Widow of BP executive killed in the terrorist attack at the In Amenas gas facility in January 2013 expresses shock at security flaws

News | Thu 26th Feb, 2015

Shahram Sharghy

The Coroner in the Inquests into the deaths of seven British residents killed when an Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group attacked the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria in January 2013, has delivered a verdict of Unlawful Killing and his narrative conclusions and at the Old Bailey today.

His Honour Judge Nicholas Hilliard QC made findings of fact, which highlighted the security flaws at the facility operated by a three-way joint venture between BP, the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach, and Norway’s Statoil.

In his narrative conclusions, Judge Hilliard QC found:

  • Had the main gate to the accommodation compound been patrolled by armed guards, the attack may have been delayed.
  • For two years the security situation in Algeria had been deteriorating in the south where the BP joint venture facility was.
  • The BP joint venture’s risk assessment policy aggregated the risk of terrorist attacks with other low risk items, thereby reducing risk levels and the actions that they had to take to protect the accommodation compound.
  • The BP joint venture relied completely on the Algerian military and Gendarmes to protect expats from attack.
  • The BP joint venture’s physical security measures at the site were not designed to protect employees against an armed attack by terrorists.
  • BP failed to read and verify a relevant warning article published in El Khabar newspaper two months before the attack.
  • The entrance gates to the accommodation compound were left open, contrary to the advice of the BP joint venture’s security advisers.
  • The armed Gendarmes who were supposed to protect the accommodation compound were stationed 0.5km away and did not stop the terrorists from entering the accommodation compound.

Carlos Estrada Valencia’s family were shocked to hear during the evidence given to the Coroner that:

1.      There were no armed guards or Gendarmes in, or at the gates to, the accommodation compound. However, the armed Gendarmes who did export the expats in the bus to the airport successfully prevented those expats from being killed in the attack.

2.      The 12 watch towers around the accommodation compound were left unmanned.

3.      The BP joint venture admitted that the physical security measures at the accommodation compound were not designed to protect employees against an attack by armed terrorists.

4.      The front gates to the accommodation compound were left open during the peak morning, lunchtime and evening period – the terrorists drove in at about 6.00am in the peak morning period whilst the gates were open.

5.      Paul Morgan, the senior security adviser at the facility, considered that the BP joint venture had lost control of security in the months before the attack and had decided to leave that day and never return to work there.

6.      The night before the attack there was a tense and at times confrontational meeting between senior BP joint venture staff and the local Tuareg drivers at the facility, at the end of which one driver said: “You have made your law, but tomorrow when you wake up you will have a surprise and blood will be shed”. Nothing was done in response.

7.      BP failed to spot or react to an article in El Khabar newspaper in Algeria, published in the November before the attack, which warned that AQIM were photographing petro-chemical facilities preparatory to attacking them.

8.      There were no military patrols at night of the wider desert zone, a 20km area around the accommodation compound. 

9.      Five vehicles were supposed to patrol the close zone within 3-6km of the accommodation compound, but on the night no one saw or heard them, and no evidence was produced by BP to the Coroner that any patrol vehicles or drivers went out that night.

Carlos Estrada Valencia, a Senior Vice President at BP, was one of seven British residents killed in the attack. His widow, Claudia Gaviria, attended the hearing of the Inquests nearly every day, including today’s verdict, and says:

“It has been heart-breaking to hear the evidence presented and to feel that Carlos’ death could and should have been prevented.  My husband had never been to In Amenas before and as far as I know, he had no warning from BP about the risks that faced him there before he went.  To this day I find it very hard to comprehend how Carlos could simply kiss us all good-bye one day as he headed off to work, never to return.

“For so long I was unable properly to grieve because I was kept in the dark over what happened to Carlos on those dreadful days.

“The evidence I have heard throughout the Inquests has been truly staggering.  It is now clear to me that very basic security mechanisms at the In Amenas facility were flawed, and that security advice was simply ignored.

“So far BP has undertaken no investigation of its own into the attack and I have received no explanation from BP as to how and why this attack could have possibly been allowed to happen.  That is why I am incredibly grateful to those brave witnesses who took their time to give evidence at the Inquests and helped me to gain an understanding of events.  It was especially heart-warming to hear how brave and dignified Carlos was in trying to keep the spirits of other hostages up during the attack.  He was always immensely loyal to BP and to the people whom he worked with.  I now ask BP to honour Carlos’ 18 years of utter dedication and loyalty to them by providing us all with the information requested by the Coroner during the Inquests, which we desperately need so that we can complete the picture of what happened and move on with our lives.”

