TCS Daily


Terror Pipeline

By John R. Bradley - September 22, 2005 12:00 AM

An unprecedented acknowledgement by the Saudi interior ministry that a terrorist cell eliminated recently by the security forces in Dammam was planning to attack key oil installations, coupled with a near-simultaneous revelation that four Iraqi insurgents had been engaged in a gun battle in nearby Jubail, heightens fears that a call in December by Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden for attacks on the kingdom's oil infrastructure have struck a chord with battle-hardened Saudi insurgents.

In his first direct message to Saudi militants, bin Laden's main aim in the December address did not appear to be the destruction of major installations, which would rob the Saudi people of their primary means of financial income and turn them completely against him and his cause.

Rather, it was acts of sabotage that would increase oil prices, which he said should be $100 a barrel. In other words, the goal was to punish the West, rather than the Al-Saud ruling family. Saudi Arabia has more than a quarter of the world's known oil reserves, and even an abortive attack on the Saudi petroleum network would raise oil prices. Both Dammam and Jubail are in the heart of the oil-rich Eastern Province.

The Al-Saud would stand to gain financially from the immediate consequences of any such attack, as it has been doing from the chaos in Iraq and its own domestic war on terror, both of which have contributed to pushing oil prices to unprecedented highs. A midyear financial report by the Samba Financial Group, one of the largest and most profitable private banks in the kingdom, said oil revenue this year is already expected to reach $157 billion, a 48-percent increase over 2004's oil revenue of $106 billion.

The claim by the Saudi interior ministry that the four Iraqi insurgents in Jubail were "car thieves" seems preposterous, even by the fictitious precedents set by official Saudi government statements on terrorism-related matters. What their arrest reveals, in any case, is that it is apparently as easy for Iraqi insurgents to sneak into Saudi Arabia undetected as it is for Saudis to make their way into Iraq.

The terrorism in the two countries is now clearly feeding off each other. Even Saudi terrorism experts have acknowledged that thousands of Saudi jihadis have snuck over to join the insurgency in Iraq. Many will have been trained in urban warfare, including instruction on how to sabotage oil pipelines. As was the case after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, these Saudis are going to bring their terrorism back home with them.

A confidential Interior Ministry document obtained by a London-based Saudi dissident group, The Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, apparently acknowledges that 200 Saudis may have already returned to the kingdom in the wake of bin Laden's call.

Bin Laden's December tape was also of historic significance because it effectively reversed a fatwa issued by Al-Qaeda in Sudan in 1993 which, according to Middle East expert Amir Taheri, had labeled oilfields in Muslim countries as off-limits because their revenues would be needed to fund a pan-Islamic empire. This shift in emphasis has not fallen on deaf ears among Al-Qaeda operatives. According to the Washington-based SITE Institute, which monitors Islamist websites, an operative on a password-protected Al-Qaeda-affiliated forum described on Aug 19 what the author believed to be "conclusive weapons".

The Al-Qaeda member elaborated that to destroy the oil pipelines in Saudi Arabia would have greater power than a chemical weapon, would be easier to carry out than a car bomb, and at the same time would create a "big economic disaster for the American public". He noted, echoing Bin Laden in December, that this tactic is a "prudent method" of inflicting damage on the American economy.

The message gave eight reasons an operation targeting Saudi Arabian oil pipelines is important. These included rising oil prices, placing a strain on the Saudi-US relationship, and spreading low morale among American soldiers in Iraq.

"When the American public realizes that the Iraqi war had brought these economic crises, they will demand a prompt withdrawal from Iraq," the poster predicted, in a chilling echo of Internet statements calling for attacks in Spain before the March 2004 general election, months before they were actually carried out. The operative provided detailed maps depicting the layout of the pipelines, before concluding: "Start it, start it, Al-Qaeda men!"

Just weeks later, Saudi security forces were battling the cell which the interior ministry said was planning to sabotage the oil industry.

"We expect the worst from those who went to Iraq," Interior Minister Prince Naif said in uncharacteristically frank remarks published in July. "They will be worse [than those who have already launched attacks], and we will be ready for them."

Whether or not that is true will largely determine Al-Qaeda's future in Saudi Arabia. In the meantime, the issue of the kingdom's largely unprotected vast oil pipeline network should remain a cause of immense concern.

John R. Bradley's book, Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis, has just been published. He has written on Saudi and wider Middle East issues for The Washington Quarterly, New Republic, Salon, Washington Times, Economist, London Sunday Times, Independent, and London Telegraph. His website is www.johnrbradley.com

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