Friday, March 3, 2006

Oil, once flaunted by producing countries as a political weapon to pressure the West, is being used against them as al Qaeda promises further attacks on Saudi — and possibly other — installations.

As the world’s largest oil producer and exporter, Saudi Arabia is also the most vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The kingdom sits on 25 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, estimated at around 261 billion barrels.

Al Qaeda’s targets in Saudi Arabia, until now at least, tended to avoid oil facilities. In the past, they have focused on foreign workers, offices and housing complexes. Friday’s attack on Abqaiq is a clear indication of a change in tactics.

In a tape posted on an extremist Web site, bin Laden asserted: “Targeting America in Iraq in terms of economy and loss of life is a golden and unique opportunity. … Be active and prevent them from reaching the oil, and mount your operations accordingly, particularly in Iraq and the Gulf.”

His deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, urged fighters to “concentrate their attacks on Muslims’ stolen oil, from which most of the revenues go to the enemies of Islam while most of what they leave is seized by the thieves who rule our countries.”

And in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has consistently targeted the country’s oil installations.

Khalid R. Al-Rodhan, a visiting fellow at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security estimates there were 299 attacks on Iraqi oil infrastructures and personnel between June 2003 and Feb. 12, 2006.

Meanwhile, several thousands of miles and another continent away, rebels in Nigeria assaulted oil installations, disrupting exports and forcing Shell to suspend operations. A group calling itself the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta claimed responsibility for the attacks and the kidnapping of foreign oil workers in the West African country.

Mr. Al-Rodhan notes the similarities in the rhetoric of the Nigerian group and that of al Qaeda. MEND claims they are fighting a “total war” to control the Niger Delta’s oil wealth.

Saudi Arabia up to now has played an important stabilizing role in the global oil market by meeting oil shortages and reassuring the market, says Mr. Al-Rodhan, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But attacks on its oil facilities would hamper that ability. Saudi Aramco, the company that manages the Saudi oil infrastructure, claims even if some Saudi facilities were destroyed, there is enough backup and redundant facilities to continue producing close to capacity.

In selecting their target, al Qaeda demonstrated it knew what it was going after. According to a CSIS report, Abqaiq holds strategic importance for numerous reasons:

• It holds one of the largest oil fields in the world.

• It is the main oil processing center for Arabian Extra Light and Arabian Light crude oils.

• It can produce more than 7 million barrels daily.

• It includes pumping stations, gas-oil separator plants, and pipelines.

• It has a production capacity of nearly 430,000 barrels daily.

• It is predicted to reach 440,000 barrels a day by 2010.

Understandably, the kingdom has taken extraordinary security precautions to guard its oil fields, terminals and about 11,091 miles of pipeline that traverses the country.

According to a CSIS study by Anthony Cordesman and Nawaf Obaid, each oil terminal and field has its own specialized security unit, comprised of 5,000 Saudi Aramco security forces, and an unknown number of specialized units of the National Guard and Interior Ministry forces. The Coast Guard and Navy components protect the installations from the sea.

Special forces from the Saudi Interior Ministry include: members of the Special Security Forces, Special Emergency Forces, the General Security Service (domestic intelligence), regular forces of the Public Security Administration (police and fire fighters), the Petroleum Installation Security Force, and specialized brigades of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, Saudi Royal Navy, and the Coast Guard.

The CSIS report further says Saudi Aramco has built advanced communication centers to manage emergency and supply disruptions in its pipelines and processing hubs.

While al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia may well be on the defensive, “the asymmetric and terrorist threat to the kingdom and its energy facilities is certainly not over,” says Mr. Al-Rodhan. Abqaiq “is one battle in the war against al Qaeda.

“It is equally important to note that the attack against Abqaiq should not be seen as a turning point in either Saudi stability or the global energy market,” says the Saudi analyst. Yet “it also signals that al Qaeda is changing tactics to attack an area that will garner most attention and inflict most damage on the Saudi leadership, the U.S., and the international community.”

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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