Al-Qaida intent on attacking U.S. oil facilities

Analyst says Bin Laden's goal is to bankrupt economy

A leading expert on Al Qaeda has predicted that in the next phase of the terrorist group�s war on the US economy, the number of attacks on oil infrastructure targets will increase.

Michael Scheuer, who served the CIA for 11 years and was head of the agency�s Osama Bin Laden unit, told a meeting on the threat to Saudi oil industry, organised by the Jamestown Foundation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Monday that Al Qaeda and its allies are well placed throughout the Persian Gulf to attack oil facilities and officials.

Saudi successes in 2003 in killing and capturing several Al Qaeda figures may be one reason there have not been more attacks against the region�s oil facilities. He said Al Qaeda, apart from military actions, clearly intends to use its media apparatus to �stir the troubled pot of oil-related international worries� and thereby increase pessimism about the price of oil and the dependability of oil supplies. Al Qaeda websites, he noted, had even owned the string of attacks on Nigerian oil facilities called the attackers the �lions of Nigeria� and reminding them that �Allah supports you�.

Scheuer said Bin Laden�s intention is to bankrupt the US economy, which is �entirely likely� to lead to attacks on infrastructure targets inside the US by Al Qaeda, its allies and groups that may not necessarily be associated with either. The attacks would probably focus on large targets that could cripple parts of the US economy. Other groups, however, may be satisfied with staging small-scale attacks on pipelines, pumping stations, tanker trucks as in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In a password-protected Al Qaeda forum on the Internet, targets such as the Trans-Alaska pipeline are highlighted. The attacks could be staged by small teams of Muslims living in the US or trams that could be brought across the border from Mexico or Canada.

Scheuer said that Al Qaeda�s February 2006 attack on the Abqaiq refinery in Saudi Arabia, the world�s largest such complex, should be seen as the beginning of a new and more systematic phase of Al Qaeda�s targeting of the oil infrastructure. The attack appears to have been well planned but badly executed. Even in failure, however, the attack boosted the price of oil by nearly $2 a barrel and added to the readiness of oil producers and their worried insurers to increase the �terrorism premium� already built into the basic price of oil. The orders for the Abqaiq attack came direct from Osama Bin Laden. Two days later, there was a fatwa from the Al Qaeda-related cleric, Sheikh al-Anzi, which said that such attacks are legitimate and they must be conducted in a way that does not produce permanent damage to the Muslim community�s ability to exploit and benefit from its energy reserves.

Another speaker at the event, British expert Stephen Ulph, said the threat to the oil sector looms like a �menacing spectre� over the Saudi and Gulf states. In his view the Abqaiq attack has done damage to the image of Saudi stability and won prestige for Al Qaeda. These events, he stressed, �command our attention� as Al Qaeda�s insurgent strategy, right from the beginning, has focused on the issue of Middle East oil wealth as a cardinal feature of its global struggle. Originally, Bin Laden advised against targeting these facilities on the grounds that they constituted a fundamental resource for the Muslim community. However, it elaborated a new �bleed-until-bankruptcy� strategy against the US as the prime backer of Gulf regimes. He pointed out that although the US military has removed itself form Saudi Arabia, the �mujahideen� continue to use the slogan �expelling the polytheists from the Peninsula� as an �ideological banner� rather than as a political demand. This is because it is a struggle whose dimensions simply dwarf the banalities of temporary reverses on the ground. He said Saudi and American electronic espionage against the insurgent groups was much improved today over the past. After the Abqaiq attack, Saudi security forces conducted raids across the country and rounded up Islamist militants, half of them suspected of financially aiding terrorist attacks and propagating jihadists ideology.

According to Ulph, �Al Qaeda�s objective in these attacks is more abstract � prestige to the movement, damage to Saudi self-confidence and uncertainty on the global oil market. As world energy consumption is predicted to increase by more than 50 percent by the year 2025, concerns from the security of Saudi energy exports will increase accordingly. With this trump card handed to Al Qaeda in its asymmetric warfare, actual success in damaging the country�s energy facilities is not necessary to raise fears of insecurity. In this respect, Al Qaeda has correctly identified a fundamental weak point and scored what has in fact been an uninterrupted series of triumphs.�

Another expert, John SK Daly, who addressed the meeting, said should a major terrorist attack on Saudi Arabia�s major oil facilities succeed, the impact on global oil prices would be immense, dwarfing any other man-made event. He pointed out that the massive Abqaiq complex is a critical element in Saudi Arabia�s prosperity. He said Al Qaeda�s most fearsome weapon is the hijacked commercial aircraft and its interest in using one for an attack in Saudi Arabia predates 9/11. He said, �The Abqaiq attack is the first harbinger of Osama Bin Laden�s December 2004 statement urging militants to attack oil targets in the Gulf to stop the flow of oil to the West.� He pointed out that the immediate answer to the Abqaiq attack by the Saudi government was �repression and more security�.

However, the fact that Saudi Aramco vehicles were used in the attack indicates that Al Qaeda operatives at the very least have access to the oil giant�s assets, leaving open the possibility of future �inside jobs�. An attack could also be mounted from across the border in Iraq, where Saudi fighters are active. He said the possibility of such an attack is �inevitable� and 100 percent security in the kingdom is impossible. Most of the oil facilities are in the Eastern provinces where a restive Shia population �chafes under the austere tenets of Wahabism�.

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