Al-Qaeda Oil Attack Thwarted in Yemen

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 37

On September 15, Yemen’s Interior Ministry announced that during a shootout it had blown up four cars laden with explosives, killing the four suicide bombers in the process before they could reach their intended targets. The foiled attack came within days of al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri’s calls for mujahideen to attack oil installations in Gulf countries. The attacks, which targeted facilities in Marib and Hadramawt, were apparently meant to be carried out simultaneously by two sets of cars in the early morning hours of September 15. Security guards at the facilities opened fire on the vehicles—which contained 10 gas canisters rigged with TNT—as they sped toward the facilities, killing the attackers as the explosives detonated. One security guard was killed; no serious damage was done to the facilities (Asharq al-Awsat, September 15; Yemen Observer, September 15).

The notoriously trigger-happy nature of the Yemeni security forces appears to have been advantageous in thwarting this attack; such shootouts, however, have often killed innocents in the past. Despite the dramatic nature of the foiled attacks as described by the Interior Ministry, the incident provides little hope of quelling support for al-Qaeda and the mujahideen in Yemen.

One day following the attacks, Yemeni security services arrested four alleged al-Qaeda members suspected of planning attacks in the capital, Sanaa. “A cell linked to the al-Qaeda network was arrested Saturday morning in the capital city of Sanaa,” Yemeni Interior Minister Rashad al-Alimi said in a statement. “The cell had links to terrorist attacks on oil installations Friday in Hadramawt and Marib governorates” (Gulf News, September 16). Security services also confiscated 12 bags of highly explosive material, disguises—including women’s clothing—fake IDs and forged license plates.

While the foiled attacks were the first against an oil-related target in Yemen since the 2002 al-Qaeda attack on the French oil tanker Limburg off the Yemeni coast, there are still significant concerns about al-Qaeda’s strength in the country—the homeland of Osama bin Laden’s father. Fears of another attack have been growing in the country since 23 al-Qaeda members escaped via a tunnel from a Yemeni jail last February with help from prison guards; fourteen of the prisoners remain at large.

The foiled attacks and the arrests the following day—as well as the arrest of a bodyguard of Saleh’s main opponent accused of al-Qaeda involvement—were immediately placed into the context of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s fight against terrorism as he was campaigning for re-election. Saleh, who has been in power since 1978, won with more than 77% of the vote in last Wednesday’s elections. His cooperation with the United States since the September 11 attacks has been largely unpopular among Yemenis, but his government framed these attacks as against the Yemeni people and their national interests, and he went to lengths to publicize the events of September 15-16 as a victory for the economy and also for the safety of Yemenis.

Most analysts have explicitly linked the foiled attacks to al-Zawahiri’s message, released on September 11, warning against the theft of Muslim oil and of new attacks in the Persian Gulf. “You should worry about your presence in two areas—the first is the Gulf, from where you will be expelled, God willing, after your defeat in Iraq, and your economic ruin will be achieved,” he said in the statement issued on the often-used al-Sahab website.

Considering that the attackers timed the operations to coincide with the end of the security guards’ shift, it seems unlikely that they would have selected and monitored the targets, gained knowledge of the shifts at both facilities, then prepared for and carried out the attacks within only four days of al-Zawahiri’s message. Moreover, the Yemeni government announced a tightening of security around oil facilities on September 3 in response to information about potential attacks or sabotage. The attacks were in all likelihood carried out by al-Qaeda members or supporters, but probably not prompted by al-Zawahiri’s message.

By “Persian Gulf,” the al-Qaeda leader was referring to the much greater oil-producing countries of the UAE and Kuwait (Yemen has less than 20% the production capacity of Kuwait and is one of the poorest countries in the region). Nonetheless, the timing of the attacks must be seen as advantageous to al-Qaeda and its ability to incite attacks around the region with messages delivered on the internet.

In fact, this has not been the first call from al-Zawahiri to attack oil installations in the region. In December 2005, he also called for the targeting of oil facilities in the Gulf in order to damage the U.S. economy. Bin Laden and others have been calling for attacks against these targets for much longer, decrying the loss of Muslim wealth to Western interests.

Last February saw al-Qaeda members in Saudi Arabia attempt to attack the world’s largest oil production facility at Abqaiq, but that attack was also unsuccessful. Despite the repeated calls to target these facilities, it appears that al-Qaeda has so far been unable to inflict serious damage on oil production in the Gulf region. In accessing this failure, al-Qaeda may well decide that more, well-planned, well-resourced operations are necessary if they are to really inflict damage against the oil infrastructure in the region.