Oil Infrastructure and Terrorism – Part I

In light of the recent attacks by militants on tankers carrying oil for NATO and U.S. troops, the series that I am posting this week is especially timely. When we consider the dependence of the U.S. and the western world on the Middle East, the potential for terrorism on oil infrastructure looms as a large risk hanging over our economies.

This week’s three-part report (for Part II of the series, click here) asks a specific question:

Given the strategic importance of Middle East oil to the West and its economic and technological dependence on oil: Why have pipelines in that part of the globe not been primary targets of international terrorism to date?

The report was written by Donald J. Evans, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Strategic Studies Association, and was originally published in the Global Intelligence Report.


Is Hydrocarbon Man the Next Terrorist Target?

Guest Essay by Dr. Donald J. Evans

Daniel Yergin, in the prologue to his award winning book, uses the language of anthropology to describe what the human species became in the past century: Hydrocarbon Man. While the search continues for alternative fuels and millions are spent on research and development, modern man will continue for some time to come to be dependent on Persian Gulf oil: the strategic prize. This essay focuses on the terrorist threat to oil pipelines in the region.

The question is, given the strategic importance of Middle East oil to the West and its economic and technological dependence on oil: Why have pipelines in that part of the globe not been primary targets of international terrorism to date?

It is puzzling why terrorists have not chosen Middle East oil structures as targets. One terrorist expert puts it this way:

“Trying to find out why terrorists do what they do is a bit like trying to solve a good fictional murder in that one is dealing with the elements of motive, method, and opportunity. However, the plot is reversed. With the classic murder one starts with a victim, and has to determine the motive, methods, and opportunity involved in order to discover the perpetrator. With target selection on the other hand, the motives are known, the means can usually be estimated, and the opportunities are fairly plentiful. What one has to determine is who or what is likely to be the victim.”

Middle East oil pipelines
Oil and Gas Pipeline Infrastructure - Middle East. CLICK TO ENLARGE. Source: Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Like a good, fictional murder mystery, the task of explaining silence, why something does not happen, gives a double twist to a plot and makes solving a mystery much more complicated. Sherlock Holmes, the master detective, solved a classic murder in The Hound of the Baskervilles when he learned that the dog was silent when it should have been barking. But, it is unlikely that in the process of answering the basic question, we will find a single clue to unwrap the mystery surrounding the silence of oil terrorism in the Middle East. For unlike in Holmes’ time, it is not hounds but jackals that have captured our attention in the 21st Century drama, the non-state actors who for most members of the world-audience will always remain a mystery: terrorists.

In looking for clues, our investigation will sift the evidence found in open sources and evaluate the Middle East silence by methods, scientific and otherwise.

Although the focus is on the security of Middle East oil pipelines, globalization and the throughput character of the oil industry require brief consideration of threats to the oil infrastructure of the entire industrialized world, from Australia to the United States and from China to Turkey. In this respect, the vulnerability of oil pipelines in the United States is discussed with one eye on critics who see real danger in pointing out soft targets to terrorists’ cells with the technical means to terrorize multinational oil companies and the US public. Nevertheless, Maynard Stephens over 20 years ago did not hesitate to diagnose the Achilles heel of Hydrocarbon Man in the United States:

“Established petroleum and natural gas operations, their pipeline interties, and associated tankage and storage are the most attractive targets of dissidents. But there is no part of the industry that is immune to being seriously damaged by someone who has a little knowledge of it or makes an effort to learn its frailties. It is no wonder that security personnel and management become almost ‘paranoid’ at the thought of having attention drawn in publications to the vulnerability of the industry. . . But how does one know what dangers and threats to guard against?”

As will be shown, the dangers and threats to oil pipelines are real. The author makes no apology for calling the attention of US policy and police officials to the threat that continues to exist from individuals wanting to hamstring the United States by interdiction of oil flows with which the economy runs and the military rolls.

The Silence

While Stephens had to deal with the silence of domestic inaction, our attention turns to the silence of terrorism. For analyzing patterns of global terrorism, specifically against oil pipelines, we turn to reports on terrorism by the US Department of State. The total number of terrorist attacks between the years 1981 and 2000 declined from 429 in 1981 to 423 at the end of the millennium and a high of 666 attacks in 1987. The Middle East region saw a decline in such incidents from 45 in 1995 and 1996 to 16 in the year 2000 with a total of 199 for the period. Only North America had fewer attacks than the Middle East. During the same five-year period, business facilities were attacked on 1,842 occasions; diplomats, 200; governments, 97; military, 48 and other facilities, 571. Thus, terrorists attacked worldwide businesses twice as frequently as all other targets combined, 916.

