The failed terrorist attack last week on one of Saudi Arabia’s oil installations did not come as a big surprise to anybody following the latest developments in the kingdom’s war on terrorism. The truth about the failure of this most recent attack has also not come as a surprise to anybody familiar with the scope and directions of developments in this struggle. Three fundamental elements or facts stand out in any attempt to analyze this incident:
The first fact is that terrorist groups in Saudi Arabia are in a real predicament and they are reeling from the deep wounds left by successive blows that Saudi security agencies have succeeded in dealing these groups, especially over the past two years. This has created a state of desperation and confusion in the leaderships of these groups both at home and abroad and has led them to conduct any terrorist operation for the sake of asserting their existence, which is beginning to fade. A terrorist attack was therefore expected eventually.
The second fact is that an attack targeting oil facilities in the nation was also anticipated. Public appeals by the leaderships of terrorist organizations obliging their elements to attack “petroleum interests” and an increased emphasis on the high value of these targets had also increased recently.
The third fact is that the failure of the terrorist operation against the oil facility did not come as a surprise. National security agencies, in cooperation with oil organizations, took elaborate and extensive measures in order to provide adequate protection for these vital facilities. This reduced the likelihood of a successful terrorist attack against these targets. There are more than 20,000 security personnel active in providing protection for oil facilities in Saudi Arabia today, supported by the latest modern technology. This does not necessarily mean that oil facilities in Saudi Arabia are impregnable to any attack but it does mean that an assault against these targets will not be easy or straight-forward and that the possibilities to foil or limit the effects of a terrorist attack will be much greater than the likelihood of its success.
The attempted terrorist attack on the oil facilities in the Abqaiq area also coincided with the escape of 23 terrorists belonging to the Al-Qaeda organization during the first week of this month from a Yemeni prison. This prompted the responsible security agencies in Saudi Arabia to declare a state of alert and emergency in order to deal with possibility that they would enter Saudi territory and communicate with domestic sleeper cells, especially in light of the fact that approximately half of these escaped terrorists had been extradited by Saudi security agencies to Yemeni authorities after pains and efforts were made to arrest them in Saudi Arabia. These same terrorists were also previously engaged in terrorist activities in Saudi Arabia and have organizational connections and contacts in the field to terrorist groups inside Saudi Arabia. The position in Saudi Arabia towards the surprise prison break of individuals convicted of crimes of terrorism was mixed between watching and waiting for the consequences that this prison break would entail for Saudi Arabia’s stability and security in addition to regret and embarrassment over the occurrence of a serious event such as the mass outbreak of elements of the most dangerous terrorist organization without the serious degree of cooperation that this portentous matter merited, regionally or internationally, from the responsible Yemeni authorities.
One asks the question: Why did terrorist organizations attempt an attack on the oil facilities in Abqaiq and what led to planning an attack on such facilities as well as to the encouragement by the leaderships of terrorist organizations, secretly and publicly, for their elements to plot the destruction of the oil facilities? There are various factors that make oil facilities and installations or transportation and power supply facilities in general, attractive targets for an attack by terrorist groups. The primary factor is the fact that oil is a strategic material whose value and importance is incomparable with any other commodity. It sets the pace of present civilization. For oil producing and exporting nations, petroleum represents the fundamental origin for their sources of national wealth. Attacking and incapacitating oil installations would deal a severe blow to the state. Incapacitating oil facilities would embarrass the nation and cast doubt on its ability to provide services for the average citizen as well as its ability to provide for the pace of economic development within the country and for those things that fundamentally rely on refined oil products, beginning with the production of electrical power, the communications sector, and all basic services in general. The second factor is that an attack on oil installations is relatively easy to carry out and it would yield significant returns from a political and technological point of view. Oil-producing nations characteristically have large numbers of oil facilities distributed over a wide geographical area that are impossible to conceal. These facilities include oil wells, production stations, collection centers, oil pipelines, pumping stations, ports, loading platforms, oil tankers, and other things belonging to the facility’s vast substructure. The third factor involves the material nature of oil in its chemical composition and structure. Oil is a highly inflammable and combustible material and any minor attack targeting oil storage facilities would lead to a major explosion and ignite a fire that would be difficult to control and may last for days. The final factor is extremely important and involves the fact that any attack on oil installations in oil-producing nations would produce repercussions and breakdowns on an international level. The world oil market, especially in light of its being subject to an imbalance between supply and demand, would be faced with an excess in international demand against supply, and concern would therefore grow over any developments that would lead to a drop in oil production and export. Attacks on oil targets would therefore not only present a local but also an international attraction that would be foremost in the calculations of terrorist groups that continuously desire to expand their sphere of influence and pressure in addition to the guarantee of international advertising for their operations on an international level that attacks on anything connected to the production of oil and energy would definitely provide.
Over the past three years, the world has witnessed a degree of activity of terrorist operations targeting oil facilities that have occurred or are occurring in the Iraqi theater of conflict. Based on official Iraqi Government statistics, terrorist sabotage operations directed against oil facilities collectively have cost the state an excess of $6 billion during the past year alone. Nearly 186 terrorist attacks of all varieties targeting oil facilities have been recorded, including operations to blow up oil wells and oil pipeline networks (pipeline networks for export abroad, pipeline networks to supply crude oil for refineries, and pipeline networks to transport oil products). But what is happening in Iraq represents an exceptional situation and must not be generalized. The losses in the Iraqi oil sector are the result of the overall situation gripping the country caused by the collapse of security in the nation in general and this is a situation that has led to repeated terrorist operations against oil facilities on a daily basis. In addition to this, technical agencies have not been able to deal swiftly and effectively with the effects of these acts.
In reality, and in conventional situations, the effects of the majority of terrorist acts against oil facilities are limited. Perhaps the effects themselves are temporary and can be overcome if the nation possesses the technical capabilities to deal with the aftermaths of terrorist operations and if the state has prepared comprehensive emergency plans that may be effective in the event of such occurrences. In addition to this, the state should have a security plan to prevent repetition of these acts and to limit the possibilities of their success and then an attempt to eliminate their sources.
It must also be stated that it is necessary to support and develop security agencies in their human, technical, and training capacities to follow developments in terrorist activities and to be prepared for what may lie ahead in the days to come.