“I would also like to thank HM Coroner and his team for their diligence throughout these Inquests.  I am fortified by his findings relating to the security at the facility, which having heard the evidence, I now consider to be deeply flawed.”

Mrs Gaviria is represented by Andrew Ritchie QC and Shahram Sharghy of 9 Gough Chambers, together with Clive Garner and Jennifer Lund of Irwin Mitchell Solicitors. Andrew Ritchie QC says:

“I welcome the Inquest findings today.  We elicited evidence from many witnesses which proved our serious concerns about the lack of protection for staff at the facility at the time of the attack.  The BP joint venture has now tightened up security, but this was done far too late for Mr Estrada Valencia and the other victims.

Whilst the narrative conclusions do give Mrs Gaviria and her family some answers, the evidence has highlighted a catalogue of serious security issues at the In Amenas facility which increased the risks faced by Mr Estrada Valencia.  It was clear that the situation in Algeria was deteriorating after the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011 and the setting up in Northern Mali of a terrorist State in 2012, yet the BP joint venture did nothing to increase security at the accommodation compound.” 

When Mr Estrada Valencia got on a bus at the In Amenas airport, he was protected on his journey to the In Amenas facility by armed Gendarmes.  In contrast, there were no armed Gendarmes or armed Civilian Guards protecting him and the other expats in or at the entrances to the In Amenas accommodation compound.  As the Coroner’s own security expert said in answer to our questions, ‘the only effective way to defend against armed terrorists is to use armed defending troops’.”

 “The In Amenas facility was only 48 miles from the Libyan border.  It was a sitting duck. The Algerian military were regularly catching terrorists in vehicles in Southern Algeria carrying weapons bought in Libya.”

It is disappointing that BP has refused even to discuss a settlement with Mrs Gaviria (for her daughters) over their failure to protect Mr Estrada Valencia from this unlawful killing.”

Clive Garner, Head of International Personal Injury Law at Irwin Mitchell, and also representing the families of Mr Estrada Valencia and Mr Sebastian John in their civil claims, says:

“We welcome the conclusion of the Inquests into the deaths of these seven men whose lives were lost in such terrifying and tragic circumstances.  We are grateful to the Assistant Coroner for the rigour with which he has conducted the Inquests and the opportunity that he has given us to question some 69 lay and expert witnesses during the proceedings.

“It has been an incredibly difficult and upsetting time for our clients and while many questions have been answered about what happened at In Amenas in January 2013, there remain very serious concerns as to how this catastrophe was allowed to happen and why the safety precautions at the facility failed to protect the lives of those men who were working there.

“Our clients are very disappointed that BP continues to deny civil liability and we now invite BP to accept the Coroner’s findings, to work with us, to give us full disclosure of evidence and to provide a full and fair settlement for the families of those who died, including the families of Carlos Estrada Valencia and Sebastian John.

“If a negotiated solution cannot be reached very shortly, we will be commencing formal court proceedings against BP in the coming months.

“We also hope that BP and the Joint Venture in Algeria will learn lessons from what occurred at In Amenas and from the evidence given during these Inquests, especially in light of the continuing risks to those working in volatile regions around the world. 

“We urge BP and all other companies working abroad to ensure that all of their employees and sub-contractors working in hostile and potentially dangerous environments have the highest possible standards of personal protection provided to them at all times. In addition, before deciding to work abroad, all workers should be fully warned about the risks that they may face in a particular location so that they can make an informed decision about whether they wish to work there.”

“The Inquests have been extremely important for the family and friends of those who died at In Amenas, but they should also have a broader function. Lessons must be learned from the tragic events that occurred in the Algerian desert in January 2013 and all companies with employees working abroad must carefully review their operations and ensure that the safety and security of their employees is first on the list of their priorities. People must always be put before profits.”

The families of Mr Estrada Valencia and Mr Sebastian John are making civil claims against BP for failure to protect them from the risk of terrorist attack at the accommodation compound.  Carlos Estrada Valencia was a very senior employee and Mrs Gaviria gave up an opportunity to pursue her “dream job” with the World Bank in Colombia to move with her husband to London so that he could pursue his career with BP.  The couple have two daughters, now aged 12 and 8, who live in London with their mother.  Sebastian John was only 26 years old and was the youngest of the Britons killed at In Amenas. He had only recently commenced his employment with BP before being deployed to In Amenas.  He was married and had a 7-month old son at the time of the incident.

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