World Defense Review


Published 17 May 07

J. Peter Pham

Strategic Interests

by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist

Vulnerability of Nigerian Oil Infrastructure Threatens U.S. Interests

Last Friday, oil prices climbed toward $67.00 a barrel as supply disruptions in Nigeria compounded concerns about insufficient gasoline inventory levels in the United States which have been declining for twelve straight weeks according to the Department of Energy just days before Memorial Day officially kicks off the peak summer driving season. The price of London Brent crude, which nowadays is more representative of the global market than U.S. light crude, closed up $1.04 at $66.83 a barrel. The American Automobile Association reported just the day before that the average price nationally of a gallon of gasoline at the pump was $3.04, just two cents short of the all-time record set in September 2005 following Hurricane Katrina.

Thus, even before one enters into the geostrategical considerations of the global war on terrorism, security of the oil infrastructure of Nigeria from whose 36 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves, the largest in Africa and the fifth largest worldwide, flowed an average of 1,139,000 barrels a day to America last year is of vital concern to U.S. national interests.

In a study published several years ago, two scholars who themselves hail from a major petroleum-rich country, Dr. Brynjar Lia, a professor at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, and Ashild Kjok, a Norwegian diplomat with extensive Middle Eastern experience, listed seven principal vulnerable points in any given country's oil infrastructure: production facilities, including oilfields, wells, platforms, and rigs; refineries and other processing plants; transportation facilities, including pipelines, pumping stations, terminals, and tankers; depots; corporate offices; distribution points, both wholesale and retail; and personnel employed at any of these places. The study also found that the most common disruptions, accounting for nearly two-thirds of attacks on oil infrastructure worldwide, were those relating to pipelines since they are relatively easy to repair it is not particularly cost effective, generally speaking, to guard long stretches.

Taking together the current tight global market for hydrocarbons, the importance West African supplies in general and Nigerian supplies in particular to the U.S. economy, and the vulnerabilities highlighted by the two Norwegian scholars, one cannot but be extremely uneasy surveying recent events in the West African country since the farcical presidential "election" of Umaru Musa Yar'Adua I reported on, two weeks ago, here.

Consider the following events which involve all seven of the Lia-Kjok vulnerabilities:

  • On May 1, members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) kidnapped six oil workers four Italians, an American, and a Croat off a Chevron offshore loading terminal on the Penington River in southeastern Bayelsa State, whose governor, Goodluck Jonathan, is the declared vice president-elect. At least one Nigerian naval officer was killed in the attack, which forced Chevron to shut down the affect oilfield, which produces 15,000 barrels per day (since MEND attacks began last year, Nigeria's overall oil production has been cut by about 500,000 barrels per day, that is, an estimated 20 to 25 percent of capacity).

  • On May 3, after a forty-minute gun battle between the attackers and security guards which reportedly left scores of people killed or wounded, the militants kidnapped eleven more foreigners three South Koreans and eight Filipinos from a power plant construction site near Port Harcourt, the hub of Nigeria's oil-rich Delta region.

  • On May 8, MEND bombed three oil pipelines in Bayelsa State in its most spectacular attack to date. The attack, which a communiqué from the militants described as "parting gift" to outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo, had the cumulative affect of cutting Nigeria's total oil production by almost one-third.

  • On May 9, four more Americans were kidnapped from a barge off the southern coast of Nigeria. The Americans were part of a team of contractors laying pipelines for Chevron's Okan oilfield. The kidnappers, traveling in two speed boats, were armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

  • On May 11, the Nigerian government managed to sell only about half of the forty-five oil exploration licenses it put up for auction. Despite offering priority bidding rights for certain fields to major international oil companies, the buyers ended up being little-known investors. The long-term impact of the failure to develop new fields on an ongoing basis is staggering.

