Osama’s Oil Obsession

Al Qaeda wants to hit Americans where it hurts: in their gas tanks.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

The killing of Osama bin Laden has provided the U.S. public with a stark reminder of the risks posed by America’s dependence on foreign sources of oil. On May 20, the Department of Homeland Security issued a new bulletin outlining al Qaeda’s interest in targeting oil and natural gas infrastructure based on evidence unearthed after the Navy SEAL raid that killed the terrorist chief. "In 2010, there was continuing interest by members of al Qaeda in targeting oil tankers and commercial infrastructure at sea," said a DHS spokesman in a statement referencing the bulletin. He added that there was no information suggesting an imminent threat, but the department "wanted to make our partners aware of the alleged interest."

Bin Laden long believed that undermining the U.S. economy was central to his war against the United States — an outlook that has permeated al Qaeda’s ranks and will outlive him. Al Qaeda views attacking the oil supply as a smart strategy for good reason: America’s reliance on oil for its transportation needs makes it a commodity that, if disrupted or made unaffordable, will cause the U.S. economy to collapse. The United States holds only 3 percent of conventional global oil reserves, yet uses 25 percent of the world’s daily production. It imports more than 66 percent of its oil, amounting to a daily purchase of 12 million barrels of imported oil. A significant rise in the price of oil due to a terrorist attack would deal al Qaeda’s main enemy a severe economic blow.

The threat that keeps counterterrorism officials up at night is a massive strike on Saudi oil installations, taking advantage of the limited number of production hubs to knock a significant amount of oil off the world market. The kingdom relies on its Abqaiq facility to process two-thirds of its crude oil, and on two primary terminals (Ras Tanura and Ras al-Ju’aymah) to export its oil to the world. The economic impact of a successful attack on one of these targets would be tremendous: Gal Luft and Anne Korin of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security estimate that, if a terrorist cell hijacked a plane and crashed it into either the Abqaiq or Ras Tanura facilities in a 9/11-style attack, it could "take up to 50% of Saudi oil off the market for at least six months and with it most of the world’s spare capacity, sending oil prices through the ceiling."

Former CIA case officer Robert Baer agrees, writing his 2004 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."

The prospect of a terrorist strike is so worrying because of the critical role that Saudi oil production plays in the world economy. Saudi Arabia produces almost 10 million barrels of oil per day, and is the only country able to maintain excess daily production capacity of around 1.5 million barrels per day (a "swing reserve") to keep world prices stable.Al Qaeda has certainly tried to attack the kingdom’s key oil targets. The threat of terrorist attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure first became a reality in September 2005, when a 48-hour shootout with Islamic militants at a villa in the Saudi seaport of al-Dammam ended with Saudi police introducing light artillery. When police entered the compound in the aftermath of the battle, they found not only what Newsweek described as "enough weapons for a couple of platoons of guerilla fighters," but also forged documents that would have given the terrorists access to the country’s key oil and gas facilities. Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz confirmed to the newspaper Okaz that the cell had planned to attack energy facilities, noting that "there isn’t a place that they could reach that they didn’t think about."

The most significant security incident to date targeting Saudi facilities came a few months later, on Feb. 24, 2006, when terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attacked the Abqaiq processing facility. Afterwards, Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry released a statement explaining that two explosives-laden cars tried to enter the facility through a side gate, and a firefight broke out. The ministry claimed that the explosives in the vehicles detonated, destroying them. Local news sources played down the incident, with a security adviser telling the Arab News that it was proof of "how tight and impenetrable the existing Saudi security system is."

But the incident may have been a nearer miss than official rhetoric allowed. Written evidence submitted to Britain’s House of Commons by Neil Partrick, a senior analyst in The Economist Intelligence Unit, claimed 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 fence. Partrick wrote 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.

