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Is Hydrocarbon Man the Next Terrorist Target?

Daniel Yergin, in the prologue to his award winning book, uses the language of anthropology to describe what the human species became in the past century: Hydrocarbon Man. While the search continues for alternative fuels and millions are spent on research and development, modern man will continue for some time to come to be dependent on Persian Gulf oil: the strategic prize. This essay focuses on the terrorist threat to oil pipelines in the region.

The question is, given the strategic importance of Middle East oil to the West and its economic and technological dependence on oil: Why have pipelines in that part of the globe not been primary targets of international terrorism to date?

It is puzzling why terrorists have not chosen Middle East oil structures as targets. One terrorist expert puts it this way:

"Trying to find out why terrorists do what they do is a bit like trying to solve a good fictional murder in that one is dealing with the elements of motive, method, and opportunity. However, the plot is reversed. With the classic murder one starts with a victim, and has to determine the motive, methods, and opportunity involved in order to discover the perpetrator. With target selection on the other hand, the motives are known, the means can usually be estimated, and the opportunities are fairly plentiful. What one has to determine is who or what is likely to be the victim."

Like a good, fictional murder mystery, the task of explaining silence, why something does not happen, gives a double twist to a plot and makes solving a mystery much more complicated. Sherlock Holmes, the master detective, solved a classic murder in The Hound of the Baskervilles when he learned that the dog was silent when it should have been barking. But, it is unlikely that in the process of answering the basic question, we will find a single clue to unwrap the mystery surrounding the silence of oil terrorism in the Middle East. For unlike in Holmes’ time, it is not hounds but jackals that have captured our attention in the 21st Century drama, the non-state actors who for most members of the world-audience will always remain a mystery: terrorists.

In looking for clues, our investigation will sift the evidence found in open sources and evaluate the Middle East silence by methods, scientific and otherwise.

Although the focus is on the security of Middle East oil pipelines, globalization and the throughput character of the oil industry require brief consideration of threats to the oil infrastructure of the entire industrialized world, from Australia to the United States and from China to Turkey. In this respect, the vulnerability of oil pipelines in the United States is discussed with one eye on critics who see real danger in pointing out soft targets to terrorists’ cells with the technical means to terrorize multinational oil companies and the US public. Nevertheless, Maynard Stephens over 20 years ago did not hesitate to diagnose the Achilles heel of Hydrocarbon Man in the United States:

“Established petroleum and natural gas operations, their pipeline interties, and associated tankage and storage are the most attractive targets of dissidents. But there is no part of the industry that is immune to being seriously damaged by someone who has a little knowledge of it or makes an effort to learn its frailties. It is no wonder that security personnel and management become almost ‘paranoid’ at the thought of having attention drawn in publications to the vulnerability of the industry. . . But how does one know what dangers and threats to guard against?”


As will be shown, the dangers and threats to oil pipelines are real. The author makes no apology for calling the attention of US policy and police officials to the threat that continues to exist from individuals wanting to hamstring the United States by interdiction of oil flows with which the economy runs and the military rolls.

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  • Anonymous on September 29 2010 said:
    Yergin is a real winner. I remember borrowing his book from a colleague one afternoon in Australia, and by dinner time concluding that it was completely without any scientific content. And that's the problem, isn't it? For instance, tomorrow I've got to explain to some drowsy PhD students that despite what they may have heard, socialists have not taken control of Wall Street.
  • Anonymous on September 30 2010 said:
    The reason why the oil producing infrastructure in the ME hasn't been attacked seems simple to me. Its called cutting your nose to spite youir face. Its just as effective to threaten an attack on the periphery, to make the oil industry nervous, even paranoid, and the global economy also, without actually destroying stuff. The nearest anyone came recently to attacking infrastructure was the attack on that Japanese tanker that left a dent in the side; almost just to remind us of what they could do...All they need to do is threaten, then work their agenda around that threat. We won't take the risk of calling their bluff. Good poker players...

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