The geological and geopolitical challenges of securing oil and natural gas (ONG) resources will become increasingly difficult. On the one hand, new oil discoveries peaked in 1960 and have since been in decline, resulting in more expensive discovery and exploration activities. On the other, ONG is increasingly produced in and/or transited through geographical hotbeds of instability. In fact, the symbiosis between oil and gas-producing regions and areas of turmoil is pronounced.
While state actors control a majority of the ONG industry and therefore can leverage supplies as geopolitical tools, violent non-state actors (VNSA) also utilize the industry as a means in their politically and criminally motivated campaigns.
From Colombia to Pakistan and beyond, VNSA are targeting energy infrastructure (EI) at a concerning rate, with over 200 attacks occurring annually since 2005. Not only does this highlight the ability of VNSA to carry out local attacks that catapult them onto the international stage, but it also demonstrates their ability to capitalize on the lack of a global energy security framework and predictable oil market dynamics. No longer a purely domestic matter, EI targeting has become a collective security challenge, where a sequence of small attacks on Nigeria’s oil sector can ripple around the globe in the form of price volatility and, potentially, supply disruptions.This phenomenon is relevant to all international actors and calls attention to key trends when examining the modern energy security environment and complexity of modern-day threats where VNSA have a platform.
Currently 40 percent of the world’s ONG is transported to refineries through pipelines, and half of the nearly 100 million tons of oil that is shipped by sea comes from Saudi Arabia alone. In fact, such transit characteristics will only increase as global demand for ONG resources grows and the reserves that are increasingly located in landlocked areas far from markets are tapped. China, for example, went from being a net exporter to a net importer of oil during the 1990s, while the United States imported around 20 percent of its oil needs in 1970 and now relies on imports to meet 60 percent of its demand.
Such developments bring to light the reality that our energy security is dependent upon secure land and maritime infrastructure, where producer, consumer and transit countries maintain significant roles. It is within this chain where significant vulnerabilities are evident. Security standards and investment in EI protection as well as social and political stability vary from country to country. More concerning cases show, however, that producer and transit countries harbor the most volatility and variance in security, which enables the VNSA to target EI.
VNSAs all around
Iraq, Nigeria and Algeria are just a few examples of unstable ONG producer countries where valuable energy resources are threatened. More closely examining a few notable cases where VNSA operate reveals the broad geographic appeal and accessibility of EI targeting.
Since the 1980s, Colombia’s Cano-Limon oil pipeline has been attacked so frequently by both the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) that it was nicknamed “the flute”. Another notable example is Iraq, where VNSA affiliated with al-Qaida tested the defenses of critical energy facilities by carrying out frequent, small but devastatingly effective EI attacks that resulted in major losses in production and revenue. This strategy, implemented from 2003-08, was encouraged by Osama bin Laden in a December 2004 released audio-tape, when he called on supporters to “focus operations on [oil production], especially in Iraq and the Gulf area, since this will cause them to die off.”
By 2005, nearly 200 attacks had cost the government 6.25 billion dollars in lost revenue, and production was dramatically reduced. Also during this period, a “risk premium” was placed on global oil prices ranging from four-to-eight dollars a barrel, with every dollar-per-barrel costing “the US economy about four billion dollars a year.” Despite an enhanced security environment, Iraq’s northern oil fields and southern facilities sit inside a precarious environment where civil war is still a possibility, at which point EI targeting will likely re-emerge and further hinder domestic growth, in turn affecting the global market.
In Russia since 1994 VNSA associated with the Chechen rebel groups have targeted Russian energy resources, with a more sustained campaign in 2004-05. Motivated by political grievances to attack Russian interests and criminal ambitions to pilfer and sell stolen oil to fund their activities, perpetrators have carried out sporadic to frequent attacks. Evidence of this includes the attacks aimed at the Baku-Novorosiisk pipeline, which transits through 100 kilometers of Chechen territory, as well as a number of incidents targeting long distance oil and gas pipelines as well as reservoirs and oil wells. More recent, albeit infrequent, acts of sabotage are predominately criminally motivated and used to fund fringe separatist activities. Adding another twist, targets have been carefully selected so not to disrupt Western ONG supplies and thus lose western support for the Chechen cause.
These cases fit within a broader tableau of sporadic and sustained EI targeting campaigns that have occurred across the globe. In Mexico oil and gas pipelines were attacked by the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) in 2007, while a year later in Turkey the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attacked the over 1,000 kilometer-long Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, a strategic pipeline that runs from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean and is an important carrier for western Europe. Other land-based EI attacks have occurred in India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Sudan and Algeria.
Offshore transit lines are not immune either. The Gulf of Guinea and Gulf of Aden are regulars on the International Maritime Bureau’s Live Piracy Report. In these regions, VNSA, armed with grenades and assault rifles and riding in small speed boats, use swarm-based tactics to attack oil tankers and other carriers transporting energy resources. Largely motivated by the promises of generous ransoms, these groups are able to carry out small to large attacks in key off-shore transiting regions. This was demonstrated in the November 2008 hijacking of the Sirius Star, a Saudi supertanker carrying “a cargo of 2m barrels – a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily output – worth more than $100m”. This event, which took place 830 kilometers off the Kenyan coast, drove oil prices up by more than one dollar a barrel and netted the perpetrators a three million dollar ransom.
These cases call attention to a global phenomenon, where modern VNSA operating in transit or producer environments recognize the importance of ONG resources to the global community and the weaknesses within energy infrastructure security. This is not to be overlooked given that today’s VNSA are, as John Robb refers, “super-empowered” by globalization and advances in digital media. Such groups are sophisticated, agile, informed and well-funded, using energy infrastructure targeting as a way: to generate global media attention; decrease state stability; create chaos and appearance of state ineffectiveness; send political messages to foreign governments and multinational corporations; communicate a broader national, ethnic or religious struggle; and, a more recent development, influence world oil market prices as well as finance their violent campaigns through stolen oil and ransoms.
Countering this challenge will require a multi-stakeholder approach that is grounded in collectively defined EI security standards and strong, more coherent public and private partnerships throughout the EI chain. No region should be ignored given that even a relatively stable area can quickly erupt into a conflict where EI is exploited.
Jennifer Giroux is a Researcher for the Crisis Risk Network at the Center for Security Studies. Her current research project focuses on the targeting of energy infrastructure.
Anna Michalkova is a Master’s student of politics and international relations at Uppsala University, Sweden.