Terrorism's next wave

Feb. 1, 2016
The ties between infrastructure, politics, and terrorism lie close to the surface. Infrastructural development falls largely on a given country's politicians and bigger companies.

Christopher E. Smith
Managing Editor-Technology

The ties between infrastructure, politics, and terrorism lie close to the surface. Infrastructural development falls largely on a given country's politicians and bigger companies. The often exposed nature of components such as pipelines and power grids, as well as their economic value, makes them prime targets for terrorist attacks. These attacks feed back into the political system.

Perhaps nowhere knows this cycle better than Nigeria. A government joint task force (JTF) described the most recent attacks-Jan. 15 on a crude oil pipeline in the Warri Southwest area of Delta state-as economic sabotage. The attacks followed a federal high court's issuing orders to arrest a local militant leader wanted in regard to an ongoing fraud investigation. JTF commander Maj.-Gen. Alani Okunola warned that community leaders would be held accountable for this and any future attacks.

This attack, and the many others like it since summer 2015, came despite new Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari's pledge to curb intentional damage to the country's energy infrastructure following his May 29, 2015, election. In trying to arrest the vandals, however, he must walk a narrow line, wary to not grow the divide between communities and central government that already plays a large part in perpetuating the cycle of violence.

The neglect (if not outright repression) felt in the communities creates the space in which vandals and terrorists can operate. The communities suffer directly when a pipeline leaks and chronically as a result of the criminality in their midst. But if the central government cracks down too hard in an effort to find the individuals involved, the gap between it and the community only widens.

MEA Risk LLC pegs the economic losses from attacks on Nigeria's pipelines in 2014 at $6 billion. Royal Dutch Shell PLC alone lost more than 110,000 b/d of crude in that year, MEA Risk said. The Jan. 15 Warri attack, and a second one like it, forced Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. (NNPC) to stop production at two of its three major refineries (OGJ Online, Jan. 22, 2015).

The human toll has also been great. Pipeline-related deaths in Nigeria totaled 125 in summer 2015. Most of these deaths took place in a single late-July incident, the explosion of an NNPC pipeline in the Arepo area, near Lagos in southwestern Ogun state, which killed more than 100.

Every blow to Nigeria's oil infrastructure takes money away that could otherwise be used in fighting the militants attacking it. The simultaneous need to fight Boko Haram in the northeastern part of the country, well-removed from the oil industry in the south, further drains the resources Nigeria needs to keep its pipelines safe.

Mixed outcomes

As part of the country's efforts to secure its pipelines, the Nigerian military acquired hundreds of surveillance drones. But the payoff on this investment so far has been mixed. More arrests were made in fourth-quarter 2015-238 vs. 200 in the year up to that point-but another 38 deaths also occurred.

Perhaps even more troubling, given Gen. Okunola's targeting of communities surrounding the pipelines, the nature of the attacker has been changing. Before the most recent spate of violence, the vast majority of attacks were classified as theft or vandalism. But Arezki Daoud, MEA Risk chief executive officer and lead analyst, described the new round of destruction as "definitely beyond petty criminality, with militants bombing pipes and companies shutting them down," while citing a greater political angle to events than had previously been the case.

The rest of the world, including North America, would do well to take notice. Terrorists attempt to unnerve a population by attacking its citizens, the softest of all possible targets. But to be effective over the long term, they must degrade our ability to respond, and this can most readily-if not quickly-be accomplished by draining our resources.