Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Bin Laden moves toward economic terror

The Daily Star

Monday, January 24, 2005
Bin Laden moves toward economic terror
By Mohammed Alkhereiji

The shootout almost a week ago in Kuwait between the security forces and an Islamist group in the town of Umm al-Haiman highlighted an apparent new trend in the behavior of Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the Arabian Peninsula: the movement of Saudi militants across the border into neighboring countries. Indeed, the cell operating in Umm al-Haiman apparently included Saudi militants on the run from the massive clampdown at home, as well as Kuwaiti militants returning from fighting U.S. forces in Fallujah.

The fact that the Kuwaiti cell was discovered in an oil-producing region of the emirate and that, the Kuwaiti authorities stated on Sunday, the group planned to attack vital installations, allows us to look back on recent Al-Qaeda statements, and what they bode for the future of the Gulf.

As a recent Al-Qaeda-affiliated website put it: "We call on all the mujahideen in the Arabian Peninsula to unify their ranks ... and target the oil supplies that do not serve the Islamic nation but the enemies of this nation." The statement echoed the sentiments of Osama bin Laden and came at a time when he has greatly increased his media presence. Bin Laden's rhetoric has changed of late. His recent messages have been tailor-made to capitalize on the current economic and political climate in the Middle East. Although support for he and his terror network seems to be dwindling, Al-Qaeda's threat to regional and international stability has not.

In a recent address bin Laden declared: "Targeting America in Iraq economically and through loss of life is a golden and unique opportunity - one of the most important reasons that our enemies control our land is the pilfering of our oil - Prevent them from getting the oil and conduct your operations accordingly, particularly in Iraq and the Gulf."

From an economic standpoint any disruption of Saudi Arabian oil supplies would probably mean an immediate spike in oil prices, easily within the range of $100 a barrel or more. Such an increase would have a devastating effect on the livelihood and economies of all nations, developed and otherwise. Rampant inflation and unemployment would sweep many countries. The bin Laden message was seen by many "experts" as a clear reversal of a 1990 fatwa that avoided advising such action. However, in reality Al-Qaeda has had its sites set on the region's oilfields for a number of years.

For example, in 2002, long before bin Laden delivered his message, Al-Qaeda saboteurs attacked a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen. In summer of that same year, a counterintelligence operation by Saudi security forces led to the arrest of more then 20 individuals in connection with a plot to blow up the Ras Tannura oil terminal and refinery - a complex that transfers five million barrels of oil a day. Only last year, Islamist militants attacked an oil company and housing compounds in Khobar in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, leading to the death of seven Saudi policemen and 22 civilians. These events suggest that oil has been an Al-Qaeda target for at least several years.

Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure is made of five large oil fields connected by a network of pipelines. The pre-eminent need to protect these is something Saudi security officials have long recognized. According to a report by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Saudi authorities have put together special units compromised of various military and security forces to guard wells and installations. Members of the Special Emergency Forces and the kingdom's National Guard, as well as regular police units, protect the perimeters of the installations. Navy and coast guard units protect terminal docks and offshore fields, while the air force provides round-the-clock surveillance and protection from the air.

With this in mind, it is important to assess where Saudi Arabia's branch of Al-Qaeda is today. As 2004 came to a close, Saudi security forces had managed to capture or kill up to 500 militants, including the leaders of five cells. As noted, the Umm al-Haiman cell was a hybrid cell that included Saudi militants on the run. When it comes to border security, according to Reuters, in 2004 the kingdom's border guards were successful in detaining close to a million people trying to gain illegal entry into Saudi Arabia. Border patrols seized over 10 tons of drugs and 2,000 weapons. All in all 19,000 smuggling operations were thwarted, and 8,000 smugglers arrested.

However, when addressing the issue of terrorist funding the results are mixed.

In 2004 the mammoth Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation was dissolved, along with other private charity groups. Saudi Arabia also froze the assets of bin Laden associates believed to be financial middlemen for Al-Qaeda. And during Ramadan, when Muslims are most charitable, a ban on collection boxes outside of mosques and shopping centers was put into strict effect.

In July 2004,the G-7's Financial Action Task Force released an evaluation of Saudi Arabia's laws and measures in combating money laundering and terrorist financing. According to the report, Saudi authorities "have taken action to increase the requirements for financial institutions on customer due diligence, established systems for tracing and freezing terrorist assets, and tightened the regulation and transparency of charitable organizations."

But a Sept. 29, 2004, U.S. Senate Banking Committee report painted a different picture. The report claimed that the kingdom has yet to fully implement its new counterterrorism financing laws and regulations. The report also claimed that opportunities for the "witting or unwitting" financing of terrorism still existed.

Another important facet of the kingdom's war against terrorism will be defeating the sympathy factor. Bin Laden's rhetoric about Western exploitation of the oil of Muslim nations hits a sympathetic nerve with Saudis, particularly those who are unemployed or are hurting financially. While an independent survey in 2003 conducted by the Saudi National Security Assessment Project saw bin Laden's popularity drop to 4.7 percent, an alarming 48.7 percent of respondents still approved of his rhetoric.

Bin Laden's latest fatwas no longer call merely for violence. The Al-Qaeda leader has also issued a clearer vision for political and economic terrorism. If such a plan is realized, it could spell disaster for the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Mohammed Alkhereiji is a journalist for the pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat. He was a correspondent during the Iraq war and is frequent contributor to Time magazine.