So after London, what next? Al Qaeda may seek to target our energy supply. Last February a message was posted to the al Qaeda-affiliated al Qalah (the Fortress) website entitled “Map of Future al Qaeda Operations.” It stated among other things that the terrorists would make it a priority to attack oil facilities in the Middle East. According to the posting, attacking the U.S. energy base in the Gulf would have three effects: Damaging the American economy; embarrassing the United States and emboldening other countries seeking to secure their own energy supplies; and forcing the U.S. to deploy further troops to the region to stabilize the situation. “The U.S. will reach a stage of madness after the targeting of its oil interests,” the terrorists reason, “which will facilitate 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.”
Al Qaeda has long resented the “unfair” prices being paid for oil–bin Laden reckoned at one time that a just price would be around $200 per barrel. In his 1996 Declaration of War he advised the mujahedeen “to protect this [oil] wealth and not to include it in the battle as it is a great Islamic treasure and a large economical power essential for the soon to be established Islamic state, by Allah’s Permission and Grace.” Yet in December 2001, after the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, bin Laden ordered that the U.S. economy should be the main focus of al Qaeda operations, and the terrorists have correctly diagnosed that the way to accomplish this is through targeting energy. Last December bin Laden called on terrorists to “strike supply routes and oil lines … and to assassinate company owners who provide the enemy with supplies, whether in Riyadh, Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey, or other places.”
The terrorists understand that they can influence oil markets through directed violence, and thus exploit a U.S. critical vulnerability. Furthermore, the more money the United States sends to the region purchasing energy, the more is available to underwrite the terrorists and their beliefs by their state sponsors and other supporters in the region. This is an enduring pattern; since the oil shocks of the 1970s, the United States has sent uncounted billions of dollars into a region that has converted them into weapons of mass destruction programs, globally networked terrorist groups, and a hostile, internationally promoted anti-Western ideology.
In short, our dependence on energy from the Middle East has created a grave threat to our country, and because we are obligated to protect these energy sources, the threat will continue. Our military presence and occasional interventions to protect energy supplies cost billions of dollars and increases tensions in the region by giving the opponents of the United States targets to attack, and the means to substantiate their charges of “Western imperialism.” The situation presents a paradox–we need to be there because of the threat to our energy supplies, but our presence incites our enemies to greater efforts against us.
The terrorists have integrated energy into their war-fighting plan, but unfortunately, the United States has no comprehensive means to counter it. The U.S. has many energy policies, but no coherent long-term energy-security strategy. However, a combination of rising oil prices and instability abroad is giving the issue political traction. Even former President Bill Clinton has stated that energy independence is vital to our national security and that “it’s nuts that we’re not doing it.” (A shame he hadn’t come to that conclusion when he might have been able to do something about it.)
The first step to adopting a comprehensive energy strategy is understanding that energy is both a critical requirement for the U.S. economy, and also an element of national power. The United States is a major energy consumer, and has unrealized potential as a directed market force. The United States should exploit its power by exercising consumer preference, and imposing free market discipline on the oil bazaar. The OPEC cartel would be the ultimate target of this strategic focus; though OPEC’s influence has declined in recent years, it is still powerful enough to adjust oil prices to the benefit of its members, and the detriment of the energy consuming countries. Diminishing or ending OPEC’s influence over the oil market would be one strategic goal. This could be accomplished through a variety of mechanisms, from tax incentives for non-OPEC purchases, to diplomatic action to separate wavering cartel members, to outright restrictions on importation of OPEC oil.
The United States should also integrate energy into its geostrategic understanding of the world, and begin to shift purchases away from unstable regions such as the Middle East, and towards sources in Europe, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere. Dollars flowing to Canada or Norway, for example, are unlikely to be converted into national security threats. This is related to the abovementioned point about breaking the power of the cartel, since shifting purchases away from the Middle East often (though of course not always) means shifting away from OPEC.
On the domestic front, a national energy strategy would require a revamped Department of Energy with a more urgent focus on energy security. The Environmental Protection Agency would also have to come under scrutiny; all future EPA actions should be judged against their negative impact on national security, perhaps through mandatory “energy impact study” oversight provisions. An interagency working group could convene to review policies across government that impede the development of new energy sources and technologies, looking particularly at unnecessary environmental regulation and tax disincentives. For example, the thermal depolymerization process (TDP), which can convert medical waste (among other things) into crude oil, is ineligible for a $42 per barrel tax credit because of how current legislation defines “biofuel.” Some estimates have it that widespread use of TDP could obviate the need to import any foreign oil. Regardless of whether that claim is true, you would think that a homegrown technology that could simultaneously solve both the waste and energy problems would be something worth encouraging.
The most important aspect of the energy strategy would be the awareness of energy as an element of national power. So long as the United States only views energy in defensive terms, we will remain trapped in a reactive strategic paradigm, responding to symptoms without addressing the causes of the threats emanating from the Middle East. Al Qaeda has demanded that the United States stop stealing the wealth of that region. Perhaps we should stop sending our national wealth to the terrorists.