The Growing Connection between Oil and Terror

This week, it was announced that Algeria's In Amenas natural gas facility, which grabbed international headlines in January 2013 when Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists from Libya took hundreds hostage in a prolonged standoff resulting in over 40 deaths, is only now returning to normal operations 19 months after the original attack. According to Reuters, companies operating at the large facility, including Norway’s Statoil, England’s BP, and Algeria’s Sonatrach, have gone to great lengths to improve security for both domestic and expat workers. The facility is located in the middle of the desert near Algeria’s border with Libya, with its remote location bordering a war-torn state creating significant security vulnerabilities. The deadly In Amenas attacks are another reminder that energy and terrorism have a long history, and the relationship between the two appears to be strengthening. SAFE’s analysis based on data from the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database suggests that terrorist attacks related to oil and gas have risen sharply in both relative and aggregate terms. In aggregate terms, attacks on production facilities, pipelines, and industry personnel have risen from low levels of generally less than 100 attacks per year from 1970-the mid-1990s to nearly 600 attacks in 2013. In relative terms, these attacks have bucked overall terrorism trends, as the total number of global terrorist attacks rose steadily through the mid-1990s, before dropping off through the late 2000s, and rising slightly in recent years. Attacks related to oil and gas have escalated disproportionately during this period. During the mid-1990s, attacks on oil and gas installations reflected less than 2.5 percent of total terror attacks. Last year, 600 of the 2600 total terror attacks worldwide were oil and gas related, meaning attacks related to oil and gas were nearly a quarter of attacks overall—an order of magnitude of relative increase. The database includes both criminal and political attacks around the globe, thus the results are not restricted to Islamic terrorism in the Middle East. However, the increasing price of oil since 2000 could explain the increase in global attacks on oil installations: Attackers see oil and energy as a way to inflict asymmetric damage, impairing the target financially and logistically, and in some cases capturing valuable resources for themselves.

While many of these attacks are non-lethal, there are also significant numbers which end in multiple fatalities, extended kidnappings, major infrastructure damage, and subsequent turmoil for the industry. The most lethal attacks on oil industry workers and infrastructure include: October 2010: In an armed assault, nine militants riding motorcycles fired upon a NATO convoy transporting oil tankers near Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Twelve of the convoy’s 28 personnel were killed; a Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility and stated such attacks will be amplified and continued. December 2008: During a meeting to reconcile differences between the Arab tribal leaders and Kurdish officials regarding jurisdiction over Iraq’s oil resources, a suicide bomber killed 55 and injured 120 people at a restaurant in Kirkuk, Iraq. May 2008: Members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta used a suicide bomber to detonate an improvised explosive device against a Royal Dutch Shell pipeline, killing 11 soldiers and causing major property damage in excess of $1 million. April 2007: Over 200 gunmen from the Ogaden National Liberation Front attacked the Chinese operators of an oil field in Abole, Ethiopia. Seventy-four people were killed (nine Chinese and 65 Ethiopians), the exploration facility was destroyed, millions of dollars of damage was caused, and seven Chinese workers were kidnapped and later released.

While the incidence of attacks on oil installations has increased, fatalities have not followed in lockstep. Though unclear, possible explanations include increased attacks on pipelines and other unmanned infrastructure. While 2014 data is not yet available, given the priority that ISIS has placed on seizing and controlling oil and energy resources, we can expect another year of increase for both total attacks on oil and gas facilities, and total fatalities. There’s also a snowball effect: Now that ISIS is pulling in close to $3m per day from oil revenues, oversight of these installations enables them to expand their reach, tighten their control, and acquire new weapons. Despite the depressing increases we’ve already seen in recent years, the darkest days for oil related terror could still be to come.