The Threat of Oil Jihad


Mar 3, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on March 3, 2006.

WASHINGTON, March 3 (UPI) — The Feb. 24 unsuccessful terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia on the world's largest oil processing facility was intended to bring jihad to the wallets of consumers around the world. It prompted nervous buyers to bid up the price of a barrel of light crude oil by $2.37, or roughly 4 percent, on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

With global oil consumption at 82 million barrels a day, almost $200 million will move from buyers to sellers for every day that prices stay this high. In the United States, it means an additional $47 million a day out of our pockets.

The price of oil should not stay as high as buyers realize that oil continues to flow, and providing there are no further attacks. Still, apprehensions will remain as global consumption of oil continues to grow. As President George W. Bush pointed out in his State of the Union address, "America is addicted to oil" — and nothing makes an addict more nervous or more willing to pay a higher price than threatening his future supply.

But it is important not to overreact to this one attack. Sabotaging an oil refinery or terminal is not easy. These are huge and inherently robust targets, extremely well-guarded in Saudi Arabia, and hard to put out of action. To be effective, sabotage must be sophisticated or sustained, which is hard to do outside of a war zone. Most of the jihadist attacks since September 11, 2001 have been aimed at softer targets where a high body count appears to have been the sole objective.

"Al-Qaida of the Arab Peninsula," an offshoot of al-Qaida central led by Osama bin Laden, claimed responsibility for this first attack on a Saudi oil facility and vowed it would stage more attacks. In the past, al-Qaida refrained from attacking Saudi Arabia's oil facilities because it hoped to eventually gain control of them. Al-Qaida wanted to use oil revenues to fund the continuing jihad after the Americans had been driven out of the kingdom and the Saudi regime collapsed.

Instead, Saudi terrorists attacked the oil industry's human infrastructure, targeting residential compounds where many expatriate employees live, along with oil company offices and individual Westerners.

Meanwhile, insurgents in Iraq continued their campaign of sabotage against the Iraqi oil industry — averaging eight attacks a month, mostly pipeline bombings. The insurgents failed in an attempt to damage Basra's oil hub, but succeeded in severing a major pipeline that cut Iraq's production by 30 percent. Sabotage has kept Iraqi oil production 27 percent below its pre-war level.

Reminding his followers that "the biggest reason for our enemies' control over our lands is to steal our oil," bin Laden exhorted jihadists in December 2004 to "give everything you can to stop the greatest theft of oil in history."

Contending that the West was getting oil on the cheap, bin Laden said oil should sell for a $100 a barrel, a 65 percent increase over today's prices.

A later posting on a jihadist Web site urged attacks on oil facilities. The price of crude jumped 5 percent the following day as militants in Iraq carried out more attacks on oil pipelines.

The continued fighting in Iraq has honed the skills of terrorists in urban guerrilla warfare, bomb-making and sabotage. If these enhanced kills spread throughout the jihadist enterprise, terrorists' operational capabilities would improve worldwide. This is particularly worrisome for Saudi Arabia, which has supplied 12 percent of the foreign insurgents fighting in Iraq.

While Saudi Arabia appears to have contained the challenge from al-Qaida terrorists so far, the nation has not put al-Qaida out of action, as the recent attack demonstrates. When Saudi veterans of the Iraqi insurgency come home with new capabilities, the situation could worsen.

But while terrorist attacks may cause temporary spikes in the price of oil, lasting price increases are the consequence of armed conflict, embargoes and basic economics. The big increases in the price of oil have come from the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the Iranian revolution, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and a series of deliberate cuts in production to raise prices.

The anxiety that keeps oil prices high today and sends them soaring at each new worrisome headline is driven not by fears of a single terrorist attack, but rather by growing pressure on global supplies of readily accessible crude and nightmare scenarios that envision the Persian Gulf turned into a war zone. This could happen in one of several ways.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was warned by Middle East leaders recently, escalating sectarian violence pitting Sunnis against Shiites could spread across the Middle East. Or Saudi terrorists inspired by al-Qaida's ideology and reinforced by veterans returning from Iraq could re-ignite a more effective campaign that would truly shake the Saudi monarchy.

Alternatively, the looming Western confrontation with Iran over that country's suspected efforts to develop nuclear weapons could escalate to economic sanctions, embargoes, blockade, increased violence by Shiites in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and attacks on oil facilities and tankers, culminating in a major regional war. With a third of the world's supplies affected in some way, oil prices could easily surpass bin Laden's dream of $100 a barrel.

© 2006 United Press International

Brian Michael Jenkins, an authority on terrorism, is senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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