Al Qaeda Purportedly Behind Oil Attack
A burst of gunfire and explosions thwarted an attempt to strike at the heart of the Saudi oil industry.
Suicide bombers in two explosives-laden cars tried to storm into Abqaiq, the largest oil processing facility in the world, a few hours after weekly noon prayers on Friday, possibly hoping to catch guards by surprise on what is normally the quietest day of the week.
The attackers' cars bore the logo of Aramco, the state oil company that owns the facility, CBS News correspondent David Hawkins reports.
Guards shot at the cars, and two of the vehicles exploded, Hawkins says. The explosions caused a fire that was quickly controlled, the oil minister said.
Even though it failed, the attack raised fears that militants who have been on the run in the kingdom were now resurgent and targeting the oil industry.
The al Qaeda terror group purportedly claimed responsibility, saying two of its militants carried out the suicide attack. The claim was posted on a Web site frequently used by terror groups but there was no way to check its authenticity.
Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi quickly announced that the attack "did not affect operations" and that Abqaiq operations and exports "continued to operate normally." The huge Abqaiq processing facility near the Persian Gulf prepares about two-thirds of the country's oil output for export, making it a crucial link in getting Saudi crude to the market.
Crude oil futures spiked more than $2 a barrel amid fears militants would again target the vital industry, CBS News correspondent Anthony Mason reports. Light sweet crude for April delivery surged as high as $63.25 a barrel before settling at $62.91, an increase of $2.37 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude futures for April delivery jumped $2.06 to $62.60 on London's ICE Futures exchange.
The attack in Abqaiq, about 25 miles inland from Saudi Arabia's eastern Gulf coast, took place at about 3 p.m. Friday, a day off for Saudis though the facility was in operation.
At least two militants were killed in the explosions, and Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television reported two security guards also died. Interior Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki could not confirm the deaths of the security guards but said two were critically wounded with potentially lethal injuries.
The assault began when two cars tried to drive through the gates of the outermost of three fences surrounding the processing facility, al-Turki told The Associated Press.
Guards shot at the cars, and both vehicles exploded, al-Turki said. The explosions caused a fire that was quickly controlled, the oil minister said.
Guards then battled for two hours with two other militants outside the facility, said a Saudi journalist who arrived at the scene soon after the explosion. He said he saw workers repairing a pipeline.
For three more hours afterward, security forces searched the surrounding area, the journalist said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of his company's rules.
An AP correspondent at the site saw ambulances racing through Abqaiq's streets hours after the attack. Police had set up roadblocks leading in and out of the town. There were no immediate reports of further casualties or arrests.
The facility lies several miles from a residential area where several thousand expatriate workers, including Americans, Europeans and Arabs, live. Al-Turki said no foreigners were injured in the violence.
It was the first attack on an oil facility in Saudi Arabia. The assault raised speculation that the militants were adopting the tactics of insurgents across the border in Iraq, where the oil industry has been repeatedly targeted.
Saudi Arabia has been waging a successful three-year crackdown on al Qaeda's branch in the kingdom. Security forces have killed or captured most of the branch's known top leaders, most recently in gunbattles in December, after the militants launched a campaign in 2003 to overthrow the U.S.-allied royal family with a string of attacks.
There have long been fears militants would target oil facilities, but in the past they have targeted foreigners working in the industry rather than infrastructure.
In Nigeria militants have shut down about a fifth of the country's production, and nine foreign oil workers have been taken hostage there as well, Mason reports.
"In Iraq they zeroed in on oil, and this appears to be a creeping process, since it is happening in Saudi Arabia," said Youssef Ibrahim, a Dubai-based political risk analyst with the Strategic Energy Investment Group.
Iraq's most feared terror leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, heads al Qaeda's branch in that country. The two countries share a porous desert border, which militants are known to cross to join the Iraqi insurgency.
In May 2004, attackers stormed the offices of a Houston-based oil company in the western Saudi oil hub of Yanbu in fighting that killed six Westerners, a Saudi and the militants. Several weeks later, al Qaeda-linked gunmen stormed oil company compounds in Khobar, on the eastern coast, and took hostages in a siege that killed 22 people, 19 of them foreigners.
In December 2004, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a Saudi exile, for the first time called on militants to attack oil targets in the Gulf to stop the flow of oil to the West.
But no major attacks followed in the region. Some experts have believed that because al Qaeda's long-term goal is to run Saudi Arabia, it would do nothing to seriously jeopardize the oil industry on which the kingdom's wealth is based.
Friday's attack is new "in the sense that this is the boldest attempt to strike at the heart of a Saudi oil-production complex," Eurasia Group oil analyst Antoine Halff said.
Saudi Arabia holds over 260 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, a quarter of the world's total. It currently puts out about 9.5 million barrels per day, or 11 percent of global consumption.
The Abqaiq facility processes about 5-7 million barrels a day, removing hydrogen sulfide from crude oil to make it safe for shipping, before it is pumped to tankers for export.
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