Saudi Oil Facilities: Al-Qaeda’s Next Target?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 4

At a time of record-high oil prices, analysts are beginning to consider the implications of possible terrorist attacks on Middle Eastern oil facilities. The crown jewel of these facilities is Saudi Arabia’s oil production infrastructure. It is worth noting that Saudi Arabia possesses 261.9 billion barrels of proven oil reserves.

On January 19, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden broke a 14-month-long silence to warn that his organization is preparing further attacks against Western targets. Bin Laden said, “The war against America and its allies will not be confined to Iraq…As for similar operations taking place in America, it’s only a matter of time. They are in the planning stages, and you will see them in the heart of your land as soon as the planning is complete” (al-Jazeera, January 19).

Saudi Arabia and its oil have long been in bin Laden’s thoughts; in 1996, he said, “The ordinary Saudi knows that his country is the largest oil producer in the world, yet at the same time he is suffering from taxes and bad services…Our country has become a colony of America…Saudis know their real enemy is America” (UPI Intelligence Watch, March 21, 2005).

Neighboring Iraq demonstrates the crippling effects of an insurgency on oil installations. Since June 2003, there have been 298 recorded attacks against Iraqi oil facilities (Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, http://www.iags.org/iraqpipelinewatch.htm). As of December 2005, Iraqi production was averaging around 1.9 million barrels per day as compared with its January 2003 2.58 million barrels per day production rate (U.S. Energy Information Administration, December 2005). Moreover, the costs of infrastructure attacks are becoming staggering, with the Iraqi oil ministry announcing on February 19 that insurgent attacks had cost the oil industry $6.25 billion in lost revenue during 2005.

Aside from Saudi crude oil production capacity being the world’s largest, at 10.5-11 million barrels per day, Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, controls the world’s only significant excess production capacity, an extra 2.5-3 million barrels per day. This makes the kingdom the world’s only guarantor of liquidity in the oil market. The Saudi economy is heavily dependent on energy, with oil export revenues bringing in around 90-95 percent of total Saudi export earnings, and generating around 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

The country’s hydrocarbon infrastructure, with its massive production fields, ports and 10,000 miles of pipelines, presents a number of opportunities for potential attackers, whose success would have implications far beyond the kingdom, driving the world into recession or depression as energy costs soar.

Over half of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves are contained in just eight massive fields, including the huge 130-mile long, 20-mile wide Ghawar field, covering 2,600 square miles. Ghawar alone accounts for nearly half of Saudi Arabia’s total oil production capacity. Aramco’s skein of pipelines depends on 30 pumping stations, powered by six generators, which would shut down the flow if destroyed. Port facilities are concentrated on a 20-mile stretch of Persian Gulf shoreline from Juaymah to al-Khobar.

Saudi Arabia’s offshore Safaniya oilfield is the largest of its kind in the world, with estimated reserves of 35 billion barrels. Continuing the trend toward gigantism, the Abqaiq refinery 25 miles inland from the Gulf of Bahrain processes about two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s crude oil. On the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia’s Ras Tanura facility is the world’s largest offshore oil loading facility, accounting for a tenth of the world’s daily oil supply. A second loading facility is at Ras al-Juaymah, while Yanbu terminal is located on the Red Sea, supplied from Abqaiq via the 750-mile East-West pipeline.

Terrorist attacks could be easily launched against onshore facilities and tankers. Over 60 percent of the world’s oil is shipped on 3,500 tankers through a small number of “chokepoints” including the Strait of Hormuz, which alone transits 13 million barrels of oil per day.

Al-Qaeda has already carried out maritime attacks on both warships and tankers. On October 6, 2002, the 299,364 DWT-ton French Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) tanker Limburg, carrying a cargo of 397,000 barrels of crude from Iran to Malaysia, was rammed by an explosives-laden boat off the port of Ash Shihr at Mukalla, 353 miles east of Aden. A crewman was killed and the double-hulled tanker was breached. The impact on the Yemeni economy was immediate, as maritime insurers tripled their rates.

Al-Qaeda issued a statement following the attack warning that it “was not an incidental strike at a passing tanker but…on the international oil-carrying line in the full sense of the word,” prompting the U.S. Navy’s Maritime Liaison Office in Bahrain to issue a warning stating that “Shipmasters should exercise extreme caution when transiting…strategic chokepoints such as the Strait of Hormuz, or Bab el-Mandeb, or…traditional high-threat areas such as along the Horn of Africa.”

Al-Qaeda’s cadre of maritime specialists recently received a boost when on February 3, 23 prisoners escaped from a jail in Sanaa. Five days later, Interpol issued a global security alert, a Red Notice, to its 184 member states, as law enforcement officials believe that at least 13 of the fugitives have links to al-Qaeda. Among those who broke out of the prison was Jamal al-Badawi, who was serving a 10-year sentence for his part in the October 12, 2000 bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Aden harbor during a refueling stop; 17 sailors died and 39 more were injured in the attack.

The most worrisome scenario revolves around al-Qaeda crashing a hijacked commercial passenger jet into an oil installation. To consider just one scenario, a jetliner crashing into the Ras Tanura facility could remove 10 percent of the world’s energy imports in one shot.

Former CIA agent Robert Baer has considered the implications of terrorist attacks on Saudi oil facilities, writing, “At the least, a moderate-to-severe attack on Abqaiq would slow average production there from 6.8 million barrels a day to roughly a million barrels for the first two months post-attack, a loss equivalent to approximately one-third of America’s current daily consumption of crude oil. Even as long as seven months after an attack, Abqaiq output would still be about 40 percent of pre-attack output, as much as four million barrels below normal—roughly equal to what all of the OPEC partners collectively took out of production during the devastating 1973 embargo” (see Robert Baer’s Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold our Soul for Saudi Crude). An al-Qaeda assault on Abqaiq would have the added propaganda effect of killing Americans. Abqaiq is an oil-company town; in 2005, nearly half of its approximately 2,000 inhabitants were U.S. citizens.

In the last few years, the Saudis have moved to tighten security around their oil installations. Unlike in Iraq, where insurgent attacks are focused mainly on the country’s hydrocarbon infrastructure, thus far al-Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia have focused on “soft targets,” namely the 3,000 foreign oil workers employed in the kingdom.

On December 16, 2004, bin Laden released an audiotape making an explicit connection between U.S. forces in Iraq and the region’s oil reserves; in the audiotape, he praised the terrorists who attacked the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah. Bin Laden said, “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, for this is their fate” (BBC, December 16, 2004). Three days later, the “al-Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula” posted a message on its website urging its members “to strike all foreign targets and the hideouts of the tyrants to rid the peninsula of the infidels and their supporters. We call on all the mujahideen to target the sources of oil which do not serve the Islamic nation but serve the enemies of the nation” (Agence France Press, December 19, 2004).

Judging by al-Qaeda’s pronouncements, an attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities seems to be only a matter of time. In terms of the global impact of such a strike, Robert Baer provides an extreme but not altogether improbable scenario: “Such an attack would be more economically damaging than a dirty nuclear bomb set off in midtown Manhattan or across from the White House in Lafayette Square…[and] would be enough to bring the world’s oil-addicted economies to their knees, America’s along with them.”