Turning another page in the Department of State report, we discover in the year 2000, that of the total attacks (557), oil facilities were singled out only 10 times, and, of this number, none were in the Middle East! We therefore conclude, that of the 384 business facilities struck in 2000, none were leveled against oil facilities in the Middle East.

Going back further in time, we discover that terrorists infrequently attacked pipelines. From 1968 to 1979 there were 63 transnational terrorist incidents among nine Middle Eastern states: Bahrain (2), Iran (43), Iraq (4), Kuwait (10), Oman (0), Qatar (0), Saudi Arabia (3), UAE (1), and Yemen (0). These oil-producing countries are located atop huge oil reserves and astride a tangle of oil pipelines and oil shipping lanes. Of the total number of incidents five were related to the oil business and of these only two incidents involved oil pipelines or facilities. In January 1972 facilities of the Kuwait Oil Company, partially owned by US firms, were damaged twice. The second incident occurred on May 11, 1997, when saboteurs set fire to the Aramco-operated Abqaiq production center, causing $100,000 damage to a network of pipelines.

Carlos the Jackal
"Carlos the Jackal" led the terrorist attack on OPEC headquarters that killed 3 people.

Led by Illich Ramirez Sanchez (aka “Carlos, the Jackal”), a significant terrorist attack occurred on the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) headquarters in Vienna, Austria on December 21-23, 1975. The terrorist group — The Arab Revolution — seized 70 hostages, including 11 oil ministers, and barricaded themselves in OPEC offices.

Extortion was thought to be the purpose of the raid. Saudi Arabian and Iranian governments paid perhaps as much as US$50-million to the terrorists who took themselves and 42 hostages back to Algeria. Huge sums of money were transferred to a bank in Aden.

Although this attack was not against oil pipelines, the incident serves to remind us that terrorists of two and three decades ago viewed the oil industry as a profitable target, and that the jackals of today are ready, willing and able to deal in a new brand of eco-terrorism.


Generally speaking, the petroleum industry is segmented into geological exploration and drilling, construction and operation of production facilities, crude oil transportation and gathering, crude oil refining and storage, product transportation, and retail distribution. Our interest is in the pipelines located in the first three segments and specifically those in the Middle East. Both oil and gas pipelines are found in these segments and both are implied in the single use of the word “pipelines” unless otherwise noted. This word therefore is more or less synonymous with the front-end infrastructure of the petroleum industry. As will become clear below, the term “Middle East” refers to the oil producing states surrounding the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.

Many observers, writers and commentators have noted that no one definition of “terrorism” has gained universal acceptance. This paper will attempt to consistently use the US Department of State definition of terrorism in use since 1983 for statistical and analytical purposes:

“The term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

The term ‘international terrorist’ means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country.

The term ‘terrorist group’ means any group practicing, or that has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.”

Transnational terrorism has the same meaning as international terrorism and is further defined as nonmilitary threats that cross borders and threaten either the political, social or economic integrity of a nation or the health of its inhabitants. As discussed below, inclusion of economic prosperity, dependent as it is on the flow of oil from the Middle East, in the defense policy of the United States means that significant acts of transnational terrorism will attract US forces.

Global Oil Targets

Transnational jackals do not lack oil target prey. The abundance is seen in the importance of oil in the world economy and is driven home by eye-opening statistics and spectacular claims.

The terrorism from the sky of September 11, 2001, impacted the minds of all who heard and saw the events. Since then people see the possibilities for terror everywhere. Technology is now the enemy rather than the comforter it appeared to be. Squeezed along the paths of energy systems, we are unable to escape the final destinations of flight paths, fluid tunnels, and electrical circuits. The homeland of the self seems unable to locate the off switch just beyond its reach.

The “new victims” fix their minds on vulnerability to the world’s energy systems and find themselves more curious about sources of power and light. Because the most recent and violent terrorism comes from Middle East countries, the energy coming from these countries in the form of “crude”, the precious black ooze is again of special interest as it has been periodically in each of the past three decades.

