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Exclusive: Death in the desert - did a security man see it coming?

Widow of Briton who died in Algerian siege says he had warned superiors of dangers three days earlier

The man in charge of expat security at the Algerian gas facility seized by Islamic militants in January raised serious concerns about safety at the plant three days before he was killed in the attack, The Independent can reveal.

Paul Morgan, a 46-year-old security expert from Liverpool, was the first of six Britons killed when al-Qa’ida-linked terrorists stormed the In Amenas gas facility, 30 miles from the Libyan border, on 16 January, taking dozens of foreign workers hostage.  

Speaking exclusively to The Independent, Mr Morgan’s partner Emma Steele, 37, said that he had grown increasingly frustrated in the months before the attack, which eventually left 40 workers dead. “He said he couldn’t do his job properly. His hands were totally tied,” she said.

Three days before he was killed, Mr Morgan, who worked as security liaison at the facility, also told work colleagues that he could “no longer guarantee their safety” because some of his powers had been handed to the Algerian military. Mr Morgan had been granted a transfer and was leaving In Amenas for the final time when he was shot dead around 5.40am on 16 January. Dozens of hostages were killed by their captors during the attack on In Amenas, while seven more died when Algerian special forces stormed the facility to end the siege four days later. Eleven jihadists perished in the final chaotic hours.

Today Statoil, the Norwegian company which operates the plant in a joint venture with BP and the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach, published the results of an independent investigation into the siege, which was carried out by a group calling itself the Signed in Blood battalion and masterminded by the one-eyed Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The inquiry was led by Torgeir Hagen, the former head of Norway’s intelligence services.

The report backs up Mr Morgan’s fears in the run up to the crisis, concluding that: “Security measures at the site were not constructed to withstand or delay an attack of this scale, and relied on [Algerian] military protection working effectively. Neither Statoil nor the joint venture could have prevented the attack, but there is reason to question the extent of the reliance on the Algerian military for protection.”

The joint venture has not commented on Mr Morgan’s death, although at the time the family did receive a letter of condolence from BP chief executive Bob Dudley. While the report concludes that the Algerian military was the only party that could have prevented the attack as it was responsible for the outer security, today Helge Lund, Statoil’s chief executive, said he also took his share of the blame.

“The report concludes clearly – we are not good enough in this area. It comes down to us as management and myself as leader. We must give this area much higher priority and more resources,” he said.

Speaking at the home in Liverpool she shared with Mr Morgan, Ms Steele described Paul Morgan as a man whose natural ebullience had been worn down by frustration at the restrictions he faced in his job. She said Mr Morgan had worked in some of the most dangerous places on earth, including Iraq and Somalia, but after their relationship began five years ago he opted to work at In Amenas because he considered it safer.

“Paul told me: ‘I’ll never work anywhere where you’re worried for me, because when you’re in a relationship and have plans and a life together, that’s not fair.’ So I was always happy he was safe,” Ms Steele said.

Yet in the months before the attack she noticed his mood darken. In July 2012 local drivers at In Amenas went on strike and there were a number of security breaches, including when strikers’ families gained access to the site.

Then in December 2012 two armed men in Algerian gendarme uniforms were reportedly spotted in the main gas plant, the central processing facility. No guns are allowed near the plant due to the risk of explosions. According to a witness, at a subsequent security meeting, Mr Morgan demanded to know why he hadn’t been informed of the breach.

Ms Steele says: “He was so diligent but he was becoming stressed because he knew what needed to be done but couldn’t do it. He knew what the solutions were but didn’t have the power to enforce them. His hands were tied.”

This is confirmed by other workers at In Amenas. On Sunday 13 January – three days before he was killed – Mr Morgan spoke with colleagues in his office. Among them was Yann Desjeux, a former French Special Forces soldier who worked alongside him in security, and who also died during the siege.

The surviving witnesses at the meeting describe Mr Morgan as being “disgusted” with the lax security at In Amenas. According to one: “Paul said: ‘Look guys I can no longer guarantee safety.’ He said the expats weren’t safe and there was nothing he could do about it..” A second witness said: “Paul said they had completely lost control of security and that he would not be coming back.”

Both witnesses say that Mr Morgan’s concerns centred on the security at the gates to In Amenas. His job had been to act as a security liaison between the management of the joint venture and the Algerian military, which provided protection for the site. This had included mentoring and overseeing the guards, but this power had been taken away from him and been “nationalised” by the Algerians.

This is confirmed by today’s Statoil report, which states: “From interviews the investigation team has learned that expatriates at the In Amenas joint venture were not comfortable with this change… [and] responsibility for security was divided as a consequence.”

It adds: “The physical security measures could not delay the attackers significantly once they had reached the front gates. They were not constructed to withstand an armed assault and certainly not a large terrorist attack.”

On the day Mr Morgan was killed, Ms Steele was expecting him home in Liverpool. She only knew that something was wrong at 5.30pm that day when she received a message from an Algerian worker telling her that he had been taken hostage.

“I thought Paul’s going to be fine. The type of person he was, he’ll get them [the other workers] out and everything will be fine.”

It was at noon the following day that the police confirmed that he had in fact been shot as the terrorists approached the residential compound at In Amenas. In line with Algerian policy, he was unarmed.

Ms Steele, and the rest of Mr Morgan’s family including his mother Marianne, say they still do not know the exact circumstances surrounding  his death. They say they do not blame Statoil or its partners, but merely want answers to Paul’s security concerns.

“Paul used to say ‘I’ve got the perfect life’. This is the man who means the most to us in the whole world, no one could mean any more to us, and we just want to say in years to come, ‘This is how Paul died and this is who was responsible’,” said Ms Steele.