ABQAIQ, Saudi Arabia, Asharq Al-Awsat and Agencies – Suicide bombers in explosives-laden cars attacked the world’s largest oil processing facility Friday, but were prevented from breaking through the gates when guards opened fire on them, causing the vehicles to explode, officials said.
The price of oil jumped by more than US$1.20 on world markets as they heard of the attack. The April delivery price of Nymex sweet light crude, the U.S. benchmark, rose $1.26 to $61.80.
The European benchmark, Brent crude, leaped $1.21 to $61.75 for April delivery. It was the first attack on an oil facility in Saudi Arabia, and it targeted one of the kingdoms most important. The huge Abqaiq processing facility near the Gulf coast handles around two-thirds of the country’s oil output, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Intelligence Agency.
Saudi Arabia has been waging a fierce three-year crackdown on al-Qaeda militants, who launched a campaign in 2003 with a string of attacks, mostly targeting foreigners. In May 2004, militants attacked oil company offices in two cities. There was no immediate word on who was behind the attack.
The attack began about 3pm. The two cars used in the attack had been disguised to look like ARAMCO vehicles, enabling the terrorists to enter the complex. But the tight security around the oil plant foiled their plans and the guards did not allow them to enter. The terrorists then shot at the security guards and exploded their cars. Thirteen Security guards were injured and were taken to hospital for treatment
In exclusive statements to Asharq al Awsat, Lieutenant Mansour al Turki, Interior Ministry spokesman, said that it was difficult to tell how many terrorists had participate in the failed attack as their bodies were blown to pieces when the cars they were driving exploded. He added that two gueards were critically wounded.
He stressed that the operation was a criminal and cowardly act that was thwarted because of the alertness of the security services.
Al-Naimi, the oil minister, said that ARAMCO employees were able to foil the suicide attack on the refinery and indicated that a small controlled fire had erupted as result of the explosion but would not affect oil or gas production.”
The attack had raised fears militants adopted a new tactic, trying to emulate Iraqi insurgents, who have succeeded in hobbling that country’s oil industry with sabotage and attacks, said Dubai-based political risk analyst Youssef Ibrahim of the Strategic Energy Investment Group.
“In Iraq they zeroed in on oil and this appears to be a creeping process, since it is happening in Saudi Arabia,” Ibrahim said.
With over 260 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, a quarter of the world’s total, Saudi Arabia is the top foreign supplier to the United States and is the main source of liquidity in the world market.
Saudi Arabia maintains crude oil production capacity of around 10.5-11.0 million barrels a day, and claims that it is “easily capable” of producing up to 15 million bbl/d in the future and maintaining The Abqaiq facility processes about 5-7 million barrels a day. Of this production, 93% is for export, so it is loaded directly into oceangoing tankers, the remainder being used for local consumption.
On May 1 2004, attackers stormed the offices of Houston-based Oil Company in the western Saudi oil hub of Yanbu, killing six Westerners and a Saudi before Saudi security forces killed the attackers. Several weeks later, al-Qaeda-linked gunmen stormed oil company compounds in Khobar, on the eastern coast, and took hostages. Twenty-two people, 19 of them foreigners, were killed by the time the siege ended.
In December 2004, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden for the first time called on militants to attack oil targets in the Gulf to stop the flow of oil to the West.
Speaking after attacks on the Saudi economic installations in May 2004, Abdullah bin Salah al Jumaa revealed that an estimated five thousand highly trained security guards are responsible for protecting the country’s oil installations. “New security procedures have been adopted lately, in the wake of the attacks, including stricter inspection and the placing government forces to guard oil installations.”
He said, “The security includes electrified fences, surveillance cameras, guard dogs trained to sniff out explosives, and more than 5000 guards from ARAMCO as well as government forces who guard oil installations by helicopter, with assistance from Saudi coastguards and ARAMCO boats.”
“Our security philosophy used to be based on not allowing those without permits to access the installations. It is now a more defensive strategy outlawing entry by force.”
Jumaa had stated, “Even if acts of sabotage were to occur in any region across the 15 thousand mile long oil pipelines, oil exports will continue.”