World energy consumption remained stable during the latest years reported, 1996, 1997, and 1998. The US ranks either first or second in the production of world energies: crude oil, (2); natural gas plant liquids, (1); dry natural gas, (2); coal, (2); hydroelectric power, (2); and nuclear electric power, (1). Petroleum once constituted almost 50 percent of the world’s energy; it now accounts for less than 40 percent. The difference is made up of mostly natural gas and nuclear power. Production of petroleum (crude oil and its by-products) reached an all time high of 75 million barrels per day (MMBD) in 1998. Three states accounted for 31 percent of the oil production—US, Russia, and Saudi Arabia—or 20 MMBD.

One observer of the Middle East stated, “Oil is not the only source of energy, but it has been and will remain the single most important fuel. It constituted 47 percent of world energy use in 1970 and 39 percent in 1997. And it is projected to provide 38 percent in 2020.” Another writer noted, “At the end of 1997, the market capitalization of each of the top 10 companies in the world exceeded the gross national product of over 150 of the 185 members of the United Nations.” Oil provides 79 percent of the total revenue for Venezuela, 84 percent for Saudi Arabia and 95 percent for Nigeria. Seventeen of the Fortune 40 companies of the world are in the petroleum business and the annual revenue of each company exceeds the Gross Domestic Product of half the nations of the globe. Oil accounts for 5 percent of all the commodities traded in the world, and it far outranks the commodity in second place. By any measure oil is vital to the world economy and critical to the prosperities of many nations.

The Moving Target

The processing and flow of oil from wellhead to the ultimate consumer is complicated and continuous, but points along the way may be simplified and discussed without comprising the analysis of their vulnerability to terrorist attack. Critical oil facilities in the Middle East may be summarized under four headings: crude oil pipelines, loading terminals, tankers and waterways.

Pipelines: The Middle East has three basic pipelines: the Iraqi, the Saudi Arabian and the Caspian. The Iraqi system is the “most extensive, complex and exposed to uncertainties”. Decades of conflict disrupted the area and finally closed the line that ran from near Kirkuk and divided into two 12-inch pipelines running to Haifa, Israel and Tripoli, Lebanon. A new 590-mile, 40-inch pipeline went into operation in 1977, which linked the Iraqi fields with the terminal in Dortyol, Turkey on the Mediterranean Sea. A second parallel Turkish line was constructed in 1987. Due to sanctions following the Gulf War, the Turkish lines were also closed.

As a safety measure Iraq constructed in 1977 a 42-inch “strategic pipeline” that linked Kirkuk to the Persian Gulf terminal at Fao. This “strategic line” was constructed with a reversible flow allowing oil to be directed northward to Haditha. Construction of another strategic line of 42-48 inches in diameter was started but not completed before the Gulf War. Looking for a safer alternative, larger throughput, and increased production, Iraq constructed in 1985 and 1990 two pipelines around Kuwait to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis shut down both lines when Iraq attacked Kuwait in August 1990.

Four types of pipelines traverse Saudi Arabia: crude oil (6,400 km), natural gas (2,200 km), gas liquids (1,600 km), and petroleum products (150 km). Its oil fields are located in the Eastern Province close to the coast of the Persian Gulf. Abquiq is the major processing center for crude oil in the southern area about 40 miles south west of Dhahran. The northern area is headquartered in Ras Tanura, forty miles north of Dhahran. Most of the crude oil and refined products from the Ras Tanura refinery is delivered to tankers at Ras Tanura or Ju’aymah also on the coast. Offshore fields are at Safaniya and Zuluf. Located in Saudi Arabia is Ghawar, the largest oil field in the world.

In the early 1950s a 30-31-inch line of about 750 miles, the Trans-Arabian Pipeline (Tapline), was constructed along the border with Iraq, through Jordan, Syria and ending on the Lebanese coast south of Beirut, in Zahrani, next to Sidon. Following the Lebanese civil war, the Tapline was mothballed.

Because of the dangers of shipping oil by tankers through the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia constructed the 48-inch “Petroline” from Abqaiq in the Eastern Province with Yanbu on the Red Sea, a distance of 747 miles. This pipeline is known as the Iraqi-Saudi Pipeline. It and a second parallel were closed indefinitely following the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Parallel to the Petroline is the Abqaiq-Yanbu natural gas liquids pipeline that serves the petrochemical plants at Yanbu. Saudi Arabia has sought alternative export routes because of conflicts and its pipelines lack adequate security.

