In the afternoon of Feb. 24, Saudi security forces opened fire on three cars as they sped toward the Abqaiq oil collection and processing facility in eastern Saudi Arabia. The cars, reportedly in the livery of state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, were believed to be carrying suicide bombers intent on attacking the facility. The attackers were able to breach the facility's outer perimeter before security forces fired at them. At least two of the cars exploded between the primary and secondary security fences, and none was able to enter the facility, according to Saudi officials. The attack comes less than two weeks after the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain issued a Warden Message
warning of possible militant attacks in the region, and three days after the Australian government issued a similar travel advisory. An attack coming soon after such warnings fits an observed pattern
of militant operations on the Arabian Peninsula.
The attack also comes amid repeated calls from al Qaeda's highest echelon to target petroleum infrastructure. Osama bin Laden first alluded, in passing, that oil-related targets should be attacked in his audio message from December 2004. More recently, al Qaeda's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a direct call for attacks against the oil industry
in a videotape released in December 2005. In that message, when al-Zawahiri told jihadists to target the "Muslims' stolen oil," he was not warning the oil industry or the West but rather was likely giving al Qaeda supporters in the Middle East targeting guidance. The statement did not say where the oil infrastructure attacks should take place; however, the area where al Qaeda followers could most feasibly launch such attacks is the Middle East. Although the Feb. 24 attack was thwarted in its initial phase, it could have followed several scenarios. The attempt at Abqaiq appears to have used tactics that al Qaeda in Iraq has employed to attack fixed, heavily defended targets such as the Iraqi Interior Ministry, the U.S. base at Abu Ghraib and Baghdad's Palestine Hotel
, which houses Westerners near the Green Zone. In those assaults, vehicle-borne suicide bombers were used in the same way artillery is used in conventional warfare: to soften up defenses before an assault. Of the three vehicles used at Abqaiq, the first could have been designated to breach the perimeter, thereby making a gap in the defenses to allow the other two vehicles to enter the facility and attack more valuable targets inside. An alternate scenario has all three vehicles charging the facility's defenses simultaneously, possibly to disorient the defenders and create gaps in the perimeter for a follow-on assault team armed with assault rifles to enter the facility. Once inside, that team could have planted satchel charges or other ordnance in critical areas in attempt to disrupt the facility's operations. A third — but least likely — scenario has all three vehicles full of assault teams ready for a direct attack against the facility. In Iraq, this kind of attack is rarely successful, as the defenders have a great advantage in a frontal assault, and the tactic has largely been abandoned by the insurgents. Though the assault against the Abqaiq facility could have caused serious damage, it is unlikely to have had a significant, long-term effect on the facility's production capacity. The facility itself covers about 1 square mile and has multiple levels of security that prevent unauthorized personnel from getting within 1,000 yards of the facility itself. Though the use of Aramco cars — probably to get close enough to the facility to attack without attracting undue attention — shows a certain degree of planning, the actual attack appears to have been poorly executed. It occurred in the middle of the day, though a nighttime attack would have more likely caught defenders off guard. Also, reports that the cars were burned out rather than vaporized by explosions seem to indicate that the vehicles carried insufficient explosives to cause significant damage to the sprawling Abqaiq facility. In the last attempted attack in Saudi Arabia, the December 2004 attack against the Interior Ministry in Riyadh, multiple vehicle-borne suicide bombers were used, but the that attack also failed. This shows that the Saudis might have been effective in their campaign against al Qaeda on the peninsula, but have not eliminated it.