Attacks in Yemen Reflect al-Qaeda’s Global Oil Strategy

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 17

Recent attacks by al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, Kataeb Jund al-Yemen (Soldiers of Yemen Brigades), against oil facilities across Yemen indicate that al-Qaeda’s larger strategy to strike oil targets remains a top priority. On June 30 the group took credit for rocket attacks against an oil refinery in Safir, located east of the capital Sanaa, in Maarib province. The group later posted video footage of attack on a radical Islamist website. [1] The attack represented the latest in a series of strikes against oil infrastructure and personnel in Yemen over the last year by militants tied to al-Qaeda, including a May 30 attack against an oil refinery in the port city of Aden (see Terrorism Focus, June 3). In a related incident, the group threatened to escalate its campaign of violence against oil infrastructure and foreign interests in Yemen unless the state released members of its group currently detained by Yemeni authorities (Yemen Post, August 11).

Oil’s significance figures prominently in Osama bin Laden’s strategic thinking, especially as this summer’s record-high oil prices continue to impact the U.S. and global economies. Although the primary factors that determine oil prices are market forces that reflect supply and demand, other intangibles also help dictate the price of oil. Geopolitical events such as war and political instability in and around oil-producing countries and regions can create uncertainty about the future availability of oil supplies. This uncertainty causes traders to add a security premium to oil prices that can range, depending on the circumstances, between $1 and $25 per barrel, or higher. Adverse weather that threatens oil infrastructure and transport routes can also drive the price of oil up. Steady global demand for oil — led by record-high demand from Asia — is also responsible for an increase in oil prices.

According to a recent essay titled “Al-Qaeda and the Battle for Oil” that has been circulating on radical Islamist websites since June, militants are well aware of the economics of oil. The author of the essay goes as far as to claim that al-Qaeda’s strategy to defeat the United States rests on bankrupting America by driving up oil prices by any means necessary. [2] The author also mentions that the recent attacks against oil infrastructure in Yemen, along with attacks in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, have been critical to al-Qaeda’s success so far.

Based on its actions and discourse, it is apparent that al-Qaeda operates a dynamic oil strategy that contains political, economic, and military aspects. While the recent attacks in Yemen reflect the military aspects of al-Qaeda’s oil strategy, it is worth examining the evolution of al-Qaeda’s oil strategy over the years.

Oil and Political Opposition

Any discussion of oil’s significance for al-Qaeda must begin with Saudi Arabia and bin Laden’s opposition to the Saudi monarchy. Bin Laden’s criticism of the royal family dates back to the emergence of the Advice and Reform Committee (ARC), a London-based opposition group bin Laden helped found in 1994 that sought to unify Saudi opposition elements and to encourage the reform of the kingdom from within. The ARC illustrated the political aspects of al-Qaeda’s oil strategy, with bin Laden accusing Saudi leaders of, among other things, corruption, mismanagement, and squandering oil revenues to maintain the ostentatious lifestyles of the royal family. [3] Bin Laden also accused Saudi Arabia of using its preeminent position within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to provide the United States with oil at artificially low prices at the expense of Muslim interests. He condemned the royal family for using oil revenues to purchase expensive U.S. weapons systems that would prove useless in defending the kingdom. Instead, bin Laden saw Saudi purchases of U.S. arms as a move designed to curry favor with Washington. [4] Despite its support for the 1973 Arab oil embargo to protest U.S. support for Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur/Ramadan War, Saudi Arabia secretly permitted the sale of oil to the United States military to sustain U.S. forces in Vietnam and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia also deposited billions of dollars of revenue earned during the oil crisis into the U.S. economy to mitigate the effects of the embargo.

