Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Notes from Riyadh

Last week was supposed to be a good one for Al Qaida. The bombing of the Golden Mosque in Iraq would plunge that country into civil war, while a planned attack on a major Saudi oil facility would raise new fears about the vulnerability of oil supplies, and send gas price skyrocketing.

Unfortunately for bin Laden and the remnants of his organization, things didn't quite work out as planned. While there was a wave of sectarian violence in the wake of the Samarra bombing, Iraq did not dissolve into civil war. Once again, as Paul Mirengoff at Powerline reminds us, the insurgents, Bush Administration critics, and the western media have under-estimated the ability of the Iraqi people to stand up to the terrorists, and continue their transition toward a democratic society. Iraq the Model highlights another key reason the country didn't slide into civil war: the solid performance of the Iraqi Army in restoring order in many locations. While Interior Ministry and police units fared less well in dealing with the threat, the new Iraqi Army passed a major test last week, and dealt the insurgents a serious setback. Security remains problematic in some locations, but Iraq is a long way from civil war, contrary to many of the dire predictions made last week.

That brings us to the second event that was designed to bolster Al Qaida's fortunes, the attempted bombing of a major Saudi oil facility. When it became apparent that the bombing had failed, the story quickly faded. But details of the plot have emerged in recent days, and they provide new insight into the operational capabilities of Al Qaida's Arabian Peninsula affiliate.

According to press accounts, Al Qaida operatives, riding in two vehicles, managed to penetrate the initial security screen at the Armaco Facility at Abqiaq, one of the largest oil refineries in eastern Saudi Arabia. After opening fire on security guards at the first checkpoint, they drove on to a second control point, where they encountered stiff resistance. In the ensuing gun battle with security teams, both vehicles were detonated, killing at least five terrorists. Two of Saudi Arabia's fifteen most-wanted terrorists may have died in the attack, including Fahd al-Juwayr, Al-Qaida's master bomb maker on the Arabian Peninsula.

It's not surprising that terrorists attempted to strike the Abqiaq complex; by some estimates, as much as two-thirds of Saudi Arabia's oil moves through the refinery and its storage facilities before export. Crippling the Abqiaq complex could have a devastating effect on the world oil market--something Al Qaida clearly hoped to achieve.

But some aspects of last week's attack are puzzling. For example, the entry point for the strike poorly chosen; according to oil industry experts, an attack in the area where the terrorists entered would have inflicted little damage; perhaps the insurgents planned to drive to other targets in the complex, but were thwarted by security personnel, or (perhaps) Al Qaida was a bit sloppy or hasty in its planning efforts.

Equally puzzling is the participation of senior Al Qaida personnel in martyrdom operations at the refinery. The loss of al-Juwayr would represent a major blow to Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which claimed responsibility for the operation. As the organization's chief bomb maker, he's had a hand in a number of attacks in Saudi Arabia, and his skills will be difficult to replace. al-Juwayr's participation also suggests that the local Al Qaida affiliate may be having trouble attracting quality recruits who are willing to die for the cause.

Despite last week's success, the terrorist threat to Saudi oil facilities will continue. But as the Abqiaq plot illustrates, Al Qaida in Saudi Arabia has its own problems that may complicate future attack plans. As in Iraq, the terrorists in Saudi Arabia suffered a major defeat last week, but that won't stop them from trying again.

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