Following the failed Feb. 24 suicide attack on the big Abuqayq oil processing center in the east Saudi oil region of Dammam, al Qaeda operatives were handed fresh guidelines for a total offensive on Saudi and Gulf emirates oil installations. In contrast to the cursory, cut-and-dried style of a Western military directive, counter-terror sources describe the document as running to 140 pages (transmitted via the internet).

Al Qaeda directives are typically voluminous because each operation calls for more than field deployment, logistical support and tactics. As a jihadist operation, specific doctrinal injunctions and prohibitions must be folded into the military guidelines.
This one, entitled Canon for Striking Saudi Oil Installations, reads as much like a religious manifesto as a military plan of campaign.

In the new document, economic warfare is charted as the short cut to a jihad victory. It entails striking at the American Crusader’s economic interests. Currently oil is targeted, not just as an Arab resource but as a font of Muslim wealth. This wealth causes the West to place its foot on Arab necks, making it a liability rather than an asset for the Arabs. Therefore, notwithstanding the colossal revenues generated from the production and export of oil, there is no option but to disrupt the industry, because it has degenerated into a Western lever of domination activated from within the Muslim world. The dos and don’ts of the jihad against oil resources are carefully defined:

1. Targeting oil is now the highest priority of the economic Jihad.

2. Muslim tenets assign the ownership of oil fields to the masters of the land from which it is drawn. Like I pointed out some time ago al Qaeda does not view the Saudi crown as the proper masters of the land; therefore they are not the rightful beneficiaries of its oil riches but thieves and robbers who are fair game for terrorist targeting.

3. This point reinforces Point 2 by affirming that non-believers warrant no title to any resource they may confiscate on Muslim soil.

4. Damaging the properties of non-believers in time of war is a virtuous deed. Since oil ranks as such property, it is incumbent on holy warriors to attack it.

5. It is permissible and obligatory to target Muslim properties which benefit non-believers, especially those which are predetermined for repossession by Muslims.
Our experts note that this point refers to the future as envisioned by al Qaeda.
It is a way of urging the attacks on Saudi oil installations to persist as the means of assuring al Qaeda's recovery of the black gold for the true Muslims after it takes over the rule of Saudi Arabia.

6. Saudi oil targets are divided into four categories by the doctrinal rationale running through the document:

A. The actual oil wells must remain inviolate as long as the sacred cause is served by disrupting other parts of the oil industry. If not, they may be struck - provided a special dispensation is granted by Qaeda’s Supreme Shura Council. Our Islamic experts translate this as meaning that the oil wells are just about untouchable.

B. Preferred targets are oil and gas pipelines because they are easiest to hit for the greatest disruptive damage to exports.

C. Also terminals, pumping stations, processing plants and oil tankers.
But there are important exceptions.
Al Qaeda exempts from attack installations and maritime and overland fuel transport companies owned by private Muslim owners, including Saudi tycoons and wealthy sheiks. No such immunity is enjoyed by enterprises owned by members of the Saudi royal family or American proprietors. They are legitimate targets.

D. The same distinction applies to oil production and marketing enterprises. They are fair targets as the holdings of non-believers, crusaders or members of the Saudi royal family, but exempted when owned by the faithful (Muslims).
The final chapter of the document deals with offshore wells and terminals.
The same rules apply to oil drawn from the seabed as oil produced on land.
Barring a special dispensation, offshore wells must be kept safe from attack, so too oil ports which benefit the community as a whole – especially if privately owned by Muslims.

But all other oil ports, terminals, refineries and pipelines are legitimate targets.
Anxious to set the record straight, Qaeda in Saudi Arabia issued a special statement on Feb. 26, accusing the Saudi media of falsely depicting the network’s first strike against a Saudi oil installation as a failure. The statement claimed that, ahead of the two suicide car bombers, a “cell of mujahedeen” first entered the refinery compound, killing and injuring guards and opening the entry gate for the bombers to enter “after the guards fled.”

This communiqué reiterates the Saudi al Qaeda’s determination to “stop the exploitation of the Muslims’ resources” and continue the raids until “the polytheists” leave Muslim lands.

Fact is that the energy industry is extremely easy to hit, particularly in the Middle East. There are pipelines and wells and tankers and berths and refineries everywhere. But it is extremely difficult to strike the industry in a way that actually impedes supply on the international level. Blowing up a tanker just does not do it -- and blowing up a tanker is a lot harder than it sounds. Further, while there are critical nodes, routes and facilities, many have redundancies built into the system.

