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IS terror attacks continue to threaten Saudi Arabia

Islamic State may have the kingdom’s oil and gas sector in its sights after an attempted attack in Dhahran

Rumours of a recently-thwarted Islamic State (IS) attack against the main Saudi Aramco compound in Dhahran, just a few weeks after a gunman attacked a security facility near an Aramco terminal in Abqaiq, have triggered renewed fears of possible IS attacks on the kingdom’s oil and gas infrastructure.

The challenge from Jihadists who still view the House of Saud as the "near enemy" – seems real enough. A spate of attacks this year on Saudi soil which have mainly targeted the kingdom’s Shia minority underline its brutal capability to wreak havoc.

The pinpointing of hydrocarbon assets suggests a shift in strategy. On September 5, Saudi security forces were reported to have repelled the attack near Aramco’s Abqaiq processing, killing the lone attacker. Neither of the two incidents – the Dhahran compound attack still unconfirmed, though the subject of persistent speculation – resulted in any casualties, nor damage to Aramco facilities.

But there is genuine concern that the largest Middle Eastern oil producer is vulnerable to terrorist violence, with potentially damaging consequences for regional stability and the smooth functioning of global oil markets.

Not all the violence is emanating from IS. The launch of Saudi military strikes on Yemen in late March - an attempt to quell the advance of Iranian- supported Houthi militias - has opened up a new security threat unrelated to IS or Al-Qaeda. In May, Yemeni tribesmen were reported to have launched an attack on an Aramco plant in the southwestern Asir region bordering Yemen, though without evidence of serious damage.

It is IS that is unnerving the Saudi leadership, and with good reason, says Torbjorn Soltvedt, head of MENA at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. The anxiety dates back to the decision of IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in November 2014 to call for explicit attacks on the Kingdom. "His order of priority is to first hit the Shia, second the Saudi state and thirdly western interests," says Soltvedt. "Energy infrastructure comes within that so it would be surprising if they weren’t thinking of targeting Saudi Aramco’s assets."

Targeting infrastructure

In April 2015, Saudi security forces were put on alert for a possible militant attack on an energy installation, following a tip off. Over the summer, the authorities hauled in some 400 IS suspects in a crackdown on local militants. With an estimated 3,000 Saudi nationals having fought on IS’ behalf in Syria and Iraq, there is still an abundant local talent pool from which IS can draw recruits.

There is genuine concern that the largest Middle Eastern oil producer is vulnerable to terrorist violence

More money is now being spent on drones and high-tech monitoring equipment to bolster counter-insurgency capabilities, along with aerial, maritime and land security patrols. Under the hardline Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, the Saudis have acquired useful experience in dealing with terrorists. The deputy crown prince successfully oversaw the rooting out of Al-Qaeda over the 2003-2006 period.

All this lends credence to Saudi claims that they are ready for any IS attack on their oil and gas assets. Aramco has a dedicated, 40,000-strong Facilities Protection Force, whose men report to the company head office in Dhahran, where it maintains its command-and-control centre.

This apparatus and manpower may look impressive on paper, but sceptics point out that determined individuals can still pose a potent threat to the kingdom’s oil and gas infrastructure. In February 2006, four Al-Qaeda militants caused significant damage to the Abqaiq plant, having breached the perimeter security before being killed in a shootout in which the attackers detonated explosives. As a leaked US diplomatic cable noted at the time, Abqaiq "had been much closer to succeeding than generally acknowledged".

In 2007, a plot was uncovered suggesting that an Al-Qaeda cell was preparing to crash airliners into Aramco’s Abqaiq and Ras Tanura acilities. Saudi air force F-15s are now reported to be on continual standby for such an eventuality.

But it is the softer targets that may prove more amenable to the terrorists. According to Maplecroft’s Soltvedt, residential complexes housing oil workers, as well as the extensive pipeline network, represent the weakest links in the chain. "Saudi Arabia has about 70,000 kilometres worth of pipelines, including in remote areas. In terms of likely targets, these will figure prominently," he says.

Physical terrorist spectactulars are only one part of the equation. An equally damaging prospect is cyber-terrorism, of which Saudi Aramco has bitter personal experience. In 2012, the Saudi oil giant experienced an attack on 30,000 of its computers after being infected with the Shamoon malware – the same virus that two weeks later took Qatar’s gas company RasGas IT system offline.

The intensifying aerial bombardment of IS targets in Syria and Iraq has not materially hampered the Jihadists’ capacity to strike out at Western targets. Yet the current focus on the so-called "far enemy" in Europe and America is unlikely to divert the movement from hitting at the kingdom’s pressure points. Oil and gas is now firmly in the Jihadists’ line of sight.

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