The terrorist attack on Khobar, Saudi Arabia—the hub of the Saudi oil industry—by four al-Qaeda operatives on May 29, 2004, provided a significant morale boost for al-Qaeda. The attack resulted in the deaths of 22 foreigners. The jihadi forums used this attack to boast about their strength and the righteousness of their cause. After the Khobar operation, two significant documents were released on the jihadi forums. One of the documents was authored by a well-known jihadist who uses the pseudonym Oweis Bradley. Bradley’s document is in the form of an undated letter that is titled, “Al-Qaeda and the Shaking of the Oil Nets,” where he recites the details of the Khobar attack . The second document provides a more in-depth account of the attack, provided by the leader of the group that performed the operation, Turki bin Fahd al-Moteiri (known as Fawwaz al-Nashami), in an interview with al-Qaeda’s journal Sawt al-Jihad on June 15, 2004 (he was killed later that month by Saudi security forces in Riyadh) .
After studying these two documents, lessons can be learned from a security standpoint on what went wrong in preventing and managing the Khobar terrorism attack . It is important to analyze the Khobar incident to better prepare counter-terrorism units to avoid the same mistakes in the future.
The Shaking of the Oil Nets
In his posting on the forums, Oweis Bradley expresses admiration and amazement of al-Qaeda operatives whom he calls “al-Qaeda soldiers.” He states that the toughest al-Qaeda operation in the Arab peninsula was the attack on the Khobar compound by four members of al-Quds Brigade, a division of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Bradley, in an epical diction, recites the details of the attack, citing Arabic poems in between, glorifying al-Qaeda operatives and sarcastically mocking the security forces’ debilitation and predicament. In addition, Bradley talks about the economic impact of the attack on the oil industry, quoting press reports from the Financial Times showing the international concern over Saudi Arabia’s oil supplies. He castigates the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, for announcing on Fox News the rescue of seven U.S. hostages without any reference to the other non-American hostages. Finally, he points out the advantages of the attack for al-Qaeda:
– The negative economic effect on the Saudi government and the West.
– The media coverage enjoyed by al-Qaeda during and after the attack.
– The pursuant interview with the group’s cell leader, Turki bin Fahd al-Moteiri, which was considered a big morale boost for other al-Qaeda operatives.
One interesting notion in Bradley’s letter is his call to the mujahideen to repeat such hostage-taking operations instead of the use of suicide attacks. The Khobar attack was the first al-Qaeda barricaded hostage-taking incident in Saudi Arabia. It seems that Oweis Bradley is famous and influential among the jihadists since the forum moderator introduces his letter as one in a great series of the resplendent Bradley’s literature.
Interview with Turki bin Fahd al-Moteiri
The leader of the cell that attacked Khobar, Turki Moteiri, gave an interview to al-Qaeda’s journal Sawt al-Jihad published on June 15, 2004. The interview is important since it can be used to draw lessons on how the Saudi security forces can better confront such incidents in the future. Moteiri said the attack was supposed to be a suicide bombing operation. Moteiri and his three cell members—Nemer al-Baqmi, Hussain and Nader—drove in a bomb-laden Nissan Maxima car to the Khobar compound on May 29, 2004 at 5:45 AM. Al-Qaeda operatives were expecting tougher resistance at certain posts and were planning to detonate the car in a suicide attack at the first crowded location. Instead, they did not face significant resistance and decided to abandon the car and proceed on a discriminate killing mission. The objective then changed from suicide bombing to hostage-taking. The chronology of the attack was as follows:
06:00 AM – 2:00 PM:
– The terrorists approached one of the compound gates, broke through, confronted an executive of the Arab Oil Investment Company, a subsidiary of the U.S. company Halliburton, killed him and dragged his corpse around the compound.
– They killed the driver of one of two approaching security patrol cars and eluded the second car. While proceeding to the second target, the cell overran a joint Saudi-U.S. ambush, probably by the security detail permanently assigned to the Khobar compound.
– The second target was a building housing many companies in Oasis Residential Resort, which comprises apartments and villas for primarily the expatriates working for the companies in the compound. The attackers spared Muslims and killed two more non-Muslims.
– Five hours into the attack, the assailants moved freely to a hotel in the compound and held hostages. An Italian hostage was killed in the hotel.
2:00 PM – 9:00 PM:
– The terrorists repel a rescue attempt by security forces, kill the security assault team leader and injure other officers.
9:00 PM – Next Morning
– The terrorists left the hotel from a back exit. They were only detected outside of the hotel in the compound.
– The terrorists fought their way out of the compound and killed many security forces in the process.