Bin Laden didn’t always see attacks on oil as a part of his fight against the United States. When he first declared war against America in 1996, he specified that oil was not one of al Qaeda’s targets because the resource was "a large economical power essential for the soon to be established Islamic state." In other words, when al Qaeda’s ultimate goal of re-establishing the caliphate was satisfied, bin Laden thought the new state would benefit economically and strategically from its control over a significant portion of the world’s oil supply — and for that reason, al Qaeda would not jeopardize that future wealth by targeting oil infrastructure.

One early indication of a shift in jihadist thinking on attacking oil facilities was Rashid al-Anzi’s The Laws of Targeting Petroleum-Related Interests and a Review of the Laws Pertaining to the Economic Jihad, a treatise posted online in March 2004. Anzi, a noted jihadist thinker, called the widespread availability of oil the factor that "enabled America to dominate the world," and explained how attacks on the oil supply could harm the jihadists’ foes. He claimed that rising oil prices hurt industrialized countries more than others, and that they were particularly devastating to the United States, the world’s largest consumer.

Because of how critical oil is to the infidels, and the potential for damaging the United States, Anzi concluded that oil targets are "a legitimate means of economic jihad." He divided these targets into four categories: pipelines, oil facilities, individual leaders of the petroleum industry, and oil wells. He saw the first three as legitimate targets of attack, albeit with some caveats. However, Anzi did not sanction the targeting of wells. "The targeting of oil wells is not permitted," he wrote, "as long as an equally powerful alternative exists."

Bin Laden came around to the same basic ideas in an audio recording entitled "Depose the Tyrants," which was released on Dec. 16, 2004. In the recording, the al Qaeda leader asserted that "the biggest reason for our enemies’ control over our lands is to steal our oil." He explained that oil prices were too low, and even the trading of oil on the free market constituted a theft by Western countries. For this reason, the jihadist movement should take the situation into its own hands. "Focus your operations on [oil]," he said, "especially in Iraq and the Gulf, for that will be the death of them."

This rhetoric was soon echoed throughout al Qaeda’s ranks. In a December 2005 video, Ayman al-Zawahiri called for al Qaeda fighters to "focus their attacks on the stolen oil of the Muslims." He continued, "This is the greatest theft in the history of humanity. The enemies of Islam are consuming this vital resource with unparalleled greed. We must stop this theft any way we can."

Recognizing their shared vulnerability, the United States and Saudi Arabia embarked on an unprecedented expansion of their security cooperation beginning in 2008. The two countries are developing an elite security force tasked with protecting this infrastructure from attack. It will eventually have at least 35,000 members, the Associated Press reports.

But catastrophic attacks are just one way to target oil supplies. Insurgent groups frequently undertook disruptive attacks in Iraq, where oil facilities and personnel were targeted. Between the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom and mid-2008, researchers documented more than 450 unique attacks on Iraq’s pipelines, oil installations, and oil personnel. Because of these disruptive attacks, Iraq was only able to return to a production level of 2.5 million barrels per day in 2008, slightly above its production in the last years of Saddam’s rule.

Attacks on oil tankers fall into the disruptive rather than catastrophic category. Al Qaeda has undertaken such attacks in the past, including the 2002 bombing of France’s Limburg tanker in the Gulf of Aden.

Attacks on the oil supply can raise oil prices even when they don’t succeed, something shown by the fact that prices immediately jumped by $2.37 a barrel following the 2006 attack on Abqaiq. As Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, notes, "Al Qaeda and its allies are well-placed throughout the Persian Gulf to attack oil facilities and officials."

Indeed they are. On March 24, 2010, Saudi Arabia announced the arrest of 113 alleged al Qaeda militants whom it claimed were planning attacks on oil facilities. Officials said the suspects were divided into three cells, and during raids security forces discovered weapons, ammunition, and suicide belts. The discovery of those belts suggested that the jihadists were preparing for attacks with suicide assault teams.

Terrorist attacks of this kind will continue and the oil supply will remain an ongoing source of vulnerability. As the bin Laden raid shows, the United States is able to mitigate this risk by striking terrorists capable of carrying out attacks. However, there is only one way for the United States to eliminate the threat completely — by ending its dangerous addiction to oil.

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