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Exceeding $100 USD a barrel in a stroke: attack Ghawar, Abqaiq, and Safaniya


In researching means of threat definition for another project, I returned to Global Guerrillas as a segway into network analysis -- which works just as well for, say, analyzing energy and petroleum networks as it does for information or social networks. What caught my eye were three threads; one, how to get to $160 a barrel of oil in a hurry, two, what to attack, and three , how to take down the supporting networks (such as power) that lead to taking down the petroleum network itself.

Two years ago I was telling some colleagues that it was reasonable to take down the House of Saud, but I was assured that all was secure.  Speaking now to other partners who have operatives in the Kingdom, it would appear that the situation is extraordinary tender, given al Qaeda's presence in the Kingdom and its penetration of the security services.

Design Flaws: Methods Of Attacking Critical Infrastructure highlights the critical path process of exploiting the designers' original assumptions in order to create major network disruptions which then degrade the network to the point that the network becomes the ally of the attacker by damaging itself, e.g., overloads, unacceptable operating costs, etc. (The point is made that T. E. Lawrence's attack on the Turkish rail system followed this approach.)

The general considerations follow our own admonitions of the impossibility of defending everything (and so defend nothing) and that all systems have assumptions (many of which are unspoken or now forgotten):

  • Economic optimization (efficiency over safety)
  • Limited resources to defend against all potential threats
  • Security focuses on historical scenario spinning and so looks backwards, usually defensively and not offensively

The more detailed assumptions offer a roll-up strategy to the attacker. (We like to say that, "The answer is unimportant. If the assumptions change, the answers will change [and there are always a spectrum of answers according to time, money, and leverage]. Instead of defining assumptions, and taking a targeted proactive analysis, clients too often ask for static checklists which are but still frames from a motion picture.")

Target: Ghawar identifies the hierarchical nodes of Saudi oil production, King ('supergiant'), Queens ('giants'), and Lords ('large'), a network that mimics other large economic networks:

  • Small number of nodes
  • Hub concentration
  • Vulnerability

Ghawar is so large that it has "zonal concentrations," producing some 2/3 of Saudi production and over 6% of global production: over 5 million barrels a day. A 'moderately' successful attack on Ghawar was said to raise the price of oil to $75 a barrel, slowing "global economic growth by 2.5%," whereas a 'successful' attack on Ghawar and Basra would hit $160 a barrel, slowing global economic growth by 4.55%.

Scenario: The Disruption of Saudi Arabia outlines what I agree is an achievable economic damage of >1 trillion USD for a million or less in expenses:

"The three main cells were given different areas of coverage: oil, electricity, and water. The cells mapped the infrastructures, established the position and response times of emergency forces, and the viability of entrance/exit routes. The subsequent network analysis done by a central planning group determined the most vulnerable sections of the infrastructures with the greatest potential for cascading system failure. The planning group followed a golden rule of global guerrilla warfare: use the network as your weapon. The final list of potential targets were sent back to the operational cells for final target selection, additional intelligence collection, operational planning, and execution."

It's worth reading the attack in full, but it starts with electricity attacks on the Ghazlan power complex (> 40% of eastern province power) followed by the al Fahdli high voltage substation. Water attacks then commence on a major seawater pipeline feeding Ghawar's water injection systems that maintain positive pressure. Finally the oil attacks focus on the #5 Pumping Station of the Petroline. Note that 'oil' is the 'last' to be attacked.

The impact starts with "reduced Saudi oil production by 1/3 over the first year of action (a loss of over 3 m barrels a day)" and goes downhill from there. Without solid counter-surveillance against an identified threat profile, proactive and not "feel good" passive, such attacks have a very reasonable chance of success. A recommended read to dispense with your complacency.

Design Flaws: Methods Of Attacking Critical Infrastructure, 17 May, 2004
Target: Ghawar, 14 May, 2004
Scenario: The Disruption of Saudi Arabia, 19 June, 2004
John Robb
Global Guerrillas

Gordon Housworth

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