MEND's quarrel is primarily with the Nigerian federal government. The group or perhaps groups since some analysts believe that the original organization may have splintered into two factions, one operating in Bayelsa and Rivers States and the other in Delta State has three principal demands: greater share of the revenues for the peoples of the Niger Delta region who largely live in abject poverty amid pollution as the oil wealth is pumped from underneath their feet; the release of imprisoned former Bayelsa State governor Diepreya Alamieyeseigha, who is accused of money laundering and whose removal from office made way for the rise of incoming vice president Goodluck Jonathan; and the release of Alhaji Mujahid Asari Dokubo ( Dokubo Melford Goodhead, Jr.), founder of MEND's predecessor group, the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, who is currently on trial for treason (for more on this Libyan-trained militant, see my column last year on "Islamism Comes to the Niger Delta"). In this respect, what I have described last month in The National Interest Online as the "crisis of legitimacy" for the Nigerian government that is scheduled to be inaugurated on May 29 only makes matters worse as the militants will likely escalate their attacks in order to increase their leverage with the incoming administration. His electoral sanction questionable at best, a weakened President Yar'Adua will be needing to purchase as much loyalty as he can get and more than 95 percent of the government's revenues derive from the country's hydrocarbon exports.

While the proximate issues affecting the security Nigeria's oil infrastructure and, in fact, the stability and even viability of the Nigerian state itself are generally local, this does not preclude outside terrorist networks exploiting those local grievances and militant groups. Dr. James S. Robbins, a professor at the National Defense University, published a report two years ago about a document entitled "Map of Future al-Qaeda Operations" posted on the al-Qaeda-lined al-Qalah ("The Fortress") website. The terrorist document argued that priority should be given to attacking oil facilities in the Middle East since this would damage the American economy, embarrass the U.S. and embolden other countries seeking to secure their own energy supplies, and force the U.S. to deploy more troops to the region to stabilize the situation. According to Dr. Robbins, the terrorists reason that "the U.S. will reach a stage of madness after the targeting of its oil interests" thus "facilitate[ing] the creation of a new front and the drowning of the U.S. in a new quagmire that will be worse than the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan." The counterterrorism expert went on to argue that "terrorists understand that they can influence oil markets through directed violence, and thus exploit a U.S. critical vulnerability."

Although Dr. Robbins focused on the Middle East, as I argued in a column last year, there is no reason why outside groups like al-Qaeda cannot do the same in Africa. In fact, building on the earlier research I first published in World Defense Review and which he cited, an Israeli colleague, Dr. Moshe Terdmann of the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements (PRISM) of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, has concluded from his more exhaustive study published in the January 2007 issue of the Islam in Africa Newsletter that MEND is "al-Qaeda's unlikely ally in Nigeria," noting that:

The most threatening effect posed by this increased violence in the River Delta against government facilities and foreign oil companies is the potential for a goal-oriented alignment between MEND and the radical Islamists abroad. This is not to say that radical Muslim groups will recruit members from MEND or vice versa. Instead, MEND may provide inspiration to radical Islamic groups who are witnessing its success, even through the jihadi forums. Damaging America's economy via targeting the oil industry has long been one of al-Qaeda's missions. If MEND continues to be successful in targeting and hurting Nigeria's oil economy, it is entirely possible that future successful attacks may give rise to other attacks conducted by terrorist organizations across the globe.

Furthermore, the vulnerability of Nigeria's oil infrastructure is not only a threat to U.S. interests, but also a potentially mortal danger to the country's own future. If the failure of the oil majors to bid at last Friday's auction is any indication, the increasing levels of violence in the Niger Delta may well eventually force significant players to pull out, crippling the Nigerian economy 70 percent of which is accounted for by the hydrocarbon sector in the process. Although one Nigerian contact tried to reassure me last week that while, with its kidnappings and bombings, "MEND can bring us to our knees, but they will cut their own people off at the knees at the same time." True enough, but I for one do am not especially comfortable with counting on the enlightened self-interest much less the humanitarian benevolence of terrorist groups.

While there are limits to what the United States can or should do in Africa in general and Nigeria in particular, this does not mean that our attitude should be one of passivity. For the sake of our own national interests, including energy security and winning the fight against terrorism, and that of our ideals which are sorely tested by the corruption and underdevelopment of the continent as well as the victims of the increasing violence there, America needs to be more proactive in preventing transnational terrorist groups from taking advantage of the favorable conditions they are finding in places like the Niger Delta.

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. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.

© 2007 J. Peter Pham

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