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Algerian Militants Wanted To Create 'Giant Fireball'


And from Libya, let's turn to another African nation, Mali. French forces continue their airstrikes against Islamist militants there. The Islamists have fled into mountains near the border with Algeria. Algeria is, of course, where militants seized a natural gas plant last month in response to the French-led operations in Mali. Dozens of foreign workers were killed. And we are now learning new details about exactly what happened inside that plant.

New York Times West and Central Africa bureau chief Adam Nossiter visited the site of the siege. He joined us from his base in Dakar, Senegal. Adam, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us.

ADAM NOSSITER: My pleasure.

GREENE: One of the things with this whole story at this plant, it is so remote. Journalists were not able to reach the site during this whole siege. You have actually now gotten there. You've seen the site, seen the plant. I mean, what were your impressions?

NOSSITER: Well, I think you're right to highlight the remoteness of it. I mean, it's really in the middle of nowhere, an hour's drive from the nearest settlement, right in the Sahara Desert. So one gets a sense of the total isolation of it and the vulnerability of it to an attack, because there's literally nothing around it - at least that's the visual impression.

Now, it's true that there is a base of gendarme that are several kilometers away, but you can't see it, and you do feel that this is a vast gas processing complex that's quite exposed.

GREENE: Okay. So these militants go and seize this complex on January 16th in this remote area of the desert. And as we understood it at the time, they intended to hold hostages until France agreed to pull out of Mali. But you're learning or have been learning, you know, that what they actually wanted may have been somewhat different than that.

NOSSITER: That's right. What people at the plant told us when we were there last week is that the actual intention of the terrorist was to gather up as many of the foreign workers at the plant as they could, drive them to the gas processing portion of the plant and blow the whole thing up, themselves included, turning it into a giant bomb.

And the intention was not only to kill the maximum number of Westerners, but also to inflict real damage on the Algerian economy, because that plant alone represents a significant portion of Algerian gas output. I think it's something like 15 percent of total Algerian gas output, and Algeria is top of the list on hated nations for the jihadis, right below or right next to America and France.

GREENE: Adam Nossiter, it strikes me that blowing up a natural gas plant - if you were a terrorist group and able to breach the plant - doesn't sound all that difficult. But they weren't able to do it. Why not?

NOSSITER: Well, they weren't able to do it because - largely because as soon as they penetrated the outer perimeter of the plant, a brave guard gave the alarm. He sounded the siren, and that meant turn the plant off immediately. Turn off all the gas works, shut down the compressors, turn off the power. So the plant was not in operation by the time the terrorists actually penetrated to it.

And they put the terrorists off successfully until the terrorists tried to engage in a kind of breakout maneuver, which was totally crushed by the then-surrounding Algerian security forces.

GREENE: OK. And so this guard sounded the alarm, which shut the plant down. Did that guard survive?

NOSSITER: No. He was immediately shot in the head by the attackers. But he had just enough time to sound the alarm.

GREENE: Wow. And I suppose he's being considered a hero now, or in some way.

NOSSITER: Well, yes. All last week and the week before, the Algerian press lionized him as a hero and said that, you know, a monument should be erected in his honor and urged the president of Algeria to visit his family, et cetera, et cetera. So, yes, this young chap is considered a national hero, because it does seem likely that he averted a major - what could have been an even bigger catastrophe at - in Amenas.

GREENE: We've been learning more about that siege of a natural gas facility in Algeria a few weeks ago. New reporting from Adam Nossiter. He's the West and Central Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. Adam, thanks so much.

NOSSITER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.