Hostages vs Hardware

by Kieran Healy on May 30, 2004

Before I went to graduate school I worked for a year at an oil refinery — “Ireland’s only refinery”:, in fact — in East Cork. Reading reports about the “hostage crisis in Khobar”:, I wonder why the terrorists went after the oil workers rather than the refineries they work at. After all, if you’re prepared to plan and execute a heavily-armed attack like this, you could do a lot more damage if you just broke into the plant. Oil refinery hardware is just lots of open-plan exposed pipes, tanks and towers filled with flammable liquids. Popping a few RPGs in the direction of a kero tank or “butane sphere”: could have spectacular consequences. In the “fractionation towers”: the crude has helpfully been vaporized for you in advance. Instead, though, these guys hole up with 50 oil workers in a residential compound and basically wait to get themselves killed. Why? Hostage situations haven’t been reliably successful for hostage-takers since the 1980s. The CNN reports cite the terrorists as saying they are out to get “Zionists and crusaders” who are in Khobar to “steal our oil and resources.” Maybe they hate the workers but love the refineries? Who, exactly, are they trying to send a message to here? Do they think that killing foreigners will garner support whereas the destruction of a refinery would turn Saudi opinion against them?

*Update*: Just as I was finishing this post, I discovered that inquiring minds like “Billmon”: want to know the answer to this question as well.



abb1 05.30.04 at 9:23 am

I don’t think they hate the workers, they hate foreigners, infidels:

Standoff Ends After Deadly Saudi Attack

…Orora Naoufal, said she cowered in her apartment with her 4-year-old son for five hours after a brief encounter with two of the gunmen, whom she described as clean-shaven and wearing military uniforms.

She told AP by telephone that the gunmen asked her where the “infidels” and foreigners were, and whether she was Muslim or Christian.

“I replied: ‘I am Lebanese and there are no foreigners here.'” She said the gunmen told her to “Go convert to Islam, and cover up and go back to your country.”

They’re a bunch of hicks, rednecks; the idea of shooting pipes in order to get the foreigners out is too complicated.


drapeto 05.30.04 at 9:50 am

Do they think that killing foreigners will garner support whereas the destruction of a refinery would turn Saudi opinion against them?

i’d assume so. call it the poor man’s neutron bomb.


Maynard Handley 05.30.04 at 10:04 am

What is the majority Saudi opinion (or, if that’s not known, what the stated opinion of Al Q and similar organizations) on Saudi oil? It’s a great boon to the nation (presumably with caveats along the lines of “Westerners should pay a whole lot more for it” and “the money should be used to the glory of God”), or it’s the devil’s own liquid that by making Saudi’s rich is destroying their spirituality?
Presumably the answer to this tells us whether to expect future attacks to concentrate on foreigners, or to take out infrastructure.


Ginger Yellow 05.30.04 at 11:39 am

From what I’ve read, they didn’t originally intend to take hostages, but fled to the compound when their hit and run attempt ran into heavy fire from the police.

But in general terms, there are a number of reasons why they go for the workers rather than the facilities:

1) The facilities are heavily guarded, the compounds less so – apparently the guards at the last compound to be attacked all went off on a “training exercise” the day it happened.

2) The Saudi government would respond a lot more fiercely to an attack on production facilities than on foreign workers. It has a very ambivalent approach toward foreign workers, knowing that it needs them to keep the economy going but also aware that much of the population resents them.

3) Related to the above, the compounds have symbolic value as a representation of colonial interference and insularity and whatnot.

4) Since the terrorists’ stated goals are to get the foreign workers out, it makes sense to attack them directly. You’re far more likely to scare them away if you attack them at “home” rather than at work. It’s very uncomfortable when there’s nowhere you feel safe. Anyway, most of the (western) foreigners don’t actually work in the oilfields – they’re technical contractors, financiers and arms dealers.


chun the unavoidable 05.30.04 at 12:17 pm

You want spectactular consequences? Try playing a few RPGs in the vicinity of a kero tank or butane sphere (and “kuro,” wtf?).


