Abqaiq drone strike: Escalation and questions

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

***This post was updated to include new information and will be updated at the bottom as new reports come in***

Drone attacks caused large fires at an oil facility of Aramco in Saudi Arabia on Saturday morning. Two factories belonging to the company were targeted in Abqaiq and Khurais were targeted by drones, Saudi Arabia media reported.

These areas are very close to US bases in Bahrain, where the 5th fleet is located, and Al-Udeid in Qatar. It is also not that far from sensitive US facilities in Kuwait and UAE. How did drones penetrate this airspace without being detected by radar and air defense. These are important questions. It comes amid rising tensions in the region.

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Air defense systems, especially the Patriot radar, covers the approaches to Abqaiq

The attacks began around four in the morning and video showed massive fires, billowing smoke and locals reported explosions. They allegedly struck at the processing plant in Abqaiq (Buqayq) and the Khurais oil field.

Iranian media implied that the attacks were carried out by Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have been backed by Tehran. However the facilities that were struck are in northeastern Saudi Arabia, closer to Bahrain and Qatar. A drone would have had to fly 1,000 km to reach the facilities. Drone attacks from Yemen have usually targeted areas close to the Yemen border. Two exception stand out. First was a May 14 attack that also caused Aramco to stop pumping oil. That attack was later blamed, according to a US report in the Wall Street Journal on a paramilitary group operating from Iraq. The second case was the Shaybah attack in mid-August. Allegedly that attack was carried out by up to ten drones, according to the Houthis.

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The full details of the most recent, September 14 attack, were not available on Saturday morning and it was not clear where the drones had come from. Iran has frequently boasted of new drone technology over the last nine months, including long-ranger drones. In early September Tehran unveiled the Kian long-range surveillance and attack drone. Iran’s Press TV is seeking to highlight the attack and blame it on a Saudi-led war in Yemen that has sought to support the Yemen government against the Houthis. The war has been controversial because it has been blamed for suffering in Yemen. Iran’s Press TV claims the “western-backed military aggression, coupled with a naval blockade, has killed tens of thousands.” Iran says this is a “quagmire” for the Saudis, and it is clear that there is a kind of proxy conflict taking place in Yemen. Every drone and rocket strike by the Houthis against Saudi Arabia is highlighted in Iranian media, as if it was an accomplishment by Tehran. This is because the technology for drones, ballistic missiles and air defense among the Houthis is linked to Tehran. For instance the Houthis have shot down at least two US drones over the past six months. There have been alleged splits in the Saudi-UAE coalition that has been fighting against the Houthis in Yemen. In addition separatists in Aden have caused rifts in the alliance against the Houthis.

The last month has seen the Yemen conflict heat up. A US drone was downed in mid-August and separatists briefly controlled parts of Aden. It took several hours for Saudi Arabia to confirm the fires at its oil facilities on Saturday morning. Most of the blazes appeared under control. But the attack was also a serious escalation. This is the third attack of this kind, a long-range strike on key oil infrastructure. That shows that ability of the drone operator to carry out precision attacks. It also shows they have improve the ordnance carried by the drones. In addition it shows the drones can fly long-distances. Saudi Arabia, a key ally of the US, has not been able to interdict these long-distance strikes.

 

 

It has been able to bring down drones closer to the border with Yemen. Is this because the air defense can’t operate at such long distances? Radar should be able to detect these incursions into Saudi airspace and present a clear picture of where the drones came from. The question then for Riyadh and Washington is how to interdict these drone strikes and also where to assign blame. Having drones striking facilities in key areas near Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE border is a major challenge.

 

It also comes amid the US-Iran tensions. Iran has been hard hit by sanctions and the US wants to drive Iranian oil exports to near-zero. Iran has said this is economic war and it has appeared to respond since May to US efforts. With discussions now about possible sanctions relief or France or other European powers stepping in to broker something, attacks on key oil facilities by a Tehran ally can be seen as pressuring western allies. It can also be seen as showing off drone technology.

Updates 

Some more details emerged throughout the afternoon. Images of the Shaybah damage from mid-August. Video of the developing smoke at the facilities from the Sept. 14 attack. An image of air defense ranges near the site of the attack. The @detresfa_ account has images also. Plumes of smoke can be seen along the pipeline and at the strike area. Important context of Iran drone program.

Kuwait expresses support for Saudi Arabia. UAE also expresses support, calls the attack “terrorist.” Bahrain, Pakistan, and the US condemned the attack.

