26 September 2005
As hurricanes batter the American coast and send oil prices up, Al Qaeda is watching, and drawing lessons.
By Christopher Dickey
Oct. 3, 2005 issue - The shoot-out earlier this month around a seafront villa in the Saudi Arabian city of Ad Dammam lasted almost 48 hours, and ended only when security forces brought in light artillery. They blasted the opulent home until the roof came down on the people inside. In the immediate aftermath police said they couldn't tell from the charred remains just how many members of "a deviant group" had died in the battle. Finally, with DNA tests, they counted five. Police also found enough weapons for a couple of platoons of guerrilla fighters. The inventory given out by the Saudi Interior Ministry included more than 60 hand grenades and pipe bombs, pistols, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, two barrels full of explosives, video equipment, a large amount of cash and forged documents.
It was the documents that really set off alarms. According to a Saudi Interior Ministry statement, they included forged passes to enter "important locations." The Saudi daily Okaz quoted the minister, Prince Nayef, saying the cell—which was linked directly to Al Qaeda—had planned major attacks on some of Saudi Arabia's key oil and gas facilities. "There isn't a place that they could reach that they didn't think about," said Nayef. And their ultimate target was the global economy. Saudi Arabia is the greatest source of oil on earth, with a quarter of known reserves and a proven policy of trying to stabilize prices even in today's volatile markets.
If the incident made few headlines at the time, it's because it ended on Sept. 6, when the United States—and oil traders—were focused on the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Yet precisely because of the shortages brought on by that storm and the damage still being counted from Hurricane Rita, Saudi Arabia is more important than ever to world oil supplies. What's worse, according to several analysts, Al Qaeda knows it. "They're watching Katrina. They're watching Rita. They're watching what it's doing to the United States," says former CIA agent Robert Baer, who has written extensively on Saudi Arabia's vulnerabilities. A few ruptured pipes could be repaired quickly, says Baer, but a concerted attack at several points could bring on the kind of nightmare scenario that U.S. officials have been dreading since the Reagan years, pushing oil prices up from their current prices in the range of $60 to $70 a barrel to well over $100 for weeks or even months.
Since Al Qaeda's campaign of terror inside Saudi Arabia began in 2003, the Saudis have dramatically stepped up protection of their oil installations. Security forces have issued several lists of their most-wanted terrorists, and tracked down or killed most of them. (Four of the five in Ad Dammam were on the latest lists.) Officials have sought to reassure the world that the terrorists are on the run. Anthony Cordesman at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, among others, has backed up that basic analysis.
Yet the cells seem to be replaced almost as quickly as they're taken down. The brother of one of those killed in Ad Dammam, himself a wanted terrorist named Muhammad Abdelrahman Al-Suwailimi, put a voice message on the Web afterward claiming the incident was exaggerated by authorities. He also thanked the infamous terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, in neighboring Iraq, for his support. Saudi Arabia now is increasingly concerned about the potential blowback of disintegration in Iraq. "I don't see how the Arab countries are going to be left out of the conflict in one way or another," said Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal last week. "I think this is what is going to happen if things continue as they are."
Precisely what the Dammam cell intended to hit, if known, has not been revealed in any detail. But, as Baer points out, Saudi Arabia is a target-rich environment. Certain critical nodes in the general vicinity of Ad Dammam have worried American strategists for years. Past studies suggest a moderate-to-severe attack on the Abqaiq oil-processing facilities, for instance, could cut Saudi output (now about 9.6 million barrels a day) by more than 4 million barrels for two months or more.
Al Qaeda has used suicide boats before. A successful hit against a major offshore loading facility at either Ras Tanura or Juaymah would knock millions of barrels off the market. Baer wrote in 2003 that "a single jumbo jet with a suicide bomber at the controls ... crashed into the heart of Ras Tanura, would be enough to bring the world's oil-addicted economies to their knees." After the one-two punch from Katrina and Rita, it might not take that much.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.