PG 05.30.04 at 12:58 pm

“Maybe they hate the workers but love the refineries? […] Do they think that killing foreigners will garner support whereas the destruction of a refinery would turn Saudi opinion against them?”

I’d consider both of these to be accurate. From what I’ve seen, Islamic fundamentalists across the board, from Iranian hardliners to the Taliban, are not opposed to oil itself. They are well aware that it is the wealth of their nations, and they are not environmentalists or anything of that sort. What they dislike is having someone other than themselves controlling the oil: they want to be able to control Western nations by cutting off the oil supply, and they do not want to see oil money spent on decadent Western goods.


bellatrys 05.30.04 at 1:31 pm

There’s another aspect to all this, quite independent of religion

Oil money doesn’t go to the People, by and large. It doesn’t in Nigeria, it doesn’t in Saudi, it doesn’t in eastern Europe, it doesn’t in central America, it doesn’t in North America, either.

What you get is a *small* trickle-down effect, but by and large you get a small grossly-wealthy conspicuously-consuming plutocracy and the rest of the population continues to barely eke out a living.

So the unrest Out East, it’s largely a People’s Revolt, which unlike the Russian Revolution has the more traditional local religious coloration (qv. The Peasants’ Revolt, Fr. John Ball) for its emotional logic. The problem is one of helotry and dispossession, while right in front of you are foreigners being paid sumptuous sums to extract and process your natural resources, and the money isn’t translating into jobs and food for your family now is it?

Why not blow up the refineries? “Nationalizing resources” after a revolution is old, old news. This is and always has been a simmering revolt against the House of Saud, the house that the Allies (ie US, Britain, primarily) put in power after WWI as a result for helping us – not because they were the best and noblest of all possible choices. (q.v. “Burma.” Also “Chalabi, A.”)

And part of the problem we have right now is the media – and the Party – doing their best to present it as something new, different, not part of any recognized historical patterns, and utterly incomprehensible product of the “Celtic” – er, “Oriental” – er, “Arab Mind” this time around.


Ginger Yellow 05.30.04 at 2:44 pm

“il money doesn’t go to the People, by and large. It doesn’t in Nigeria, it doesn’t in Saudi, it doesn’t in eastern Europe, it doesn’t in central America, it doesn’t in North America, either.
What you get is a small trickle-down effect, but by and large you get a small grossly-wealthy conspicuously-consuming plutocracy and the rest of the population continues to barely eke out a living. ”

All true, but in the interests of completeness it should be pointed out that there is one way that “oil money [goes] to the people” – most oil-rich Middle East nations have no income tax. At least on right wing terms, that’s giving to the people. Of course, having no income tax makes for a regressive economic system, but that’s another matter.


nnyhav 05.30.04 at 3:13 pm


Charles Gerlach 05.30.04 at 4:55 pm

The neutron bomb theory is the only logical explanation: if you intend to inherit the place, don’t destroy it.

There is another more subtle theory: the message is “We can take a refinery anytime we want.” It is a clever message: it doesn’t really hurt your Arab host (Saudi Arabia), but it sends water through the bowels of the commodities traders.

Take out a refinery (or threaten to), further reduce capacity, keep oil prices up to $2.50 for the foreseeable future.

The message was meant to land on George Bush and the Americans.


Phill 05.30.04 at 5:23 pm

Attacking the oil installations is actually a reasonably common tactic. The US is currently spending tens to hundreds of millions providing security for the central america operations of some Bush/Cheney crony or other (forget which).

Al Qaeda is not so much a resistance movement as a millenial cult, like Japan’s Subway Sarin attack cult. They believe that they are different and superior to everyone else because they alone do not fear death. That is why they favor suicide attacks and attacks that kill large numbers of people. Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri get a big power kick out of killing people.

