New York Times on Thursday, February 13, 2003
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – The government of Saudi Arabia has increased security around its oil fields and processing centers after the discovery that employees of the state-owned oil company sympathetic to Al Qaeda were discussing sabotage plans late last summer, American and Saudi officials say.
American intelligence officials discovered the conversations and alerted the Saudi authorities, who quickly arrested and interrogated the suspects, the officials added.
The quiet thwarting of the potentially disastrous sabotage, disclosed in October by ABC News, is seen by officials here and in Washington as a model of cooperation for a relationship that has been under strain since the disclosure of the role of Saudis in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Still, the sabotage case and the response to it underscore the deep anxieties about the security of Saudi oil when a war with Iraq could make it more valuable, but also more vulnerable, than ever.
Intelligence officials say the discovery of Qaeda sympathizers inside Saudi Aramco is part of a worrisome trend: Al Qaeda’s leadership appears to be increasingly focused on economic targets, especially the oil industry.
A few weeks after the sabotage suspects were detained, a French supertanker carrying oil from Saudi Arabia was attacked off the coast of Yemen, in a plot that American and Arab officials say was orchestrated by Al Qaeda. About the same time, a Qaeda videotape surfaced showing Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, calling for attacks on economic targets.
The tanker attack had little impact on oil markets, but oil experts say any disruption of Saudi Arabia’s oil production could be an economic disaster. Not only are the Saudis the world’s largest oil suppliers, but they are the only ones with enough spare capacity to make up for large shortages from producers like Iraq or strike-plagued Venezuela. That is a role they have filled repeatedly in the last two decades.
“To inflict economic damage, Al Qaeda doesn’t have to hit the twin towers,” said one senior intelligence official. “They can do it in their own backyard, where all the oil is.”
“Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities are a target-rich environment,” said one American intelligence official. He and other officials said the terror tactics that most worried them were computer-aided sabotage and the use of airplanes as missiles.
During the Persian Gulf war 12 years ago, Iraq launched more than three dozen missiles into the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Some Saudis thought that was part of an unsuccessful effort to damage the Ras Tanura shipping and refining complex near the Persian Gulf, the gateway for most of the eight million barrels of oil that Saudi Arabia produces each day.