May 19, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Energy Targets of Terror

• Near the top of the global terror objective list are targets that include energy infrastructure such as gas plants, pipelines, and nuclear power plants

• On May 18, Nigerian militants attacked an oil pipeline, temporarily cutting production in a country already suffering from low oil prices and even lower oil production, in part due to sabotage

• On May 17, employees returned to work at the natural gas processing plant in Taji, Iraq, that was attacked and damaged by the Islamic State on May 15

• The threat of attacks on vital energy infrastructure is constant, but more manageable than threats against softer targets.


As a target for terrorists and militants, energy infrastructure ranks as high as airplanes and crowded venues. Across the world, power plants, pipelines, oil and gas storage facilities, and—the holy grail of terror targets—nuclear power plants hold a powerful attraction for terrorist or militant groups for a variety of reasons. Attacking a source of power for governments and societies is more than a metaphor for groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the so-called Islamic State; it is an effective way to strike at enemies' finances, as well as their ability to provide for their citizens. It is also a publicity-generating means of demonstrating the government’s inability to protect its most vital resources, further eroding support from a weary population.

The May 17 attack in Taji, Iraq that killed 14 workers and security personnel was an attempt by the Islamic State to accomplish the aforementioned goals—the close proximity of foreign troop centers, as well as Baghdad, was an added bonus. The attack failed to significantly damage the plant, thanks to an effective armed security response to a chaotic scene that involved up to eight suicide bombers storming the plant following a car bombing. Production was halted but resumed after two days. A more destructive attack could have impacted the price of cooking gas; what seems like a minor issue in the West is a destabilizing concern for Iraqi families already pushed to their limits. The Islamic State knows that rising energy prices and decreased energy revenues are as helpful to its cause as mass-casualty attacks. As a result, the group will continue to target plants and pipelines.

In Nigeria, the threat to pipelines is constant, even though the saboteurs are less homogenous. A group called the Niger Delta Avengers has attacked several pipelines over recent months, as a means of protesting both corruption and ecological devastation stemming from production in the oil-rich—but otherwise very poor—Niger Delta region. A May 18 attack on a pipeline operated by the Italian company ENI disrupted oil transport; such disruptions are frequent and highly disruptive to the largest economy in Africa. An OPEC member, Nigeria has seen its oil production drop in recent years; sabotage has played a large role in the decline, along with corruption and theft. As in Iraq and elsewhere, the drop in production and prices hurts the government's ability to fund counterterrorism responses. Even fully-funded, these governments would struggle with that task due to systemic governance issues and ill-functioning bureaucracies; the lack of funding exacerbates underlying weaknesses.

Fortunately, with the exception of pipelines, most energy facilities are, or should be, hard targets. Proper security measures, updated regularly in light of new trends and threats, can significantly decrease the odds of a successful attack. Assumptions surrounding the capabilities of local partnerships will need to be continually reassessed, as seen in the deadly 2013 attack on the In Amenas natural gas plant in Algeria. Recent attacks in Algeria, such as the March grenade attack on a natural gas plant in Krechba, have not come close to the level of destruction witnessed in the In Amenas attack, but the threat is persistent. The need for natural resources and the threat to those facilities—and their workers—is not disappearing, requiring thoughtful security plans that incorporate local as well as geopolitical concerns. 


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