New Threat on Gulf Oil Puts Security Forces on Alert

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 42

Based on what United States and regional security sources described as credible intelligence of a possible maritime terrorist attack against Saudi and Bahraini coastal and offshore oil installations, radical Islamists in the Persian Gulf appear to be heeding al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri’s call to target Persian Gulf oil infrastructure. U.S. and British sources believe that al-Qaeda militants have their sights set on Saudi Arabia’s Ras Tanura facility. With a total loading capacity of six million barrels per day, Ras Tanura is the world’s largest offshore oil export terminal (Gulf Daily News, October 28). Bahrain’s Bapco oil refinery is also believed to be under threat of attack. Western and regional capitals are taking these warnings seriously. U.S., British and partner Western navies comprising the Italian-led Coalition Task Force 152 that patrols international waters near Ras Tanura have deployed forces in support of Saudi and Bahraini military and security forces (al-Jazeera, October 28).

Yemeni security officials recently foiled an attack by local militants against oil installations in Marib and Hadramawt in September (Terrorism Focus, September 26). Saudi militants led a bold but failed attack against the world’s largest oil processing facility at Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia in February (Terrorism Focus, March 7).

The generally poor and amateurish performance of the militant cells that perpetrated these failed strikes may provide clues as to the tactical and operational capabilities of would-be attackers in any future raids against the Ras Tanura and Bapco facilities. It also highlights the difficulty of executing an effective strike against such facilities, especially given the heightened sense of awareness and regional security cooperation. Still, even a failed attack provides al-Qaeda with an opportunity to demonstrate that it is still a relevant force to be reckoned with. It may also be enough to raise security risk premiums on oil prices.

Al-Qaeda’s emphasis on targeting the region’s oil infrastructure represents an ambitious effort on their part to destabilize incumbent regimes closely allied with the United States. It is also meant to send shockwaves through international financial markets in order to harm the U.S. economy. Osama bin Laden has decried what he perceives as the complicity of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies in a U.S.-led scheme to maintain artificially low oil prices in exchange for U.S. guarantees of security against foreign invasion and domestic political opposition. Despite a string of recent failures, al-Qaeda is likely to remain focused on targeting vital oil and energy infrastructure in the foreseeable future.