September 14, 2006 | World Defense Review

West Africa and the Coming Naval Battle in al-Qaeda’s Economic War Against America

Despite the unfortunate tendency among many talking heads to oppose “soft power” to “hard power” – usually these days to the detriment of the latter – the truth is that the two aspects of national power are intrinsically linked.

Take the example of the last “long war” fought and won by the United States, the Cold War with the Soviet Union and expansionist international communism. All the attraction and moral superiority of liberal democracy would have been for naught if Western nations could not shelter behind the protective shield provided by the brave men and women of America's armed forces. On the other hand, that military strength alone did not bring about the end of the Soviet empire. Rather, it collapsed because it could not withstand the combined trauma of external pressures, political and military, and internal hemorrhages, physical and economic.

The “long war” with between America and the radical Islamists is no different, a fact that has not gone unappreciated by our enemies.

For example, in his videotaped speech on the eve of the U.S. presidential elections in 2004, Osama bin Laden himself boasted – with no mention of the massive American assistance to the Afghan resistance – of how he “alongside the mujahedin, bled Russia for ten years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat” from Afghanistan.

Bin Laden went on to assure his audience that al-Qaeda was “continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.” The strategy he outlined was simple: to ensure that the war against the United States ended the same way as the conflict with the Soviet Union, the terrorists did not need to defeat the superpower on the battlefield so much as to simply survive, while draining the resources of their enemy. The al-Qaeda leader went on to list two ways in which the jihadis hoped to undermine overall U.S. power by sapping the American economy in what he called the “bleed-until bankruptcy plan.”

First, explicitly citing studies presented at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, bin Laden boasted of the profitable return he had had on the 9/11 attacks: “Al-Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event, while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost – according to the lowest estimate – more than $500 billion, meaning that every dollar of al-Qaeda defeated a million dollars by the permission of Allah, besides the loss of a huge number of jobs.”

Second, the terrorist leader claimed to have forced the U.S. into an unsustainably high level of spending in the military and security sector in its efforts to hunt down the terrorists as well as to prevent a repeat of the attacks on the New York and Washington: “As for the size of the economic deficit, it has reached record astronomical numbers estimated to total more than a trillion dollars … [and] all that we have to do is to send two mujahedin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note.”

In a subsequent audiotape released a month after the election, bin Laden returned to the topic of economic warfare and specifically advised jihadis that “targeting America in Iraq in terms of economy and loss of life is a golden and unique opportunity … be active and prevent them from reaching the oil, and mount your operations accordingly.”

Another earlier al-Qaeda communiqué, issued after the French supertanker Limburg was bombed in 2002, causing $45 million in damage to the vessel and leaking more than 90,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Aden, had hailed the strike against what it termed “the provision line feeding to the artery of the life of the crusader nation.” (Foreign terrorists and local insurgents in Iraq obviously took bin Laden's advice, their attacks on Iraq's oil infrastructure cost the struggling state no less than $6.25 billion in lost revenue in 2005 – to say nothing of the costs imposed on the rest of the world through the inflationary pressures of decreased petroleum production anywhere.)

All of this leads to Sub-Saharan Africa, specifically West Africa, which currently supplies about 15 percent of America's hydrocarbon needs – almost as much as the amount coming from Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, according to the National Intelligence Council, this figure is expected to rise to 20 percent in the next five years and increase to a staggering 25 percent by 2015. The catch is that this supply is at far greater risk than most policymakers may think especially if one takes a careful look at the risk equation and its three elements: threat, vulnerability, and cost.

Threat is the frequency or likelihood of adverse events. As I pointed out in a column earlier this year, sporadic attacks by a small group with local grievances, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), have nonetheless succeeded in cutting oil production by America's fifth-largest supplier, Nigeria, by an estimated 500,000 barrels per day, or approximately 25 percent, since the beginning of the year. And the country, which as I have pointed out in another column, is barely holding together amid increasing sectarian tensions grafted upon a crisis of democratic governance, is heading for presidential and parliamentary elections on April 21, 2006, which may well determine the fate of the nation. In short, even without looking beyond Nigeria to other, even more rickety, oil producing regimes (like El Hadj Omar Bongo's Gabon or Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo's Equatorial Guinea) or much less complicating the picture with discussions of resource competition with the likes of China and India, the threat to America's West African supply, which has historically been low, especially in contrast to the volatile Middle East, and remains so, is nonetheless steadily increasing.

Vulnerability is the likelihood of success of a particular threat category against a particular target. With a few exceptions like the more than 1,000 kilometer-long Chad-Cameroon pipeline, most hydrocarbon production in West Africa is on the littoral, either in delta regions like Nigeria's or in offshore fields like Equatorial Guinea's. While this fact lesson vulnerability to the type of hit-and-run attacks that have plagued Iraqi production since the U.S. invasion, it also makes vigilance harder because it calls for the type of blue-water and brown-water naval capacities that African countries can only dream of acquiring.

Even a regional powerhouse like Nigeria boasts more admirals and commodores than vessels in its fleet. So it is not surprising that according to the International Maritime Bureau, two of the deadliest bodies of water in the world in terms of pirate attacks and casualties are the coasts of Somalia and Nigeria. And if al-Qaeda could successfully attack an armed vessel of the U.S. Navy, like it did to the USS Cole in 2000, causing some $287 million in damage with just one explosive-laden speedboat, imagine how much easier it would be assault an oil platform or tanker manned by non-military personnel. (And if al-Qaeda wants any helpful hints, it needs to only look at the experience of the “Sea Tigers” branch of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the havoc it caused to Sri Lankan shipping.)

Cost is the total cost of the impact of a particular threat experienced by a vulnerable target, including both the “hard costs” of actual damages and the “soft costs” to production, the markets, etc. Although the price of a barrel of crude oil has softened somewhat in recent weeks – closing at $66.25 a barrel in New York last Friday – the global market is so tight that any shocks caused by cuts to production or supply would be devastating economically.

Conversely, viewed from the perspective of the terrorists, the physical damage to the Cole alone was an extraordinary return on their investment, as would the global economic fallout from any successful maritime attack on the oil supply. In fact, from the point of view of the economic warfare strategy laid out by bin Laden, an attack on commercial targets in the water makes much more sense than any land-based disruptions.

The combination of these three factors – threat, vulnerability, and cost – raises the overall risk considerably. If Osama bin Laden is serious about waging economic war against the United States – and, from his record, there is no reason to dismiss his pronouncements out of hand – and if his minions heed his advice about hitting one of America's vital arteries, then we can expect at some point a maritime threat, most likely to West African production facilities, but also possibly targeting shipping in the waters off the Horn of Africa.

Unfortunately, America's post-9/11 counterterrorism initiatives for the continent – including the East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative (EACTI), the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI), and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCI) – have largely focus on the admittedly-daunting security challenges African states face on the ground. The last major maritime-focused initiative, the Reagan administration's African Coastal Security (ACS) Program, begun in 1985, was shut down during the Clinton administration. The Bush administration, in its 2004 National Strategy for Maritime Security, pledged to find funding to revive the ACS or create a similarly-focused structure.

Without taking funding from the other much-needed U.S. security cooperation programs in Africa, the Congress and the President need to make adequate provision in the upcoming FY 2007 budget for increased naval engagement with and capacity-building of our partners on the continent.

Given the stakes in our “long war” with Osama bin Laden and like-minded jihadis as well as what they themselves have told us of their strategic thinking, it would be money well-spent.


– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.

Dr. Pham is the author of over one hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).

In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.

© 2006 J. Peter Pham



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