Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 23:02 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 23:02 | SYDNEY

2011: Year of the econo-terrorist?


Rodger Shanahan


6 January 2011 14:33

The public has come to assume that Islamist groups are dedicated to the conduct of mass casualty attacks against Western interests to either exact revenge in response to perceptions of armed attack on the community of believers (umma) or to seek changes to Western states' foreign policies regarding the Muslim world. But human casualties are by no means the only aim of AQ franchises. 

The November edition of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP's) English language online magazine Inspire was entitled '$4,200', and the lead story was about the conduct of what it called 'Operation Hemorrhage' (does anybody else think it's ironic that AQAP uses US English'). The title was a reference to the cost of the components for the bombs placed on the FedEx and UPS aircraft in October 2010 that ultimately failed to detonate before they were discovered.

The likelihood of timing the detonation of bombs traveling by a variety of methods through several countries so that they detonated mid-flight over a population centre in the US is remote, so this was never designed to be a mass casualty attack. Rather, as the magazine pointed out, the aim was ' force the West to install stringent security measures sufficient enough to stop our explosive devices (that) would add a heavy economic burden to an already faltering economy.'

Economic targets are, of course, nothing new.

In virtually its last act, the now defunct Saudi AQAP franchise tried to attack the Abqaiq oil processing facility in 2006; oil tankers have been attacked in the Straits of Hormuz in July 2010 and off the coast of Yemen in 2002; and Iraq's main offshore oil export terminal was unsuccessfully attacked in 2004.

The problem with targeting static economic installations such as refineries, oil export terminals or supertankers is that they are enormously difficult to damage, let alone destroy. And while the impact of a successful attack on the main export earning of a country under financial strain such as Iraq in 2004 or Yemen at any time would be significant, markets will readjust, and there is redundancy built into the means of exporting commodities.

There is little doubt that AQ understands the massively disproportionate economic impact of targeting the West, with attacks resulting in costly changes to government policy. Some estimates place the financial cost of the September 11 attacks at over US$100 billion — and that doesn't include the cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

But for all its self-congratulatory rhetoric in Inspire, the ideologues in AQ and its franchises fail to give credit to the absorptive capacities of economically advanced states, particularly where safety of citizens is concerned. So while we may continue to see AQAP search for ways to target the West economically, its likelihood of success is as remote as its macro vision for the region.