he ran for his life once the coast was clear.
‘I said to my staff when we go we need to go quick,’ he said.
‘I opened the door, everyone was standing behind me.
‘There was no terrorist on the telecom tower.
‘Then I told everybody ‘it’s clear let’s make a run for the containers’.
Another survivor heard one of the fanatics tell an American citizen: ‘You’re welcome’ before he was murdered.
David Murray, a 48-year-old, managed to evade the killers by hiding in a stationery cupboard.
But the father-of-two listened to boss Gordon Rowan being led to his death, after confessing his US citizenship
‘Gordon didn’t move, he didn’t have time to react. I heard one of them say ‘come here’,’ Mr Murray said.
‘He didn’t say anything, he just walked away slowly.’
Asked who he was, Mr Rowan replied: ‘I am Gordon Rowan – I am an American’.
‘There was then a lot of screaming and shouting in Arabic.
‘After he said who he was, the terrorist said to him, ‘You’re welcome’.
Murdered hostage Mr John sent a heart-rending final message to his wife.
His widow Nicola John told the court about their last phone conversation: ‘I told Seb that I loved him and he told me that he did too.
‘I said I would do as he asked and I believe he just hung up.
‘This was the last time I spoke to Seb.’
She later received agonising text messages, one reading, ‘I love you so much…never forget that xx’.
Eight minutes later, Mr John wrote, ‘Talk to my mum please. Look after our tiny man. You are the most amazing wife ever xx’.
David Cameron remarked in the aftermath of the siege that there were ‘lessons to be learned’ from the attack, the court heard.
The deaths of Mr Estrada of Chelsea, west London; Mr Whiteside, of Glenrothes, Fife; Mr Bilsland, of Bridge of Cally, Perthshire; Mr John, of Norfolk; Mr Green, of Hampshire; Mr Morgan and Mr Barlow, both of Liverpool, are to be recorded in due course by the coroner.
Judge Hilliard has recorded that Mr Morgan was unlawfully killed and is detailed ruling continues.