Large-Scale Arrests in Saudi Arabia Illustrate Threat to the Oil Supply

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
The Long War Journal
Mar. 24, 2010

Today Saudi Arabia announced arrests of 113 alleged al Qaeda militants (58 from Saudi Arabia, 52 from Yemen, and men from Bangladesh, Eritrea, and Somalia) whom it claims were planning attacks against oil facilities. Saudi security officials said the suspects were divided into three separate cells, according to a Reuters report. Security forces discovered weapons, ammunition, and suicide belts during the raids, suggesting the jihadis were preparing for attacks with suicide assault teams.

“The 12 in the two cells were suicide bombers,” Mansour al Turki, a spokesman for Saudi security services, told Reuters. “We have compelling evidence against all of those arrested, that they were plotting terrorist attacks inside the kingdom.” Turki described the suspects as being members of a “deviant group that has chosen Yemen as a base for the launch of its criminal operations.” This is a direct reference to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

As Chris Albon points out, arrest figures in the Middle East are often exaggerated, with innocents quietly being released after a large number of arrestees are announced. This report of the arrests, and the cells’ targets, is unsurprising. Over the past six years al Qaeda and other jihadi groups have come to see attacks against oil targets as one of the keys to their economic warfare strategy (along with the “bleed-until-bankruptcy” strategy of embroiling the US in draining conflicts overseas).

It was not always this way. In Osama bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war against America, he said that oil was not part of the battle because it was “a large economical power essential for the soon to be established Islamic state.” But as bin Laden and other jihadi strategists developed a more sophisticated economic warfare strategy, the idea of attacking the oil supply became not just accepted, but a critical part of their plan for defeating America economically.

One early indication of this shift was a book by Rashid al Anzi, who has been described in the media as al Qaeda’s “minister of propaganda,” entitled The Laws of Targeting Petroleum-Related Interests and a Review of the Laws Pertaining to the Economic Jihad. First published on the Internet in March 2004, the text argues that oil wells are off limits as a target of jihad (consistent with bin Laden’s statement that oil is the economic backbone of the coming Islamic state), but that attacks against oil facilities are “a legitimate means of economic jihad,” which is “one of the most powerful ways in which we can take revenge on the infidels during this present stage.”

Bin Laden reached the same conclusion in a December 2004 audiotape in which he described Western countries’ purchase of oil at then-market prices as “the greatest theft in history,” and told his followers to focus their operations on oil production, “especially in Iraq and the Gulf area, since this [lack of oil] will cause them to die off [on their own].” Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, similarly called for al Qaeda fighters to “concentrate their campaigns on the stolen oil of the Muslims” in a December 2005 video. And Sawt al Jihad, the now-defunct online magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, claimed in February 2007 that cutting the US’s oil supplies “would contribute to the ending of the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.” Recently, there has also been increased discussion on jihadi web forums of the desirability of attacking oil installations.

The desire to attack the oil supply has not been limited to rhetoric on the jihadis’ part. Terrorists have in fact targeted key facilities in Saudi Arabia previously. Saudi Arabia, it should be noted, is critical to world oil markets because it produces almost 10 million barrels per day, and is the only country able to maintain excess production capacity of around 1.5 million barrels per day (or a “swing reserve”) to keep world prices stable. However, Saudi production is vulnerable to attack because it depends on a limited number of hubs. Two-thirds of Saudi Arabian oil is processed at the Abqaiq facility, and there are two main export terminals: Ras Tanura and Ras al Ju’aymah.

There are several key incidents in the history of Saudi arrests and discoveries related to oil facilities. One early incident occurred in September 2005, when a 48-hour shootout at a villa in the seaport of al Dammam ended after Saudi police introduced light artillery. Newsweek reported that when police searched the compound in the aftermath, they found not only “enough weapons for a couple of platoons of guerilla fighters,” but also forged documents that would have given the terrorists access to some of the country’s key oil and gas facilities. Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz confirmed to the daily newspaper Okaz that the cell had planned to attack energy facilities, stating: “There isn’t a place that they could reach that they didn’t think about.”

The most significant incident — the closest we have come to a serious attack against a Saudi oil facility succeeding — occurred on Feb. 24, 2006, when terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attacked the refinery at Abqaiq operated by the state-owned Saudi Aramco. Immediately afterward, a statement by Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry explained that two cars tried to enter the facility through one of its side gates, and that a firefight broke out when security officers challenged them. The interior ministry claimed that the explosives-laden vehicles “exploded near the entrance.” Local news sources played down the incident, with a Saudi security adviser telling the Arab News that it was proof of “how tight and impenetrable the existing Saudi security system is.”

But in reality, the terrorists were closer to the heart of the facility than the rhetoric of officials allowed. Written evidence submitted to Britain’s House of Commons by Neil Partrick, a senior analyst in The Economist Group’s Economist Intelligence Unit, notes that the terrorists—who wore Aramco uniforms and drove Aramco vehicles—managed to enter the first of three perimeter fences surrounding the refinery. They were only fired upon as they approached the second perimeter fence. Partrick stated that the terrorists either “had inside assistance from members of the formal security operation of the state-owned energy company” in acquiring the vehicles and uniforms, or else “security was sufficiently [lax] that these items could be obtained and entry to the site obtained.” Neither possibility is reassuring.

Subsequently, there have been several numerically significant arrests linked to possible attacks against oil facilities. In April 2007, the Saudi interior ministry announced that it had “foiled an al-Qaeda-linked plot to attack oil facilities and military bases.” In 2008, it arrested over 700 suspected militants, and officials alleged that the arrestees had been plotting to attack oil installations. Future research will certainly group the arrests announced today with the 2007 and 2008 arrests.

The reason plots against Saudi oil installations are of such concern is the possibility that a catastrophic attack on a key facility could have a devastating effect on the world economy. Former CIA case officer Robert Baer famously wrote in his 2003 book Sleeping with the Devil:

A single jumbo jet with a suicide bomber at the controls, hijacked during takeoff from Dubai and crashed into the heart of Ras Tanura, would be enough to bring the world’s oil-addicted economies to their knees, America’s along with them. Indeed, such an attack would be more economically damaging than a dirty nuclear bomb set off in midtown Manhattan or across from the White House in Lafayette Square.

It is unclear if the present plot was intended to be catastrophic or merely disruptive. The tactics and weaponry involved (suicide bombers, explosive belts) are more suggestive of a disruptive attack. But that should not distract from the fact that these arrests are a reminder of the oil supply’s vulnerability.
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