Saturday, June 19, 2004

Saudis Got Next 

Over at Daily Kos, the Johnson murder has spurred Meteor Blades to wonder what exactly al Qaeda has in mind for Saudi Arabia:
The video and stills of Paul Johnson surely will achieve their key objective, terrorizing the Americans and other Westerners who handle the day-to-day management of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure.

I suppose some civilians will accept Colin Powell’s suggestion that they should not give al-Qaeda a victory by leaving the country, even though he not-so-long-ago urged the families of most State Department officials to get the hell out.

Given that terrorism thrives on chaos, what surprises me is that al-Qaeda has not taken what would seem to be an obvious move: attacking the Saudi infrastructure directly. Of course, that would be the old approach in guerrilla warfare and these guys are amazingly adaptable. But what if their efforts to scare out Westerners fail?
This article from the May 27th Economist suggests a few possible answers, none of them especially comforting:
James Woolsey, a former head of America's Central Intelligence Agency, is unimpressed by talk of improved security: “Guards and fences are easy to put up, but they don't defend against the real threats.” Trucks have to come in and out of facilities, he observes, and Aramco employees and security guards have to move about. He thinks that several attacks, if co-ordinated by terrorists who have infiltrated Aramco, could cripple the Saudi system.

How, exactly? Robert Baer, an intelligence expert, offers some suggestions in his disturbing recent book, “Sleeping with the Devil”. He reckons that Ras Tanura, a port on the Gulf, is a vulnerable terrorist target. With an output of perhaps 4.5m bpd, this is the biggest oil-exporting port in the world. Mr Baer thinks a small submarine or a boat laden with explosives (as happened in October 2000 with the attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen) could knock out much of Ras Tanura's output for weeks, or even longer.

An even scarier possibility raised by Mr Baer is the crashing of a hijacked aeroplane into Abqaiq, the world's largest oil-processing complex. If done with the help of insiders, he speculates that the facility's throughput (nearly 7m bpd, on his estimate) would be choked off to as little as 1m bpd for two months—and might remain as low as 3m bpd for seven months.

Mr Woolsey adds that an attack using weapons of mass destruction (especially “dirty bombs”) would be even more devastating than one that used mere aeroplanes. All told, the pessimists reckon that well-co-ordinated attacks could take as much as 6m-7m bpd of Saudi output off the market for weeks, and perhaps longer.
Steve Gilliard points out that America has propped up the House of Saud for lo these many decades to ensure "stability" in the Middle East, which ensures in turn that we have uninterrupted access to the oil we need. The catch, of course, is that our sponsorship of corrupt oligarchies leaves us unable to foster the sort of democratic poliical reform that might undercut the popular appeal of fundamentalist fanatics:
Al Qaeda may talk about some kind of Islamic revivalism, but their real goal is forced political change . . . . Setting bombs is a lot more glamorous than canvassing for votes. And since the elections are rigged anyway it doesn't matter much. AQ is only an answer because the question is [whether] you can accept more of the same . . . .

As oil historian Daniel Yergin said "imagine if America was called Rockefeller America". Well, that's our ally of 70 years.

| | Technorati Links | to Del.icio.us