Attacking the refinery would not be such a successful strategy in this case. It is unlikely that the refinery would be out of action for very long. Al Qaeda probably believe that they stand a better chance of intimidating the cowardly infidels.

Al Qaeda is much smaller than the number of people trained in its camps during the Afghan war. It does not have the capacity to perform a sustained attack in any one given place over a length of time. They could take out the refinery once or twice but they cannot keep it out of operation permanently.


Ted Barlow 05.30.04 at 6:39 pm

I’m reading Daniel Yergen’s “The Prize” right now, and I just finished reading about how the nationalist movement in Iran drove out the British and nationalized the oil industry (for a few years, anyway). When I heard about this attack, I wondered if the terrorists have any dreams of nationalizing the Saudi oil industry.

I haven’t the foggiest idea, really, so forget I said anything.


Lance Boyle 05.30.04 at 7:58 pm

There was some kind of heavy clampdown in Saudi Arabia a couple of weeks ago. As opposed to a relaxing of vigilance.
Personally, I’m encouraging everyone to think the unthinkable. In this case that would be, as in the Berg case, that the self-descriptions are disinformative nonsense. This is of course unknowable. Even if we had one of the actors in front of us, live, we wouldn’t know.
But the timeline, the effect, it looks odd. Madrid looked odd. Berg looked really odd. Everything’s looking odd.
What seems timid is people are going, like, Bush and Co.? Those guys are big liars, ruthless disinformation-liars, willing to let thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of Americans die for their lies and greed; but then as the pit opens up beneath their feet and skepticism builds – suddenly everything they’re telling us must be true, everything you hear on the mainstream news channels, which were the main outlets for the Administration’s previous lies, must be true. Accepted unquestioningly.
Intelligent young men are playing current events like a video game, maybe because it’s a refuge from what’s really happening.
Wouldn’t you expect the lying to increase in these circumstances?
Wouldn’t you expect whatever ruthless force was behind the whole debacle to increase its chicanery as it was being exposed?


David Sucher 05.30.04 at 11:19 pm

As to nationalizing the Saudi oil industry: didn’t that happen about 30 year ago?


Kragen Sitaker 05.30.04 at 11:27 pm

I think refinery workers are less replaceable than workers in most other industries, and I suspect their cost of replacement is close to the cost of replacement of the facilities themselves. Setting up Saudi Aramco and booting the furriners out took the Saudis more than a decade of massive educational investments.

And of course there’s the argument that you can inherit facilities more easily than people. Facilities don’t have hidden loyalties.

So attacking refinery workers might actually be a more effective way of hurting the House of Saud than merely attacking refineries.


Giles 05.30.04 at 11:34 pm

Its worth remembering that in 1970 Saudi Arabia population increased from 6 million to 25 million today. In the mean time GDP per capita has halved since 1980 i.e we have a lot more people with a lot worse jobs.

I don’t think its hard to see why they try to kill foreign workers whether they work in oil menial occupations (like those killed in earlier bomb attacks) – they want their jobs.


Warbaby 05.30.04 at 11:42 pm

A couple of points:

See the IntelCenter “al-Qaeda Targeting Guidance” press release here It’s a bad translation of a recent al Qaida publication and the analysis is almost non-existant.

The translated article suggests targeting people comes first. Where it does talk about targeting oil, the focus is on transport and well head – both easily repaired and replaced compared to refineries. So it looks like there is some strategic thinking in al Qaida that says transitory damage only. Dunno why.

Slightly off topic, but there is a very widespread misunderstanding about al Qaida. It’s not SPECTRE or THRUSH. There’s been a lot of hype that makes al Qaida the “nexus” of jihadi terrorism. It’s not. It’s just the most successful one of a large number of groups in a revitalization movement. Confusing the group with the movement is common and very misleading.

