- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

Given the rise in terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, it is worth taking a good close look at events there and to examining what the targets have been and why they were hit.

At first glance the terrorists, whom the Saudis believe are affiliated to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, have been going after “soft targets.” Or so it would seem. However upon closer scrutiny, the targets make a whole lot of sense, from the perspective of the terrorists at least.

The targets are largely civilian — foreigners employed in the country’s huge petrochemical industry. There are about 6 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia and a great many of them work in the oil business.

Striking them in their place of work, as happened in Yanbu where six Westerners were killed in an attack on the Houston-based ABB Lummus Global company on May 1, or in their homes as in the latest attack in the eastern city of Khobar over the past weekend that killed a total of 22 people, is simple enough from a tactical point of view.

Despite stepped-up security at both locations, there is, after all, limited security that can be implemented without those locations resembling maximum-security prisons. Additionally, with using Saudi military uniforms, which the terrorists were reported to be wearing in several of the attacks, makes it even easier to fool the real security personnel.

Following the latest attacks, a number of Americans have started leaving the kingdom. The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh advised all U.S. citizens to leave as soon as possible. And although the British refrained from issuing a similar warning, the Foreign Office is warning of more attacks.

The terrorists hope additional attacks on foreign workers will eventually scare them away, creating a vacuum in the oil industry. Such actions will force the Saudi oil companies to start hiring domestic workers, as is already happening.

The “danger” in hiring local workers is that among the hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of new recruits to fill various posts vacated by departing foreigners, you can bet your bottom petro-dollar a few — and most likely more than a few — will be faithful followers of al Qaeda.

These will infiltrate the oil installations, management offices, pipeline control centers and every aspect from drilling to shipment in the main oil centers such as Khobar, Ras Tanura and Abqaiq. This will put the sensitive oil infrastructures within the reach of al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Their next step could involve one of the following two scenarios, both of which would be detrimental to the Saudi state. In the first scenario, the terrorists could seriously undermine the infrastructure, hampering the flow of oil.

To take a page from Robert Baer’s book, “Sleeping with the Devil,” where Islamist terrorists sabotage the oil installations, this situation could now become all too real.

Mr. Baer, a former CIA Middle East operative, describes a hypothetical situation in which Islamist fundamentalist terrorists sabotage eastern Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, severely hindering the flow of oil to the West. Although imaginary, the scenario is no less worrisome and the threat now very real.

The second scenario could involve terrorists infiltrating the oil production and distribution process in key jobs where they could control, or possibly interrupt, the flow at a predetermined moment. This would allow them to be in a position to take over the system once they felt the time was right.

Either way, there is clear and present danger to Saudi Arabia’s oil industry, the world’s largest source of oil and the kingdom’s main source of revenue.

The one positive outcome of these latest developments is they should serve as a rude wake-up call for many Saudis who, until just recently, refused to believe their country could be on the verge of serious civil strife.

For a long time, the kingdom’s leaders refused to take the terror threat seriously. Lately they have begun saying they would crush terrorism with “an iron fist.” But so far, the fist has failed to come down very hard, and the terrorists continue operating and are becoming bolder in their deadly endeavors.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, who for decades ran Saudi intelligence and who now is ambassador to Great Britain, told the BBC last Monday night that all but one of six al Qaeda cells operating in the kingdom had been “dismantled.” But judging from the brashness — and the increased attacks — one could easily assume the opposite to be true.

Just last week Abdulaziz al-Murqrin, a Saudi leader of a terrorist group affiliated to al Qaeda, published on the Internet a call for urban warfare and the toppling of the royal family. He promised the rest of the year would be bloody for the kingdom.

Some analysts believe the terrorists might have already infiltrated the security services.

“The fact that most of the arrests have resulted in open gun battles suggests either that the Saudis are remarkably inept at security operations or that the terrorists know that security forces are coming,” reports M.J. Gohel and Sajjan M. Gohel, terrorist analysts with the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London.

“Riyadh’s ability and the loyalty of its security services, to break up the terror network now operating in Saudi territory is questionable,” say the Gohel brothers.

“Bizarrely, the Saudi Arabian government announced that the current three terrorists still on the loose after the Khobar attack are part of the last terrorist cell in the country. Lessons seem not [to] be learned,” conclude the Gohels.

Amid continuing threats to the country’s “soft” underbelly, the Saudis would benefit from examining al Qaeda’s playbook before claiming victory prematurely.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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