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Siege in the Sahara, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

Siege in the Sahara, Channel 4

Siege in the Sahara, Channel 4

Algerian terrorist attack and hostage-taking chillingly recreated in drama-documentary

The immediacy of threat brought home in the hostage-taking of 'Siege in the Sahara'

Bruce Goodison has been responsible for some of the more impressive television of the last decade, sometimes drama, sometimes straight documentary, and sometimes drama-documentary, like his Flight 93: The Flight That Fought Back. He was back in the latter genre in Channel 4’s powerful Siege in the Sahara, bringing the heightened tension of fictional reconstruction to the story of the assault on the Algerian gas plant at In Amenas by terrorists in January this year.

The ensuing hostage drama lasted three days, during which the Algerian side refused to negotiate, and left 40 of the international staff who had been captured there dead.

Full credit to Channel 4 for giving Goodison the resources to do the job so well, achieving remarkable vérité style for the most dramatic moments of the siege, and recreating the locations – we assume that they weren’t allowed to work anywhere near In Amenas itself – of the towering industrial facility in its surrounding desert (below right). Described by one of the film’s interviewees as like an open prison, it had the portacabins for living and working you’d expect in somewhere like this; they became the last-resort places of concealment for those who’d managed to hide themselves from the terrorists, who came from a rebel Al-Qaeda offshoot with the chilling name “Signed in Blood” and had driven in – completely undetected – across the nearby Libyan border.

But the epicentre of the terror was the group of captured hostages being held at gunpoint in an open-air bastion, a necklace of explosives around their necks (below left). The Algerian army were firing in to spook the terrorists, while the hostages were forced to make frantic phone calls both to their loved ones, and to any international broadcaster who would take the calls. Then they were bundled into SUVs, with a mined hostage-taker in each vehicle, to be driven towards the central processing facility. An army helicopter strafed them along the way. It’s a miracle that anyone survived that fatal journey at all.

We can only wonder if it was coincidence that the BBC had treated the same story on Saturday in This World’s Terror in the Desert (BBC Two), but it made for some instructive comparisons. Incorporating mobile phone footage and text messages adds immediacy, but obviously nothing to compare to the dramatic reconstructions of Goodison’s film, not to mention the tension ratcheted up by the latter’s musical score.

With no overlap between those interviewed in the two films – how that was negotiated is anyone's guess – one glaring difference between them stood out. None of those interviewed by the BBC appeared to have felt any insecurity at In Amenas before the terrorists appeared out of the blue that January 16 morning: “no concerns,” one of them said.

Siege… suggested a very different story. The main foreign security officer on site, Paul Morgan, who was the first foreigner to be killed, had voiced grave concerns to his employers – so much so that he’d requested a transfer, something he’d told his colleagues about only days before.

That left a discrepancy between the hostages' experiences. What clearly united them all, however, was anger at the refusal of BP, one of the three operators of the In Amenas site, to hold its own enquiry into what happened. The gas facility is back at work, and it can’t be long before foreign specialists return there. Have any lessons been learnt?

All credit to Channel 4 for giving Goodison the resources to do the job so well


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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The reason nobody on the BBC documentary expressed any concerns about security is that all but one of the participants was a BP staff member. All but one of the Channel 4 participants was a contractor - contractors that have a contract that states they work for BP but, when it all goes wrong, they work for the Joint Venture, which is a term, not a legally incorporated body.

how did that come about? interesting to know. so was the Channel 4 programme the alternative view that BP didn't want to be shown?

I don't know how it came about, but thought it was very interesting that BOTH programmes questioned why BP were not holding an investigation / enquiry into the incident, even though Statoil and Sonatrach (the other partners in the Joint Venture) were. I think that is the important question ......

aside from the individuals involved, the programme directors and producers surely have one answer to that. it is at least strange that a strong element in the Channel 4 story does not feature at all in the BBC one. were those interviewed by BBC not asked those questions? were they probited from mentioning such concerns in public by their terms of employment? or even coerced into giving the answers they gave?

Who knows ??? My own personal opinion is that C4 Dispatches - as a programme, is much braver than the BBC, and is more willing to ask the difficult questions. Maybe if the BBC chose to show this programme as a 'Panorama' rather than 'This World' the tone may have been different ???

Many mistakes have been made in this documentary, starting by mentioning that "The president Sellal" where Sellal is the prime minister and not president. No mention about how the alarm went on and the pumps went off, forgetting the Algeriam security guard who was executed for refusing to open the gate. Talking about security and those armed groups!! Who armed them? They were coming from Libya!!! How they could get such weapons??? Isn't cause of the EU intervention in Libya and air dispatch of the heavy weapons given to the Libyan rebels???

It's important to note that 3 of the men who participated in the BBC interview also received "substantial" severance packages from bp...their employer. The fact that the head of security, Paul, requested a transfer due to lack of control over security issues speaks volumes. Im sure this wont be included in any investigation. Wait...... BP isn't doing an investigation......

Neither of these programmes looked at the real issues behind the attack on the In Amenas plant. It is highly complex and murky involving the Algerian secret police DRS, the MNLA, Ansar al Din, Libya and western intelligence agencies. Nothing was what it seemed and the opening question as to why a convoy of jihadist terrorist vehicles with headlights blazing could approach the site unseen says it all. For further information read Jeremy Keenan's in depth piece in Open Democracy: Anna suggests that Panorama might have done a better job on this. Jane Corbin who produced the BBC film was also responsible for the disgraceful Panorama report on the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara. No, a Panorama film would have been an overhyped pseudo drama full of bias and inaccuracies. A full account of this attack has still to be made but it will take courage.

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