Blackening the Face of Terrorism In Saudi Arabia

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 13

Saudi Arabia appears to have scored something of a propaganda coup in its war against terrorism with the surrender of Othman al-Amri, an Islamist militant hunted by security forces for more than a year and reported to be number 21 among 26 most-wanted men named by the Saudi interior ministry last December. Amri’s surrender came less than a week after Crown Prince Abdullah announced a month-long amnesty aimed at ending a wave of Islamist attacks that have shaken the Kingdom over the past year. Hardly had Amri turned himself in, than Saudi authorities, attempting to build on their apparent success, announced a second amnesty for ordinary citizens who possess unlicensed weapons.

The amnesties declared by the Saudi government clearly underscore an aspect of the war on terrorism that has yet to be fully reported and understood. That aspect is the psychological battle now being waged by both sides in an effort to sway the hearts and minds of bystanders – both at home and around the world – in one direction or the other.

For their part, members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network have been attempting to reach two main audiences with their message. The terrorists clearly want to spread a sense of apprehension amongst Westerners living in the Kingdom, and frighten them into leaving. Underlying that strategy is the belief that the departure of foreign experts will weaken the Saudi economy, particularly its oil sector, which in turn could adversely affect the world economy. For example, on May 1, al-Qaeda terrorists entered the offices of oil contractor ABB Lummus Global Inc. in the Red Sea port city of Yanbu, killing six Westerners and a Saudi. Again, on May 29, more terrorists went on a spree at an oil company and a residential compound in Khobar, killing another 22 people, 19 of them foreigners.

There is little wonder that terrorists would target the Saudi oil industry, with oil export revenues making up around 90-95% of total Saudi export earnings, 70%-80% of state revenues, and around 40% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Internationally, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, Saudi Arabia is a key oil supplier to the United States, and Europe, while Asia – especially China, Japan, and South Korea – now takes more than 40% of Saudi Arabia’s crude oil exports, as well as the majority of its refined petroleum product exports.

The recent terrorist attacks have indeed shaken confidence on the world’s oil markets. “The cornerstone of oil worries is supply disruption, and there has been cause for alarm after the recent attacks in Saudi Arabia and Iraq,” said Peter Gignoux, senior oil advisor at New York-based GDP Associates Inc. “Oil traders have vivid imaginations, and they will read the worst possible into this,” he said.

That view was underscored by the remarks of another industry expert about the Yanbu attack. “I’m concerned that this is going to happen on a far bigger scale,” said a Saudi business consultant. The nightmare scenario is a large attack at the main oil facilities across the country at the export terminal of Ras Tanura, which can load as much as six million barrels per day of oil for export, or at Abqaiq, which handles roughly two thirds of the country’s oil output. “Hitting Abqaiq would be catastrophic. It would bring the kingdom to its knees,” the consultant said. [1]

The effect of such attacks on oil prices is well documented. On June 1, the UK’s Press Association (PA) reported that “jittery world oil markets opened today with strong price increases in the first significant trading since a terror attack targeting Western oil workers left 22 people dead in the Saudi oil hub.” The PA went on to detail the effect on market prices. “Brent crude oil prices for July delivery were up $1.82 a barrel, at $38.40 and rising, in today’s trading on the International Petroleum Exchange in London,” it said. The PA also reported that “light crude, in after-hours electronic trading in New York, was also up more than $1, to $41.07 per barrel over Friday’s close.”

The PA also noted the timing of the terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, saying it “came ahead of an Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries meeting in Beirut…when ministers will debate a possible production increase to try to bring already high-flying prices down.” At their meeting, OPEC members – prompted by Saudi Arabia – agreed to increase the group’s production ceiling by two million barrels a day in July and a further 500,000 barrels a day in August, if necessary, in an effort to bring down high prices.

Saudi authorities are working to counteract the effects of the terrorists’ propaganda campaign on the oil industry. To avoid an exodus of Western oil expertise, Saudi authorities have been attempting to assure expatriate workers of their safety in the Kingdom. At the same time, eyeing jittery world markets, the Saudis have also insisted that their oil-based economy can be run just as efficiently with or without Western petroleum expertise.