Bob Baer repeatedly makes this mistake in “Sleeping with the Devil”: he can’t distinguish between an organization and a movement. So he says al Qaida isn’t nearly as important as the Muslim Brotherhood and then makes the same mistake all over again, having only substituted one name for another. Sheesh.

Hence all the muddled talk about “al Qaida-linked” and so forth.

Final point: Bin Laden’s target is and always has been a fundamentalist takeover in Saudi Arabia. The US is the “far” enemy and the Saudi regime is a “near” enemy. The purpose of 9/11 was to weaken the US so that a coup in Saudi Arabia would have a chance of success. And it looks like they are making some progress in that direction.


Cranky Observer 05.30.04 at 11:44 pm

Heavy industrial facilities may look fragile, but they are actually quite tough. Consider the temperature, pressure, and corrosive material the fractionating tower is designed to withstand in normal operation. An RPG is probably not a significant load on such equipment.

As the Allies found in their strategic bombing campaign of WWII. See the first Polesti raid and how much damage it actually did.


Giles 05.30.04 at 11:55 pm

Its also worth noting that the majority of the dead, as usual, were not westerners – they were Asian workers.

One American
One Briton
One South African
One Swede
One Italian

Two Sri Lankans
Three Saudis
Three Filipinos
One Egyptian
Eight Indians


john c. halasz 05.31.04 at 1:28 am

A small historical correction for Bellatrys. At the time of WW1, the Brits were allied with the Hashemite Sharif of the Hejaz, the western coastal strip of Arabia that includes Mecca. Ibn Saud attacked from the east and drove out the Hashemites, who, by way of compensation by the Brits for losing their home base and being swindled out of an Arab kingdom in Damascus, were placed on the thrones of Tansjordan and Iraq. FDR met with Ibn Saud during WW2 after oil had been discovered.


O'Horgan 05.31.04 at 2:28 am

“Lance Boyle”? Is that a nom de guerre for conspiracy-mongers? How long should we wait before lancing the boil?


q 05.31.04 at 2:54 am

The aim of the campaign is:
1. Provide independent representative government for Saudi Arabia
2. Provide independent representative government for other Islamic countries including Palestine.

It is an old-fashioned anti-imperialist movement along the lines of the Americans in America, Irish in Ireland and Indians in India.

The only slight difference is the migration of Jews to Palestine which complicates the scenario, similar to the occupation of Northern Ireland by Protestants.

The majority of Saudis believe that a wealthy US Jewish population is distorting US foreign policy to preference the rights of Israel and Jews in the Middle East.

Targeting the Americans risks destabilising the oil industry, so that at some point US consumers and corporations will put pressure on the US government to abandon its pro-zionist foreign policy. By killing Americans without attaching the installations means that if the US foreign policy changes the oil industry can be back on its feet quickly.

Attacking the installations would damage the oil industry and potentially alienate local Saudis.

It should also be noted that two other conspiracy theories are widely believed in Saudi Arabia:
1. That Israelis had a connection with the World Trade Centre attacks
2. That Israelis have connections with AlQaeda

To be honest, if you read some of the Alqaeda statements a lot of them are quite clear, but some news agencies sometimes don’t print the statements.

Presumably the worry is that if the 97% of Americans that aren’t Jewish realise they can have stability if they switch away from Israel, they might just decide to give up on Israel. I think the anti-zionist Jews realise this, but I don’t know how many of those there are (0.5%?).

Fortunately for the Zionists, a lot of fundamentalist Christians believe that supporting the state of Israel is part of their mission from God. Many Christians view Jews a bit like Muslims view both Jews and Christians “slightly misguided and haven’t read the most important revalations in the last book from the last Messiah”. Except Christians think Jesus was the last big prophet and Muslims think Mohammed was the last big prophet.

I believe that about 20% of Americans fall into the Pro-zionist fundamentalist Christian group. 20+3 = 23% enough to swing most elections on the Zionist issue. I am not sure how much the rest of America really cares about a land so far away.