– By dawn the next day, the terrorists were safely out and away from the compound.
Aside from the security forces’ casualties, the terrorists killed eight Indians, two Sri Lankans, one Swede, one South African, three Saudis, one American, one Italian, three Filipinos, one Briton and one 10-year old Egyptian boy (https://www.aawsat.com, May 31, 2004).
From the described operations, it is clear that the terrorists moved at their leisure in the compound. They ate breakfast and took turns sleeping at the hotel. They even gave an interview to al-Jazeera television over the phone and forced the Italian hostage to plead for his life to al-Jazeera before they killed him. The fact that the terrorist cell was miles away by the next morning on May 30, watching counter-terrorism forces landing on the hotel rooftop from a helicopter in a hostage rescue charade, was painfully humiliating for the security forces later on. The security forces never attempted another rescue operation after they failed in the initial attempt while the terrorists were still at the hotel.
Failures in Managing the Khobar Crisis
Clearly, the security forces failed to take proper action before and during the Khobar crisis. Beforehand, there were many indications of an imminent terrorist attack on the oil industry, such as:
– May 1, 2004, four terrorists attacked petrochemical facilities in the city of Yanbu on Saudi Arabia’s western coast. Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin, al-Qaeda’s leader in Saudi Arabia (who was killed after the Khobar attack in a security hunt), claimed responsibility for the operation (Arab News, May 15, 2005).
– The warning of further attacks similar to Yanbu by Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin on May 4, 2004 (CNN Arabic, May 4, 2004).
In light of these forewarnings, national crisis management teams should periodically revise their preplanned crisis management procedures and modify it based upon lessons learned from previous incidents. Obviously, the Khobar attack demonstrated that the security forces failed to revise and implement better crisis management procedures as a result of previous terrorism experiences, much less any basic crisis management procedures, which are:
– Notification of the right crisis management authorities by the security forces first on the scene, which are usually the police.
– The mobilization of counter-terrorism forces in the order of priority to shorten the response time as much as possible. In Khobar, it took crisis management forces five hours to reach the terrorists at the hotel. Authorities arrived at the hotel around 11 AM.
– Isolate ground zero by imposing an outer cordon for special police units.
– Confine the hostage-takers by imposing an inner cordon for special hostage rescue assault units. Fifteen hours into the crisis, the terrorists slipped out of the barricaded command post in the hotel and fought their way out of the crisis scene.
– Assign terrorist negotiators to initiate contact with the terrorists before attempting any rescue operation. The purpose of negotiations is to gain time needed by assault units to prepare their rescue plan, obtain as much intelligence as possible from the terrorists and try to manipulate them to surrender. All through the Khobar incident, no serious attempts were made by the authorities to initiate negotiations with the hostage-takers, consequently killing and injuring security officers in an unplanned rescue attempt.
– Set up technical units between the outer and inner cordons to collect intelligence through technical means and jam or monitor any communications by the terrorists. As mentioned above, the terrorists in Khobar gave uninterrupted interviews to al-Jazeera television over the phone.
Crises are unexpected events that require special assets and unique responses. Terrorism crisis management is similar to any other crisis management except the fact that almost all agencies of government must come together, under previously designated leadership, to manage incidents in time-critical situations. The interagency cooperation was also missing in Khobar because the only intervening party was the counter-terrorism unit of the Special Forces, which landed on the hotel rooftop. All other security forces on the crisis scene, be it the police or civil defense units, should have also had major roles in solving the crisis. Instead, they suffered from confusion, lack of proper chain of command and lack of cohesion.
Many countries are partners in the global war on terrorism, allocating money and efforts in training counter-terrorism units. The financial burdens are necessary in order to send the most technologically up-to-date operational equipment needed by counter-terrorism forces to successfully carry out their missions. The big budgets and efforts exerted in the fight against terrorism are necessary considering the disastrous consequences of terrorism. It seems, however, that the security forces in Khobar were caught off-guard by al-Qaeda’s daring raid.
For the successful handling of any terrorism crisis, a state should frequently update emergency and contingency plans in concurrence with the changing trends of terrorism. Those plans should stipulate the lead agency in a crisis, the responsibilities of each and every agency and conduct periodical joint excises in simulated crisis scenarios. Had that been the case in Khobar, the security forces would have been able to contain the situation, arrest or kill the terrorists and prevent setting a precedent for future terrorists. Also, properly securing an ongoing terrorism operation provides an opportunity for crisis negotiators to dissuade and neutralize the assailants. If proper cordons were set up in the Khobar attacks, negotiators could have used the counseling techniques practiced on imprisoned terrorists, along with basic negotiation skills, to settle the crisis.