- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2005

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Near-simultaneous car bombings last month in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia occurred less than two weeks after an unprecedented call by Osama bin Laden for just such attacks inside the kingdom, heightening fears that his demand for the oil industry to be sabotaged might be answered next.

The Saudi-born terror mastermind’s harangue to militants in a Dec. 16 audiotape was the first to focus on his homeland since a 1995 “Open letter to King Fahd” railed against the ruling family’s corruption and oil-for-security alliance with the United States.

Al Qaeda elements in Saudi Arabia immediately endorsed attacks on the oil industry.

“We call on all the [mujahideen] in the Arabian Peninsula to unite … and target the oil supplies that do not serve the Islamic nation, but the enemies of this nation,” said an Internet statement.

Bin Laden’s new tack is a shift in al Qaeda tactics, reversing edicts from him and others in the 1990s that put oil facilities in the Muslim world off-limits to attacks. The hoped-for Islamic empire that he and others had announced in Sudan in 1993 would need oil revenues to thrive, so the oil facilities had to be preserved for the glory of Islam.

“The pipelines are obvious new targets for the Saudi jihadis. They could even be sabotaged by an amateur with no military training, and a successful attack would have a huge psychological impact,” said Fouad Ibrahim, editor of the Arabic-language magazine Saudi Affairs.

Government officials in Riyadh dismiss talk of attacks on the oil pipelines as a scare tactic, arguing that because Saudi security forces have killed or arrested dozens of al Qaeda operatives, bin Laden’s ability to influence events inside the kingdom has diminished.

“Speculation about al Qaeda’s presence in Saudi Arabia and its plans is now tremendously exaggerated,” said Usamah Al-Kurdi, a member of the kingdom’s consultative Shura Council. “The most recent attacks caused very limited damage. The terrorists are choosing high-profile targets because they want to make a lot of noise, and the reason is that they are no longer able to do any real harm.”

Although attacks on the heavily guarded oil-pumping facilities are unlikely, smaller incidents remain possible on the kingdom’s 10,000-mile pipeline network. They would be easier to carry out than recent attacks on the heavily fortified U.S. Consulate in Saudi Arabia’s commercial capital, Jidda, and the Interior Ministry building in Riyadh, which killed more than 170 people — including Westerners and Saudi security forces — in the past 18 months.

These attacks marked the first time that a Western diplomatic mission or government ministry was targeted since Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932.

The Saudi oil network is more than double the size of Iraq’s, where insurgents repeatedly have sabotaged pipelines, despite the strong U.S. military presence. Like those in Iraq, most Saudi pipelines are aboveground and unguarded.

Adding to concerns about the impact of bin Laden’s Dec. 16 tape is the fear that “thousands of Saudi jihadis are likely to return to the kingdom from Iraq once that country stabilizes,” said Ali Al-Ahmed, head of the Washington-based Saudi Institute, a think tank.

“They have been trained in urban warfare in Iraq, including how to sabotage oil pipelines. As was the case after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, these Saudis are going to bring their terrorism back home with them,” Mr. Al-Ahmed predicted.

The suicide bomber responsible for the deaths of 14 American soldiers in Mosul last month was a Saudi, according to reports last week. And one of the terrorists who attacked the U.S. Consulate in Jidda recently had returned from fighting U.S. forces in Fallujah, his family told Saudi media.

In his message to Saudi militants, bin Laden’s main aim did not appear to be the destruction of major installations, but acts of sabotage that would increase oil prices — which he said should be $100 a barrel.

Saudi Arabia has more than a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves, and analysts agree that even an abortive attack on the Saudi petroleum network would raise oil prices. It also would increase concerns in Washington about the ruling al Saud family’s ability to maintain stability.

“The most important issue for the U.S. is to keep the oil tap open,” said Mai Yamani, a Saudi expert at London’s Royal Institute for International Affairs and daughter of former Saudi Oil Minister Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani.

“An attack on the oil industry would make Washington reassess its relationship with the al Saud regime. U.S. forces are already helping to guard the main installations, and if they were threatened, that military presence would almost certainly be increased.”

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