Kuwait strongly condemns the drone attack on Saudi #Aramco facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais and calls on the international community to redouble efforts to combat Houthi attacks.” UAE: We stand fully with Saudi Arabia in combating all threats to its security and stability. U.S. Ambassador John #Abizaid: “The U.S. strongly condemns today’s drone attacks against oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. These attacks against critical infrastructure endanger civilians, are unacceptable, and sooner or later will result in innocent lives being lost.”

CSIS even had a video four days before the attack of Abqaiq it put on Twitter. “Iran has the missile and cyber capabilities to significantly damage Saudi Arabia’s oil, desalination, electricity, and other important facilities.” The original video was put up in August.

One video posted from Kuwait alleges that drones overflew the area.

Afternoon of September 14

Saudi Arabia says it is cutting oil production due to the attack.

5:21pm. Reuters: “Saudi Arabia’s oil production and exports have been disrupted, said three sources familiar with the matter, after drone attacks on two Aramco plants on Saturday, including the world’s biggest oil processing facility. One of the sources said the attacks have impacted 5 million barrels per day of oil production, almost half the kingdom’s current output.”

What is now clear: “Saudi Aramco operates the world’s largest oil processing facility and crude oil stabilization plant in the world at Abqaiq, in eastern Saudi Arabia. The plant has a crude oil processing capacity of more than 7 million barrels per day.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo releases statement. “Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia while Rouhani and Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy. Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”

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This is important because he says there is no evidence the attack came from Yemen. “No evidence” implies the US has evidence where it did come from. Joyce Karam writes: “Note also Pompeo reference that attacks on #Saudi may not have come from Yemen. Other suspect is Iraq . Either way this is a very dangerous situation involving multiple regional states, proxies. The Middle East, once again on the brink…” Saudi Arabia media reports the Pompeo comments.

The US is committed to well supplied oil markets, it says. “The United States strongly condemns today’s attack on critical energy infrastructure,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. “Violent actions against civilian areas and infrastructure vital to the global economy only deepen conflict and mistrust.” Ali Shihabi notes “Saudi oil infrastructure is in effect global oil infrastructure. If Iranian attacks take Saudi exports offline then global oil and financial markets will provide a very painful reminder of this to all those who seem so nonchalant about the recent attacks.”

US President Donald Trump speaks on Saturday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Meanwhile the USS Ramage, a guided-missile destroyer, docks in Beirut.

Now it appears that half of Saudi oil production could be cut. That is seven percent of global supply, notes Liz Sly. Michael Pregent notes “RGC proxies in Iraq (Kataib Hezbollah) with the Houthis taking credit to mask Soleimani’s new front against the KSS from the Iraqi south.” Omri Ceren: “The Iranians just took 5% of global oil supplies off the market by having their Houthi proxies bomb Saudi energy infrastructure, but they’re offering to make it up if the U.S. lifts sanctions and enriches them, so that’s nice.”

At 7:41 pm Riyadh local time US Senator Lindsey Graham tweets “It is now time for the U.S. to put on the table an attack on Iranian oil refineries if they continue their provocations or increase nuclear enrichment.”

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Fars News highlights reduction in Saudi oil production and attack on “heart” of oil industry

Later in the evening a new report says that a Kuwaiti paper has evidence the drone overflew Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia coalition spokesman says investigations underway about the drone attack. al-Arabiya and Al-Jarida report the investigation is under way. Saudi Arabia characterizes it as a terror attack and Saudi media stresses US support. UAE increases its rhetorical support for Riyadh.

September 15

“Critical processing infrastructure,” appears to have been struck according to satellite photos.

France and Lebanon condemn the attacks

5:33pm Jordan condemns attacks

Bloomberg’s Eli Lake: Iran is responsible for the attack. “If Trump continues to pursue negotiations with Iran’s regime, he will be inviting more attacks on America’s allies. This is exactly the strategy — and the consequences — followed and paid by his predecessor, Barack Obama.” ⁦

Iran rejects US accusations.

Middle East Eye: “Iraqi intelligence official tells MEE the strikes were in retaliation for earlier Riyadh funded Israeli drone attacks on Iraqi militia.”

7:33pm Press TV in Iran puts out a snazzy video highlighting the attacks.

