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Jul 9, 2004 | 17:20 GMT

4 mins read

The Threat to Refineries

By Fred Burton U.S. counterterrorism sources were greatly concerned during the July 4 holiday weekend about a terrorist threat to refineries in the Houston area — specifically in Baytown, Texas. Trusted sources close to the matter said refineries there may have come under surveillance by Islamist militants seeking to carry out an attack. According to information supplied to STRATFOR, domestic terrorism alerts were disseminated to police and corporate security officials, who raised protection levels around their facilities. Meanwhile, Department of Homeland Security officials believe that one of Washington state's five refineries might have come under surveillance recently. The department noted that al Qaeda views critical infrastructure targets — particularly businesses involving oil and gas — as attractive targets, given their potentially significant effects on the economy, public health and safety and psychological impacts. STRATFOR long has held the view that refineries likely figure into al Qaeda's target-selection criteria for those reasons, but pulling off such an attack in a way that also yields high casualty counts — another core targeting criteria, at least for major strikes — is tactically difficult. Consider the following cases, all of which were determined to be accidents:
  • A 1998 explosion at an oil refinery in Anacortes, Wash. — one of the facilities that reportedly came under surveillance recently — killed five people.
  • A May 25 fire near a chemical supply warehouse in Atlanta, Ga., forced the evacuation of five square miles and the partial closure of a heavily used interstate highway, but there were no casualties.
  • An explosion on March 31 partially destroyed an oil refinery — the country's third-largest — near Houston, but yielded no injuries.
Considering that most of these facilities are large industrial complexes, penetrating them in such a way as to detonate explosives in the most sensitive areas would be difficult — and even then, militants likely would be forced to rely on toxic fallout in order to achieve mass casualties over a large area. That said, the possibility of a strike against refineries or petrochemical facilities cannot be entirely ruled out. In addition to Houston oil facilities, we believe that refineries in Newark also are a potential target — in part because al Qaeda has a history of operating in the New Jersey and New York areas that dates back to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, also known as "the Blind Sheikh." Reports of possible surveillance of oil facilities have surfaced in many parts of the country — and whether they originate from credible sources or panic-stricken security guards and citizens, federal authorities have little choice but to take every report seriously, at least initially. Given the large number of industrial targets situated within or very near to major U.S. cities — for example, the Houston area, California coast, the Puget Sound area, cities within the Mississippi Delta and New Jersey — this has the potential to create a drag on law enforcement resources. One case in point: FBI sources have told STRATFOR that they are combing back through their case files and re-interviewing anyone who has been identified as a militant suspect or "subject of interest" in a terrorism investigation during the past three years — obviously a labor-intensive and time-consuming effort. Though this could be effective in thwarting some attack plans — or at least put militants on notice that they are being watched — it can do little to address the issue of greatest concern: sleeper cells. Our analysis indicates that an operations/militant sleeper cell more than likely is present in Houston, with another in the New York City or Newark area. Whether these cells will be called upon to carry out the next terrorist strike within the domestic United States is not clear, but it certainly is feasible that a cell could be activated to attack an oil facility in either Baytown or Newark. Operationally, it is our assessment that any attack likely would be choreographed to coincide with additional militant strikes in the Washington, D.C., area, which is full of symbolic targets. In our view, however, a strike against the Metro subway or Amtrak's Union Station would be the most easily mounted and yield the highest casualty counts.

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