So the Alqaeda aim is to persuade the Americans to change their approach, and shooting and expelling Americans is a start.


q 05.31.04 at 3:10 am

AND … there is the possibility that the Saudi Government’s reliance on foreign workers to carry out tasks has insulated the Saudi Government from the opinion of the majority of Saudis. A prince who has Americans reporting to him will not get so much anti-American bile day to day.

By forcing the Saudi Government to rely on the local population, the local population are likely to get their voice heard more.

Finally, it needs to be noted that economic reforms in Saudi Arabia are resulting in the mass repatriation of foreign workers, which is being done to improve the trade balance, and there has been a lot of discussion about elections in the Middle East. I believe limited forms of democracy have been tried in one or two Arab states.

If the Saudis introduce democratic elections, Usama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda will become largely irrelevant, as the local population will simply vote for an activist anti-zionist party.


q 05.31.04 at 3:22 am

_Instead, though, these guys hole up with 50 oil workers in a residential compound and basically wait to get themselves killed. Why? Hostage situations haven’t been reliably successful for hostage-takers since the 1980s._

If successful is defined not in terms of deals, but simply as aiming to terrify expats into leaving, then the tactic will work very well.


q 05.31.04 at 3:27 am

_What is the majority Saudi opinion on Saudi oil?_

They think it is a gift from Allah. The Americans who helped them find it are also a gift from Allah. Now they want the second gift from Allah to be part of a third gift of Allah which would be the gift of the Occupied Territories to the Palestinians.


q 05.31.04 at 3:44 am

As well as no income tax, petrol is cheap, healthcare is free and you don’t need to heat your house.

By the way, did you know that Saudi Arabia, a country with little rain or fertile soil, is a net exporter of wheat!


q 05.31.04 at 3:55 am

Nitpick: Egypt is not in Asia and some people would not classify Saudis as “Asians” even if Saudi Arabia is in Asia.


David Locke 05.31.04 at 5:16 am

The origin of the Islamic cleric’s anti-Americanism is sourced at the way American oil money destroyed the sense of obligation toward the community of the wealthy ruling class. If those middle class, educated people had jobs and families, they wouldn’t be terrorists.

We can’t fix this problem. How do we make their wealthy ruling class give a damn about their people and their community when they live in a global economy and the kids go to school in Switzerland? We need to find an answer to this question, because the Republican agenda will cause this to happen to us.

Individualism is already designed in here in America. We are no longer allowed to physcially be a family. And, the right sees all things social as socialist. Our sense of community is dying. The old money has already taken it out on new money and nobody said a word. No, they cheered their tax cut, the tax cut enacted on the backs of IT workers. Congrats. How many more things do they have to change before we end up in a theocratic police state? Not many.


q 05.31.04 at 6:05 am

I have just gone through the 167 comments at the Billmon blog Comments here

There is an extremely well-read (connected?) commentator at BILLMON called OUTRAGED who has posted about many pages of excellent detailed information in many different posts about the current situation. If you want to understand where AlQaeda is coming from and US strategic policy and you have the time, read through all the OUTRAGED posts and follow all the links.


Tom 06.01.04 at 8:27 pm

“Maybe they hate the workers but love the refineries? Who, exactly, are they trying to send a message to here? Do they think that killing foreigners will garner support whereas the destruction of a refinery would turn Saudi opinion against them?”

If they blew up a refinery, the oil that would have been refined in that Saudi refinery would instead be exported to be refined overseas; and the Saudis would get less dough, as they wouldn’t be making value-added products from the crude.

Considering that the Saudis have put considerable effort into moving up the petroleum value chain, this would be cutting off the nose to spite the face, especially if the terrorists believe they are close to taking over the Saudi state.

Presumably the terrorists want all those foreign engineers to fuck off or something, and the refinery jobs to go to the 50% of Saudis PhDs that specialize in Islamic Studies.

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