Wave of Arrests in Saudi Arabia Thwarts Second Refinery Attack

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 13

Over the past two weeks, Saudi Arabian security authorities have conducted a series of raids across the country, including in the capital Riyadh and the cities of Mecca and Medina. On March 29, a total of 40 suspected members of al-Qaeda were picked up in simultaneous arrests, almost half of these suspected of financially aiding terrorist attacks and propagating jihadist ideology materials online.

Eight of the suspects were arrested in Riyadh and in al-Qasim for their direct involvement in the attack on the oil facilities at Abqaiq (Buqayq) last month on February 24. Yet, it is in the eastern regions that the latest series of arrests yields the most interesting results. Thirteen of the 40 suspects were picked up in Abqaiq along with weapons and explosives ready for use. According to the Saudi Press Agency (https://www.spa.gov.sa), the security haul included a sizeable stockpile of 99 hand grenades, 22 gas canisters, 18 machine guns, 131 assault rifles, two hunting rifles and copious amounts of ammunition.

Security forces also on March 28 disarmed two explosive-laden vehicles near the Abqaiq oil facilities. The cars were located at a house occupied by a Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Aramco) employee and sported the company’s logo. The news may be related to a report by the pan-Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat on March 5 that security authorities had surrounded a house of an Aramco employee and detained the resident (https://www.aawsat.com).

These events last week suggest that militants were planning a reprise of the February 24 attack on the Abqaiq oil facilities. In the February incident, Saudi security forces fired on three cars packed with explosives as they rammed the outer gates of the facility, causing them to explode (Terrorism Focus, March 7).

The failure of the attacks, along with the fact that the February 24 assault was the first major terrorist assault in the Kingdom since December 29, 2004, indicates levels of increasing efficiency in Saudi counter-terrorism and the weakening of the country’s mini-insurgency. Al-Qaeda’s attention to high-profile, high-sensitivity targets may indicate a much more judicious use of dwindling terrorist resources, now that much of its infrastructure has been destroyed. In January this year Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said that over 120 militants were killed since the overt launch of the al-Qaeda campaign in 2003. Only two names now remain on the June 2005 wanted list of suspected terrorists in the Kingdom.

Such statistics, however, may not be all that relevant. The number of those arrested in the recent security haul also indicates that, despite the losses, al-Qaeda continues to attract enough active support to pose a threat to the stability of the Kingdom. That there is continuing interest in al-Qaeda’s message can be gauged from the fact that, while incidents in Saudi Arabia may be severely diminished, young Saudis continue to figure prominently in incidents in Iraq, fighting against U.S. forces, Iraqi Kurds and Shiites. For the period 2003–2004, estimates of the number of Saudis fighting in Iraq stood as high as 2,500. This means that there is a pool of Saudi volunteers, many of them combat-experienced, who will sooner or later find themselves crossing highly-porous borders back into the Kingdom, to fill any number of new suspect lists.

The failed Abqaiq attack, or attacks—if the two vehicles disarmed on March 28 are not part of the first—may not be the barometer of al-Qaeda weakness that Saudi watchers hope for. It is likely that al-Qaeda may have simply moved toward a more productive enterprise, one that does not rely upon tactical success for strategic success.

This was certainly the explanation voiced on the Tajdeed forum after the February 24 attack, when chatter focused on how such attacks “will level the scales of confrontation between the mujahideen and the government” where “even a simple strike will cause the Saudi government major disturbance” (https://tajdeed.org.uk). Indeed, the physical geography of oil facilities—with installations spread over a wide area and technology that is of low sensitivity or even redundant—makes the single tactic of car bombs inflicting damage over a limited area of limited use. Al-Qaeda’s objective in these attacks is probably 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 for 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.