A satellite overview handout image from the US government shows damage to oil and gas infrastructure from weekend drone attacks at Abqaiq on September 15, 2019.

The September terrorist attacks on oil giant Saudi Aramco have raised a very important issue. This incident has opened up a new reality – the reality of major terror attacks carried out with the use of sophisticated technologies that are available to almost any person anywhere in the world.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility for the attacks on two facilities in Saudi Arabia, one on Aramco’s largest oil-processing plant in Abqaiq and the other on the Khurais oilfield. The strikes caused significant damage to the targeted facilities. Worse still, the damage wasn’t confined to the ruined equipment. The assault knocked out 50% of Saudi Arabia’s oil output, or about 5% of global oil production.

Why target energy facilities?

The truth is that the Aramco’ attack was just one of more than 50 terrorist acts committed against energy sectors in various countries, mostly in the Middle East and Africa. The above-mentioned Abqaiq oil-processing facility was targeted by al-Qaeda in 2006, with two car bombs exploding at the entrance. The oil installations weren’t damaged as security forces opened fire and managed to foil the attack. In January 2016, the Egyptian affiliate of Islamic State bombed a pipeline that carries gas to Jordan and northern Sinai. The assault had a strong political motive as explained in a Twitter message saying: “By the name of God, not a drop of gas will reach Jordan until the caliphate gives its permission.”

In Libya, Islamic State militants attacked al-Dhahra oilfield, along with blowing up several buildings in the area. The group also claimed responsibility for a shooting that took place at the Tripoli office of Libya’s National Oil Corporation in September 2018. The statement published by Amaq, the main mouthpiece of ISIS, read: “Oilfields which support the crusaders and their projects in Libya are legitimate targets for the mujahideen.” In May 2018, terrorists targeted Zella oilfield in southwestern Libya, with three men killed and four others kidnapped. And this is far from an exhaustive list.

In such cases perpetrators pursue various goals: to cause damage to the country’s energy sector by disrupting gas or oil supplies, undermine the country’s credibility as a reliable supplier of energy resources, raise oil prices, halt exports to Western countries, create social unrest, cause panic or discredit the government.

Robert Hayward, a defense council member at the Truman Project and chief operating officer at Chem-Energy Corporation, has mentioned the under-construction Trans-Afghan Pipeline as being vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

“In light of the Saudi Aramco attacks, it is quite clear that terrorists’ goals or selection for high-value targets are based on large-scale global, geopolitical and economic disruption. The most prominent threat outside of Yemen would be the Trans-Afghan Pipeline,” he told this writer.

“The pipeline is based upon the ability to disrupt the current energy alternatives for China and India and the competition that it draws as a competitor for Iran makes the region [where] construction will take place a vulnerable target for additional terrorist threats. The areas affected by the construction of this pipeline include Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Current threats to disrupt energy supplies as we have witnessed can potentially point to the Trans-Afghan pipeline as both a present and future economic and geopolitical advancement for the region, making it a target keeping in step with the recent attacks.”

Powerful weapon in hands of terrorists

What makes the Aramco attack different from other cases is a new, revolutionary way employed by the perpetrators to stage attacks on energy infrastructure – by means of drones. In the other cases described above, the attacks were implemented using traditional methods, such as bombing or shooting. The thing is that there is a high level of security at most oil, gas and nuclear facilities, which makes it extremely difficult for a terrorist to plant a bomb or get a weapon inside the secured premises. This partially explains why attacks on energy facilities are low in number in comparison with those carried out in public spaces.

In this regard, drones seem to have become a game-changer as security measures against these devices haven’t been developed as thoroughly as those countering armed attacks or bombings. The unmanned aerial vehicles used in the Aramco attacks were sophisticated and high-precision, so even radar failed to detect them. Even worse, UAVs have become increasingly popular among various terrorist groups. In August, European Union Security Commissioner Julian King warned that terrorists could use drones to target Europe. One of the worst scenarios he mentioned involved UAVs spreading biological agents over crowded public areas in European cities.

Unfortunately, ISIS militants already have extensive experience in operating drones. The most widespread use of these vehicles relates to gathering intelligence, mapping, and taking videos and photos. But that was just the beginning. Once again, Islamic State has proved itself to be innovative and managed to develop its own drone programs. Its militants studied guides and manuals to be able to modify and weaponize drones without outside help. As a result, in 2016, they launched a bomb-laden drone that killed two Kurdish soldiers, and in 2017, ISIS released munitions using modified UAVs.

What solutions are there?

Governments all over the world have been developing drone countermeasures, such as drone-disabling guns and electronic measures. However, a more comprehensive approach should be taken to protect energy facilities from terrorist attacks. As the head of the CIS Anti-Terrorism Center, Andrei Novikov, said in the wake of the Aramco attack, a single mechanism for protecting fuel and energy facilities from terrorism needs to be developed.

Russian journalist Tatiana Kanunnikova is a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs.

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