February 27, 2006,
One frequently hears that terrorists are long-term strategists. They plan in terms of decades, if not centuries. Time is irrelevant to them. No matter what we do, they will have the upper hand, because they have an enduring cause, and the patience to stick with the game plan. It is the same thing we used to hear about the Soviets before their empire collapsed around them. Unless that was all according to plan too.
I have never given the bad guys any special credit for being long-term thinkers. They may talk about executing strategies over decades, but only because they must. Terrorists are weak by definition. If al Qaeda had land armies, air and naval fleets not to mention nuclear weapons they would use them. If they could get the job done quickly, they would. However, since they can't, they counsel patience to their followers, mount attacks when the opportunity arises, and allow us to make a virtue out of their necessity.
But the recent attempted suicide bombing at the massive Abqaiq oil-processing complex in Saudi Arabia shows that Osama bin Laden may be getting a little frustrated with the wait. He is deviating somewhat from his original plan, in which the Saudi oil industry was not to be touched so it would be intact when he took ownership. Now he would just as soon see the oil go up in flames if it speeds up the timetable.
Al Qaeda's initial strategy was laid out in their 1996 declaration of war, which I still consider must reading to understand the current conflict. But most of their plans were thrown out of kilter by our unexpectedly robust response to the 9/11 attacks. We acted forcefully, the hoped-for Muslim uprisings in defense of bin Laden did not take place, and al Qaeda was forced to go deep underground. Since then we have held the initiative and set the terms of the confrontation. Rather than methodically executing a long-term strategy, bin Laden has been forced to make it up as he goes.
This was very clearly demonstrated by the attempted oil-complex bombing. Granted, al Qaeda has always known that threatening the global oil supply is a very effective means of attacking the U.S. center of gravity, its economy. An enemy document captured in Afghanistan stated that oil is "the artery of life that provides the West and the Jews with the means of existence, and the oxygen for the Western industry that must be severed."
Yet, this did not mean that the way to sever the lifeline was to go after the Saudi oil industry. Osama was very explicit about this in his 1996 fatwa. "A spread of fighting in these areas would carry the danger of the oil burning which would be detrimental to the economic interests of the Gulf States and the land of the two holy mosques," he wrote, "and in fact to the world economy. Here we pause and urge our brothers the people, the Mujahedin, to preserve that wealth and not to involve it in the battle because it is a great Islamic wealth and a great and important economic power for the coming Islamic state, God willing." Bin Laden was more concerned that in the coming confrontation between the west and his devoted multitude the U.S. itself would destroy the Saudi oil industry "for fear of it falling into the hands of its legitimate owners and to harm its economic rivals in Europe and the Far East."
Now Osama has flip-flopped. According to a post on a jihadist website, terrorists from al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula attacked the Abqaiq site at the personal direction of bin Laden. (They also claim to have carried out their bombings successfully, press reports to the contrary being "sheer lies.") Even the failed attacks caused oil prices to jump, and well illustrated our vulnerabilities nicely timed for the recent administration push to highlight government-sponsored alternative energy, and private-sector solutions like thermal depolymerization.
The president called America's addiction to foreign oil "a national security problem," and the terrorists are seeking to accentuate the point. Whereas al Qaeda's previous approach sought to preserve the resource base that Osama expected to inherit, the new strategy seeks to destroy the center of Saudi power, presumably to quicken the downfall of the regime and damage the United States. Bin Laden would rather rule as caliph over a wrecked oil empire than continue to allow the West and the "lackey apostate leaders" of Saudi Arabia to "steal Muslim wealth." Plus, let's face it, it has been ten years since the declaration of war and he is no closer to taking power. It is one thing to talk about the long-term when you are 39, but he is turning 50 next year, and he is in a high-risk occupation. With Young Turks like Zarqawi coming up behind him, Osama knows he has to get something going soon or become a permanent has-been if he lives.
James S. Robbins is author of the forthcoming Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point and an NRO Contributor.