Bin Laden’s criticism of the Saudi royal family throughout the 1990s must be seen in the context of Saudi Arabia’s self-declared role as the Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina. The kingdom considers its oil wealth to be a gift from God, a gift it believes bestows a claim of special legitimacy upon the ruling family.[5] In this sense, bin Laden’s direct criticism of the royal family challenged the monarchy’s claim of religious legitimacy and its right to preside over Mecca and Medina. Despite its disdain for Saudi Arabia, however, al-Qaeda initially opposed attacks against oil targets in the kingdom and elsewhere in the region. The group’s position is outlined in the following excerpt from bin Laden’s August 23, 1996, “Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places”:

I would like here to alert my brothers, the mujahideen, the sons of the nation, to protect this [oil] wealth and not to include it in the battle, as it is a great Islamic wealth and a large economic power essential for the soon-to-be-established Islamic state, by God’s permission and grace. [6]

It appears that al-Qaeda was concerned about the possibility that attacks against Saudi oil facilities – and oil targets elsewhere on Arab soil – would alienate Muslim opinion, even if that resource was being squandered by a corrupt dictatorship widely detested by its own people and Muslims throughout the Middle East.

Oil and Economic Warfare

Researchers tracking al-Qaeda tend to focus on assessing the group’s ability to commit spectacular acts of violence. At the same time, al-Qaeda’s ability to launch (or inspire) attacks must be seen in the context of the group’s long-term strategy, a strategy which aims to bankrupt the United States by engaging it through an economic war of attrition. The following excerpt from bin Laden’s October 29, 2004 public statement illustrates this aspect of al-Qaeda’s strategy:

Al-Qaeda spent $500,000 on the September 11 attacks, while America lost more than $500 billion, at the lowest estimate, in the event and its aftermath. That makes a million American dollars for every al-Qaeda dollar, by the grace of God Almighty. This is in addition to the fact that it lost an enormous amount of jobs – and as for the federal deficit, it made record losses, estimated at over a trillion dollars. Still more serious for America was the fact that the mujahideen forced Bush to resort to an emergency budget in order to continue fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. This shows the success of our plan to bleed America to the point of bankruptcy…. [7]

Here lies the economic aspect of al-Qaeda’s oil strategy. While al-Qaeda had previously opposed targeting oil, bin Laden’s December 16, 2004, statement would mark a major shift in the group’s strategy:

Targeting America in Iraq in terms of economy and losses in life is a golden and unique opportunity. Do not waste it only to regret it later. One of the most important reasons that led our enemies to control our land is the theft of our oil. Do everything you can to stop the biggest plundering operation in history – the plundering of the resources of the present and future generations in collusion with the agents and the aliens… Be active and prevent them from reaching the oil, and mount your operations accordingly, particularly in Iraq and the Gulf [Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Gulf monarchies, etc.], for this is their fate (BBC, December 16, 2004).

It is difficult to discern the precise reason behind al-Qaeda’s shift in strategy at this juncture. One likely possibility is that bin Laden was inspired by the Iraqi insurgency, especially its nationalist strain, which targeted oil infrastructure to great effect in order to undermine the U.S.-led Coalition’s efforts to control the country. Although most of the damage against the Iraqi oil infrastructure, especially oil pipelines, was easily repairable, the ongoing violence and instability coupled with the deliberate targeting of oil-related sites by the insurgents undermined investor confidence and raised concerns about Iraq’s potential to regain its place as a major oil producer. These factors, along with a host of others, contributed to a steady increase in oil prices during this volatile period. In keeping with al-Qaeda’s long-term goal of bankrupting the United States, it is likely that bin Laden identified an opportunity to up the ante against the United States and its allies in the region by making oil fair game.

Oil and Military Operations

Bin Laden’s explicit call for attacks against oil installations to harm the U.S. economy resulted in a spike in security premiums and raised concerns about a new round of terrorist attacks. For al-Qaeda’s oil strategy to have any hopes of succeeding in the long-term, however, the group would have to back up its words with action. Al-Qaeda’s Saudi affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, rose to the occasion by mounting an ambitious attack against Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil facility on February 24, 2006 (Middle East Online, February 24, 2006; Arab News, February 26, 2006). Abqaiq is the world’s largest oil complex. The attackers failed to breach the first cordon of the facility’s security perimeter with their explosives-laden vehicles, resulting in a firefight between the militants and Saudi security forces outside the facility. The militants ultimately detonated their explosives prematurely in what proved to be a botched operation. Despite the operation’s failure, oil prices immediately jumped $2 per barrel amid already record-high prices due to fear of future attacks on oil facilities in the kingdom and other parts of the region [8]