Abdallah Jum’ah, president and chief executive officer of the Saudi Arabian Oil Co., said he could keep the country’s oil flowing, saying that the departure of some foreign workers couldn’t be described as an exodus and that security was good. “Has our production been affected by the departure of some of our employees? The answer is no.” And to underscore his point, Jum’ah said Saudis make up some 86% of the total work force of the company, which employs about 7,000 foreign workers, of whom 19% are Americans. [2]

Such efforts by the Saudi government appear to be working. Indeed, within days of the attack on Yanbu, Sumitomo Chemical Co. of Japan and state-owned Saudi Arabian Oil Co. signed a Memorandum of Understanding for a 50-50 joint venture to build a $4.3 billion refining-petrochemical complex at Rabigh. In launching the project, SCC Pres. Hiromasa Yonekura, conceded that “the biggest concern was country risk,” but he said that SCC had concluded the risk was “manageable.” In addition to impacting world oil markets, however, the terrorists also are eager to convince fellow Muslims not only of the justness of their cause but also of their willingness to undertake direct action in support of it. The most obvious way in which they have undertaken this aspect of their propaganda offensive is through the kidnapping and killing of expatriates – along with widespread dissemination of these killings in pictures over the Internet or on satellite television.

To a certain degree such public “executions” have found a sympathetic audience. Shortly before U.S. engineer Paul Johnson was beheaded by an al-Qaeda cell on June 19, some Saudis spoke highly of his captors. “These (kidnappers) are holy warriors, heroes, who never waver, even if they will fail,” said Mizahen al-Etbi, who added that “All Saudis hate Americans, not only these heroes.” Another Saudi said, “the Americans deserve what they’re getting for shedding Arab and Muslim blood all over the world. Plain and simple, they are our enemies.” [3]

But the terrorists seem to have overplayed their hand by their very public and gruesome documentation of Johnson’s beheading. Indeed, just prior to the beheading of Johnson, political analyst Jasser Abdullah al-Jasser said the terrorists “have less support and they are losing more and more every day.” He went on to predict that “they will have no sympathy whatever if they kill this man” and that “even those who used to support them are not ready now to back the killing of foreigners.” [4]

The murder of foreigners has certainly become an issue in the world press, including much of the Muslim world, and it has decidedly worked against the interests of the terrorists. Perhaps the most incisive view in that regard was issued by the Iranian newspaper, Tehran Sharq: “The way these incidents are tainting the image and credibility of every Muslim and Muslim state of the world is incomparable to any other subversive action that could be taken against Islam. Perhaps no intentional plan could demonstrate such a violent, cruel, and bloodthirsty image of the people of the Middle East and the Muslims of the world with such low costs.” [5]

Some papers in the Muslim world such as al-Akhbar (Cairo) have taken that argument one step farther, and suggested that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden remains in the pay of the Central Intelligence Agency. [6] While such arguments may seem fanciful to readers in the West, they none the less carry great significance in the Arab and Islamic world, where they suggest that the tide of public opinion is beginning to turn against the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Very clearly, a new battle in the war on terrorism – a psychological battle – has now been joined in the Arab and Islamic world. That battle has been underscored by the leading Saudi paper al-Sharq al-Awsat, which not only predicts the demise of al-Qaeda, but also refers to the groups activities as “black terrorism”. [7]


1. Watkins, Eric. “ABB Lummus vacates Yanbu; Saudis vow to crush terrorists.” Oil & Gas Journal. 10 May 04.

2. “Saudi Aramco: Departure Of Foreign Workers Not An Exodus.” Dow Jones Newswires. 28 Jun 04.

3. “Saudi Campaign Against Extremism Having Little Effect.” Dow Jones Newswires. 19 Jun 04.

4. Ibid

5. Rustayi, Farzaneh. “Separating From Fundamentalists.” Tehran Sharq. 23 Jun 04.

6. Qandil, Muhammad Wajdi. “Bin Laden and U.S. Intelligence!” Cairo al-Akhbar. 23 Jun 04. “Al-Qaeda operations raise a great deal of doubts about the leadership of this organization and its activities: For whom does it work? And in whose interest does it carry out these attacks against civilian targets in Arab countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia?”

7. Al-Rab’i, Ahmad. “Terrorism and its Environment in the Kingdom”. al-Sharq al-Awsat. 21 Jun 04.