A series of documents recently (re)circulating on the internet continue to underline a pressing jihadist interest in targeting U.S. economic assets. Some of these documents are quite explicit and detailed, giving indications of specific pipelines and facilities to attack—not only in the Gulf, but wherever in the world such assets can be targeted. Terrorism Focus highlighted last month (Volume II, Issue 23) how Ayman al-Zawahiri has been urging the targeting of oil installations in the Gulf States as part of the “bleed-until-bankruptcy” strategy against the United States. More broadly, this strategy was underlined in posting last October on the forum Minbar Suriya al-Islami of Abu Musab al-Najdi’s Al-Qaeda’s Battle is an Economic Battle, Not a Military One, in which the targeting was extended to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela (www.nnuu.org.vb).
Yet a more detailed treatment on this strategy re-appeared last month on the Al-Safinat forum (https://188.8.131.52/~alsafnat/vb). The document authored by “Abu Yusuf 911” and entitled Targets for Jihad: a response to the words of Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri, is an extended exposition of the potential vulnerabilities of Western economies in the Middle East and around the world. The author details how best the mujahideen can strike America’s “economic joints,” understood in the sense of strategic centers of gravity. He divides the targeting for the mujahideen into sectors. The first is “Islamic lands seized by the Crusaders.” Iraq heads the list, and here the treatise advises that the effort should not be on destroying what remains of the oil infrastructures but rather on depriving the enemy of financial gain from this “booty of war”—either by limiting exports or preventing the Americans from using the oil as fuel for their tanks, armored vehicles, aircraft, or ships. The author therefore advises the striking of bases used for these purposes. This is accompanied by URLs providing information, maps, and images on distribution networks, transportation hubs and military fuel supply depots.
Following Iraq are the Afghanistan and Central Asian arenas. The treatise cites (with accompanying URLs) U.S. and Western strategic theories on the region, mentioning by name the book The Grand Chessboard by former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and featuring analyses by Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. Congress Reports. This section, which also cites revenue from heroin production as a U.S. strategic target, gives details on pipeline, refineries, and pumping stations, focusing in particular on the Caspian Sea sector, and providing names and addresses of companies associated with the industry.
The second sector for activity are territories through which oil wealth passes, focusing on the United States and the state of Alaska in particular. The Alaska section is furnished with URLs that provide information on its oil distribution infrastructure, capacities, routes, facts and figures, and notably the Wall Street Journal article by Jim Carlton (October 8, 2001) detailing the attack on the pipeline and its “vulnerability to sabotage.” The author suggests attacking it during the months of June and July, and at the pipeline’s most isolated point, ideally in a heavily-wooded area so that an accompanying forest fire will maximize the delays to repairing the pipeline. States crucial in oil production and storage such as Texas, California, Louisiana and Oklahoma are also featured. As to the mujahideen most suitable for such operations, Abu Yusuf suggests “our Muslim brothers living in the land of the American rabble,” (non-American) Muslims temporarily resident in the U.S., or mujahideen groups of four to five members that can enter the U.S. either directly or via Canada or Mexico. Each group should define itself according to the principal pipeline networks, so that their operations should cover the area covered by each major pipeline, and include production facilities, oil fields and pumping stations.
The Targets for Jihad treatise earlier appeared in March 2005 on the Risalat al-Umma forum (www.alommh.net). Again, at that time the posting followed a recent warning by Ayman al-Zawahiri’s, on a videotape message aired by al-Jazeera, that the Western powers faced defeat through the collapse of their economies. The smaller original of the present 12-page treatise was first posted with reference to the sermon by Bin Laden on ‘strategic directives on jihadist targets’ posted on May 3 2003, and concluded with a note that these were “initial thoughts” to which readers could make “major additions.”
Since then, interest in the potential of catastrophic reverse for the US and western powers has been re-kindled on the jihad forums by the recent spate of natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita) or accidents (the UK oil depot fire at Hemel Hempstead). While in Iraq attacks and threats of attacks on pipelines, refineries and oil-related transportation are frequent, the planned jihadi application of this strategy has not yet been observed outside Iraq.
The strategy is certainly being taken seriously on the web and is generating research traffic. The same day as the December Targets for Jihad posting, one identifying himself as Abu Saqr called for the updating of the document’s links that had lapsed, and the collation of “all the available illustrations for the project into one file.” Convinced that the attacks on U.S. oil interests “will inflame the final war between them and us, and lead to their downfall,” Abu Saqr further took up the baton, promising to collaborate with “friends who have completed advanced studies in aerial photography and surveying” on a “complete and professional study of the subject, so as to offer it to the mujahideen and those who are at the forefront of jihad initiatives.” He also once broadened the call for “participation from forum readers who are experts in petrochemical engineering, distribution networks and pumps,” specifying the need for “PDF documents of books relevant to the subject.” Abu Saqr then concludes by promising that the completed PDF document “will be distributed over the largest possible number of forums.”
This treatise is notable for two reasons, which more broadly underlines the significant of the internet for the jihad. One is the element of collective endeavor that the author encourages, highlighting the speed of communication and the potential power that dispersed jihadi sympathizers across the globe can focus on a single project. The second is the facility for data mining that the web provides, allowing instant access not only to academic research data but also sensitive infrastructure details of utilities, distribution and transport networks, as well as threat and vulnerability perceptions of these facilities—which governments are now offering at ever greater levels of transparency. With official discussion papers circulating on strategically useful areas such as the functioning of intelligence and security agencies (often highlighting their deficiencies) or counter-terrorism methodology, the Internet eloquently illustrates the dictum made by an al-Qaeda training manual recovered in Afghanistan: “Using public sources openly and without resorting to illegal means, it is possible to gather at least 80 percent of all information required about the enemy.”