There are really only seven targets of international significance that, if seriously damaged, could substantially affect international energy flows: the Rotterdam oil port, the collective might of Texas' Galveston Bay oil facilities, the Houston ship channel, Russia's Samara pipeline nexus, Saudi Arabia's Ras Tanura oil port, Saudi Arabia's Yanbu oil port and Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq facility.

Although damage to these facilities would be quite harmful to the global economy, hurting these facilities in any really significant way would be extremely difficult. The Abqaiq facility, for example, has by far the smallest footprint of the seven, and even it covers a square mile of territory. That is not something that a suicide bomber -- even in a van -- can substantially affect.

Partial damage can be inflicted on a facility, slowing down operations, requiring repairs and higher security, and sending psychological shockwaves through the international system. But as militants from Pakistan to Nigeria have shown, attacks on the energy infrastructure can have a local effect without necessarily striking at the most critical of international nodes.

Regionally, there are several second-tier facilities that, if attacked -- though the effects on the overall international energy picture might not be significant -- could cause serious problems at the national level. But many of these second-tier targets are insulated due to either size or backup infrastructure.

Saudi Arabia's Petroline shuttles up to 5 million barrels per day (bpd) back and forth across the peninsula to keep the country's various oil ports supplied. But striking the world's largest pipeline raises two problems. First, oil pipelines are easily repaired; and second, the line is in reality one massive work-around. Saudi Arabia has excess oil port facilities; the Ras al-Juaymah oil port, for example, is the smallest of the country's big three but can still handle 3 million bpd in case something goes offline. The Petroline exists in order to keep the country's options option.

Similarly, the primary Kuwaiti terminal at Mina al-Ahmadi is a potential target. But Kuwait also maintains capacity at Mina Abdullah, Shuaiba and Mina Saud, with yet another facility under construction on Bubiyan Island. No matter what is hit, exports would likely continue flowing.

In reality, there are only three locations on the west shore of the Persian Gulf where a single attack could cause catastrophic damage.

The first is in Iraq's sector of the Persian Gulf, where its Basra oil terminal handles 90 percent of the country's oil exports. There are no backups. In fact, Iraq's only oil export option -- a pipeline north to Turkey -- is so often attacked by guerillas that it is largely inoperable.

The second is Qatar's liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility at Ras Laffan. While there are actually two separate facilities there -- three, if one considers the two phases of the Rasgas project to be separate -- neither has the capacity to cover for the other.

The third is Oman's LNG facility at Minal al Fahal, which has no backup whatsoever. Also, Oman's oil network is unique in the region, in that it has no realistic workarounds; it consists of a line of pipelines and oil fields stretching from the south of the country all the way up to the only oil port, also at Minal al Fahal.

When the three variables are assessed together, it becomes clear that al Qaeda has altered its target selection to include at least certain types of oil and gas infrastructure, but desire alone does not make for a successful attack. The group's regional infrastructure has been constrained, and the attack on Abqaiq showed signs of only minimal initial surveillance -- hence the failure to inflict significant damage even with the use of high-profile group members.

Regionally, the desires and the targets may match, but the reach and capabilities seem more limited. Though Riyadh was troubled by attacks against Western contractors a few years ago, it has even less tolerance for attacks on the energy infrastructure. Saudi security forces have thus far demonstrated both a defensive capability and an offensive one, going after al Qaeda militants and supplies throughout the kingdom.

Elsewhere in the region, al Qaeda has a more limited reach. Though the group has jumped borders in the past, the surveillance and preparation necessary for a significant operation is more difficult outside of the traditional operating ground.

That said, there are two areas that appear most vulnerable in the near term: Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In Iraq there remains a wider operating range, and while al Qaeda has had difficulty operating in the mostly Shiite areas around the export facilities, there is a potential opening in the area as tensions grow between local and Iranian-inspired forces and the foreign troops in the area. Al Qaeda might not be able to sustain long-term operations in that part of Iraq, but the instability could open a window for a strategic strike.

Despite the relative effectiveness of the Saudi security forces, Saudi Arabia remains the central focus of al Qaeda. Al Qaeda will continue to push resources, funding and training to its Saudi operations, even if these prove difficult. The Abqaiq attack was a failure, but offered the jihadists hope and operational intelligence for planning future attacks.

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