Even if the militants had succeeded in detonating their explosives inside Abqaiq, they did not have anywhere near the amount of explosives required to destroy the massive complex. The underlying message behind the attack was clear: the military aspect of al-Qaeda’s oil strategy had become operational. Although from an operational perspective, an attack against a more accessible target may have yielded a better result, ultimately, the decision to strike Abqaiq was also meant to inspire al-Qaeda’s sympathizers to attempt similar attacks in their own countries. Furthermore, in February 2007, al-Qaeda’s Sawt al-Jihad magazine called for attacks against U.S. oil interests in the Western Hemisphere, specifically attacks against oil infrastructure in Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela (three key sources of U.S. energy) to further damage the U.S. economy (Sawt al-Jihad, January 2007).

Conclusion

Despite al-Qaeda’s explicit call for attacks against oil infrastructure, radical Islamists and their sympathizers continue to debate the utility of such tactics. Members of a popular radical Islamist chat room forum recently debated the legitimacy of such attacks on a thread discussing the June 30 attacks on Yemen’s Safir oil refinery, entitled “Is Attacking the Oil Fields of Maarib in Yemen Considered Jihad or Sabotage?” The crux of the debate revolved around whether the oil derived from Safir benefits Yemen or the United States. One respondent expressed his opposition to the attacks, based on his belief that the oil was not destined for the West; “If the petroleum coming out of the wells is not going to the West and the nations of heresy, why should they be attacked?” (www.muslm.net, June 30-July 6).

In response, another forum member agreed in principle that oil facilities should not be targeted, presumably due to their role in sustaining regional economies. At the same time, he added that the recent attacks in Yemen were justified due to the Yemeni regime’s close ties to the United States, especially in the military arena. Radical Islamists detest the Yemeni government, much like they do the Saudi royal family and other U.S.-backed autocracies in the region. These sentiments are illustrated in the author’s response:

My dear brother, I’m with you. I see no need to bombard the oil refineries…but I believe the brothers in the Yemeni Qaeda when they said it, considering that these refineries are used by the tyrant of Yemen [Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh] to provide fuel to the Crusaders in their war against Islam. Everyone knows that Yemen supplies the American navy with fuel, and this is what motivated the men of tawheed [declaring the oneness of God] to shed blood for the sake of “there is no god but God” by wrecking the American destroyer [USS Cole] in Aden (www.muslm.net, June 26-July 6).

Despite the apparent doubts expressed above about the utility of attacking oil installations, by all accounts, the experience of Abqaiq and the recent incidents in Yemen indicate that al-Qaeda’s call for an all-out war against oil should remain cause for serious concern in the Middle East and beyond.

Notes:

1. Video still shots of the footage released by Jund al-Yemen and related links can be accessed at http://clearinghouse.infovlad.net/showthread.php?t=15362 (accessed September 2008).

2. Zadi al-Taqwa, “Al-Qaeda and the Battle for Oil,” http://www.alqimmah.net/showthread.php?t=1226 (accessed September 2008).

3. For more background on the Advice and Reform Committee (ARC), see Mamoun Fandy, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), pp. 178-194. For details on the ARC and other domestic Saudi opposition groups operating at the time, see Daryl Champion, The Paradoxical Kingdom: Saudi Arabia and the Momentum of Reform (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), pp. 216-308.

4. For more details, see As’ad Abukhalil, The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism, and Global Power (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004), p. 97.

5. Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century (New York: The Penguin Press, 2008), p. 149.

6. For a full transcript of Osama bin Laden’s August 23, 1996 “Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” see Robert O. Marlin IV, What Does al-Qaeda Want?: Unedited Communiques (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2004), pp. 1-17.

7. For a full transcript of Osama bin Laden’s October 29, 2004 “Statement to the American People,” see Bruce Lawrence, Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (New York: Verso, 2005), pp. 237-244.

8. For more background on the implications of the February 26, 2006 Abqaiq attacks, see “Saudi Arabian Oil Facilities: The Achilles Heel of the Western Economy,” Jamestown Foundation, May 2006, http://www.jamestown.org/docs/Jamestown-SaudiOil.pdf.<iframe src=’http://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>