Altogether, Saudi Arabia has about 77 oil and gas fields, 1,430 wells, and seven refineries. Its 2001 budget called for drilling 246 more wells (208 onshore and 38 offshore) at a cost of US$1-billion. Another 292 wells are planned for 2002. The Saudis were expected to earn in 2001 about US$62.6-billion in crude oil export revenues, double their 1998 revenues.

Pipelines of the Caspian Sea Basin typify the complexity of pipeline construction and the difficulties of protecting them, or from the terrorist’s perspective, how easy it might be to interrupt the flow of black gold, eg: the Caspian Pipeline of 460-miles that will connect western Kazakhstan to the Russian Black Sea Port of Novorossiysk. This pipeline will allow maximum development of the Tengiz field with potential reserves of six -to nine- billion barrels of recoverable oil. Planned production peaks at 700,000 BD in 2010. After construction and testing, the pipeline must be maintained and protected. Security of the pipeline, as noted below, will come from governmental and non-governmental sources.

Construction of the global oil and gas infrastructure will continue at a healthy and sustained rate through 2003 and beyond. One survey indicates 60,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines are in various stages of construction or planned for construction. Planned pipelines and those under construction in the Middle East total 8,092 miles. Several are more than 1,500 miles in length. What armed forces will be called upon to protect these new initiatives?

Loading Terminals: Throughout the continuous process of petroleum production and transport, oil enters storage tanks at various stages along the way, near wells, at refineries, and near seashores. Oil is moved from shore to oil loading terminals located either on shore at fixed docks reachable by oil tankers or at offshore terminals, circular moorings for one or more ships. Construction of underwater pipelines is a costly and difficult job. The pipes are made of steel and laid from special barges only in good weather. The underwater pipes are from 20 to 36 inches in diameter and made up into 39- foot lengths. It may cost more than US$1.5-million to lay a mile of underwater pipe. Oil is moved through these underwater lines by pump stations resting on floating platforms to the terminal and into large oil cargo tankers. Most oil loading terminals in the Persian Gulf are offshore in deep water where the terminals can handle supertankers. Fixed deep-water ports are located at Kharg (Iran); Khor-al-Kafka and Khor-al-Amaya (Iraq); and Mina-al-Ahmadi (Kuwait). The only terminals able to accommodate super tankers of 400,000 to 500,000 deadweight tons (DWT) are those of Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. Controlling depths in the Mediterranean Sea are too shallow for berthing and maneuvering supertankers.

oil tanker
Crude oil tankers, as large as 500,000 DWT carry about 60% of the world's oil out of the Persian Gulf.

Tankers: Oil tankers range in size from 30,000 DWT to 500,000 DWT and their oil capacities from 200 MMBD to 3,700 MMBD. Oil tankers of all sizes carry about 60% of the world’s oil out of the Persian Gulf. Tankers at oil terminals or in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea are vulnerable to attacks from shore batteries, small arms fire, surface-to-sea missiles, air attacks, and sea mines. To obtain an idea of possible consequences and the disruption of the flow from a multiple terrorist attack on oil tankers, no worse case scenario is better than that of the Iran-Iraqi War. Iran attacked 173 ships and Iraq did the same to 283 vessels, however oil supplies during this so-called “Tanker War” from 1980-87 were only marginally affected.

In fact, tankers large and small have not been to date favorite targets of maritime terrorism. Attacks are very difficult to execute and terrorists are at high risk. Payoffs are low; the killing of crews and large oil spills are not as spectacular as other land targets. An analysis of hijackings on high seas reveals no regular pattern and no geographical cluster. The primary danger comes to ships when they are in port where they accessible to terrorist bombing or mining. The bombing in Yemen of the USS Cole in 2000 is a recent reminder.

Waterways: Crude oil is threatened as it moves from its source in a Middle Eastern country to its ultimate destination: the consumer. Terrorists may attack pipelines on land or sea lines of communication (SLOCs). Tankers carrying crude from the Middle East are especially vulnerable at oil transit choke points around the world: Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Malacca, Bab el Mandeb, Suez Canal and Sumed Pipeline, Bosporus/Turkish Straits, and the Panama Canal. It is not only the United States and Europe, which are dependent on the oil sailing through these choke points but also countries like the Peoples Republic of China and Japan. The US Department of Energy estimates that the Middle East countries exported an average of 17.7-MMBD in 1995.This amount was 47% of the world total of 37.7-MMBD. Projections are that by 2020 these exports will reach 40-MMBD and be 60% of the world’s total.

Part II picks up with an analysis of potential threats.