In a dramatic shift, one of Al Qaeda’s senior ideologues have identified petroleum infrastructure as a key target for attacks. The ideologue – who goes by the name Abu Bakr al-Naji – identifies key phases in the current global jihad. In one of these phases – “attrition and exhaustion” – jihad terrorists are encouraged to attack oil infrastructure in order to inflict large-scale economic harm to the United States and its allies. This represents a dramatic change for Al Qaeda’s senior leadership, who from early on saw petroleum infrastructure as a birthright to be preserved for “the coming Islamic state.”
Phases of Jihad
The paper (over 110 pages in Arabic) was posted on a known Al Qaeda web forum in February 2005 and is entitled, The Management of Barbarism: The Phase of Transition to the Islamic State. Clearly using 80s- and 90s-era Afghanistan as the paradigm, al-Naji identifies phases in the movement’s jihad campaign, including the phase we’re currently in -- Attrition and Exhaustion – and the one that will follow after its success, Barbarism. In this context the Management of Barbarism is a forward plan for a time that has not yet come to pass, but does share striking resemblance to events surrounding the collapse of Soviet-era Afghanistan.
The chaos that followed USSR’s pullout of Afghanistan eventually led to the creation of the Taliban state, still considered by Al Qaeda members as the only legitimate Islamic government, and the only type that should govern the world.
As part of the “Attrition and Exhaustion” phase, al-Naji discusses the need to attack a broad range of American and allied economic targets, including oil infrastructure:
“We have said that we need to strike all kinds of legitimate targets…However, must focus on economic targets, particularly petroleum…Regarding the attacks on economic targets that benefit the enemy, particularly oil installation, this is the most important point that we seek to hammer home…Attacking such targets will make the enemy exhort the regimes, which are already exhausted from protecting all their other economic and non-economic targets, to use more forces to protect more oil.”
Attrition and Exhaustion
Throughout The Management of Barbarism, al-Naji uses the petroleum industry to highlight specific applications of his ideas, especially when it comes to attack planning and intelligence gathering. His analysis offers some insights into Al Qaeda’s current operational thinking. For instance, he emphasizes the role of “small groups” in past successful Muslim military campaigns. “If you read carefully between the lines of the histories of the Crusades, you will realize that the basic element in achieving victory in the major battles consisted of attrition operations that were conducted by groups of ulema [clerics] and mujahideen.” The contemporary analogy here is the terrorist cell.
He then provides advice to these small groups on how to plan and implement an attack. Limited the number of attacks to what is actually needed, he writes. Sometimes a group that is carrying out an easy operation consists of 10 members when only two or three are needed. But even in these small operations, the cell members should attack the weakest point with the strongest force possible: “Use the bulk of your strike force with the utmost intensity against the enemy’s weakest points.”
As for the larger attacks on petroleum infrastructure, he offers a step-by-step ideological, media, and physical plan of attack.
First, the movement’s experts would gather data to support their claims of injustice. In this case, “an economic specialist among its member can conduct a study that demonstrates the real value and real price of oil…” The report would go on to show the “extent of the unfairness and plunder to which the nation was subjected for decades…”
Second, the movement would demand that all countries that import oil should pay the fair price, “while preserving the Muslim people’s right to demand payment that would cover the price discrepancy throughout all previous years.”
Third, a period of time would be given, in his words, “to assess the degree of responsiveness to this declaration.” If nothing happens, then “attack would begin on the oil installation, particularly the pipelines, the bombing of which does not involve killing people. The oil tankers that are managed and operated by infidels would be attacked. Oil installation and refineries would be attacked at such times when that are empty of workers to avoid hurting Muslims persons.” However, he adds, regarding the “sentries” at oil installations: if they are members of the local army they should be “treated as traitors to their nations” and as for private security companies, “They may be attacked only if they try to kill or capture some of the attacking mujahideen…”
After such an attack, there would be a concerted effort to justify and remediate any negative effects on the regional economy. And if the local news services don’t give them the proper amount of coverage, then they may kidnap a “crusader manager or engineer, preferably one who works in the oil sector. He would not be released until our declaration is broadcast on television and published in the newspapers. The kidnapping, the continues, “could take place in Nigeria, Senegal, or any Islamic oil-producing country, even if the planned military operations age going to occur in other places like the Gulf…”
He then cautions his readers that “the appearance of events and their development portend a long battle.” However, the long battle had its advantages because it gives them an opportunity to, as he says,
“…infiltrate our enemies and neighbors and establish a strong security apparatus that will be the basic pillar of protecting our movement now and defending our state in the future. It is necessary to infiltrate police forces, armies, and various political parties, newspaper, Islamic groups, oil companies (working as laborers or engineers), private security firms, and sensitive civic institution, and so forth. Indeed, we started this activity decades ago, but now we need to do more in light of recent developments. We need to infiltrate the same place with more than one member, who do not know each other, to carry out different roles or even the same roles, if this role requires more than one person.”
From Birthright to Legitimate Target
As far back as Usama Bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war on America, senior members of Al Qaeda have envisioned oil as the Arab’s birthright, urging their followers to avoid attacking oil infrastructure:
“…therefore spread of the fighting in the region will expose the oil wealth ot the danger of being burned up. The economic interests of the States of the Gulf and the land of the two Holy Places will be damaged and even a greater damage will be caused to the economy of the world. I would like here to alter my brothers, the Muajhideen, the sons of the nation, to protect this (oil) wealth and not to include it in the battle as it is a great Islamic wealth and a large economical power essential for the soon to be establish Islamic state….
That opinion has evolved over the past decade with many of Bin Laden’s current statements call for attacks on the very same infrastructure. In his December 2004 address, he said:
"You, the mujahideen: there is now a rare and golden opportunity to make America bleed in Iraq, both economically and in terms of human losses and morale. Don't miss out on this opportunity, lest you regret it. One of the main causes for our enemies' gaining hegemony over our country is their stealing our oil; therefore, you should make every effort in your power to stop the greatest theft in history of the natural resources of both present and future generations, which is being carried out through collaboration between foreigners and [native] agents… Focus your operations on it [oil production], especially in Iraq and the Gulf area, since this [lack of oil] will cause them to die off [on their own].