8:30pm WSJ: Saudi Aramco (state oil company) has determined that its facilities were hit by missiles.” Aramco expects to restore roughly a third of oil output by end of Monday, dialing back hopes it could quickly return to full production

10:00pm Reuters: Saudi Aramco has told one Indian refinery there will be no immediate impact on oil supplies as it will deliver crude from other sources and had adequate inventory – Reuters

 

10:20pm: US official: 15 structures at Abqaiq were damaged.

Dion Nissenbaum: Trump administration declassifies satellite photos of the attack.

Carl Bildt: The attack on the Saudi oil facilities was indeed a very serious move. It might have been in retaliation for something, but there is bound to be a retaliation because of it. The entire region is becoming even more volatile.

Are the strikes representative of a breakdown in air defenses?  “The strikes mark an apparent breakdown in Saudi defenses. The kingdom is among the world’s largest buyers of weapons and has Patriot missile batteries in the region of the oil facilities. The U.S. sent hundreds of fresh troops to Saudi Arabia this summer.” -WSJ

Trita Parsi: “Diplomacy sorely needed…”

Nujaba movement releases statements on attacks.

Photos released of the damage showing precision strikes.

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September 16

US President says “locked and loaded” and awaiting Saudi determination.

Fox News: “The weekend attack ignited huge fires at Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq oil processing facility and interrupted about 5.7 million barrels of crude oil production — over 5 percent of the world’s daily supply.”

BBC: “One official said there were 19 points of impact on the targets and the attacks had come from a west-north-west direction – not Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen, which lies to the south-west of the Saudi oil facilities.”

China and EU urge restraint

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it was not yet clear who was responsible for what he described as a “wanton violation of international law”.

ABC News: “Iran launched nearly a dozen cruise missiles and over 20 drones from its territory in the attack on a key Saudi oil facility, a senior Trump administration official told ABC News.”

Josie Ensor: “Saudi oil disruption worse than at the start of the Islamic revolution and during the Arab-Israeli war oil embargo. Sources say damage so severe it could take several months to get back to a normal output.”

Iraqi PM Abdul-Mahdi statement about phone call with Pompeo, discussed the recent attacks on Saudi oil facility, and that the attacks did not originate from Iraq.” Iraq has denied that its territory was used. 

Oil prices have spiked nearly 20% following a drone attack on a processing facility and an oil field in Saudi Arabia.”

Russia expresses deep concern over the attack.

Al-Arabiya: Attacks to affect petrochemical sector

Russia wonders why Saudi Arabia didn’t buy S-300

September 17

Pompeo goes to Saudi Arabia.

US says that satellites showed Iran preparing attack.

Missiles flew low altitude

Houthis warn they could target UAE

NBC “Trump administration is weighing a range of options for a retaliatory action against Iran, including a cyberattack or physical strike on Iranian oil facilities or Revolutionary Guard assets, U.S. officials & others briefed on the deliberations told NBC News.”

Ben Rhodes: Saudi Arabia is not an ally of the United States.

Susan Rice: Saudi Arabia is NOT a treaty ally and we should not pretend it is.

Others argue Saudi not an ally.

Pentagon readying the evidence.

Dunford comments saying awaiting Saudi finding.

Senator Graham: A great briefing by VP Pence to the Senate Republican Conference regarding the attack on Saudi oil facilities. It’s clear to me that such a sophisticated attack could not have occurred without Iran’s blessing and direct involvement…The measured response by President regarding the shooting down of an American drone was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness.

President Trump: “No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand!”
Laura Ingraham: “Totally agree—a sign of weakness would be a trigger-happy reaction to the drone strike.”

Tom Bowman at NPR: Reports 2 pentagon sources say US satellites picked up Iran readying drones & missiles at launch sites inside the country prior to the attack on a Saudi oil facility this past Saturday.

Geoff Brumfiel: “He also reports that a DoD forensic team is in Saudi Arabia to examine wreckage from the drones and missiles used. Intelligence officials say the analysis could provide “compelling and convincing” evidence that Iran was behind the strike.”

Steven Cook: “The United States is done fighting to defend the free flow of energy in the Gulf, it’s done fighting for the entire region.”

September 18

Democrats respond to Trump handling of Iran

Ryan Browne: En route to Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the attack on Saudi oil facilities “an Iranian attack” & an “act of war”; “This is an attack of a scale we’ve just not seen before.”

WSJ: “US and Saudi officials didn’t anticipate a strike from inside Iran… the absence of air-defense coverage left Saudi’s eastern flank largely undefended by any US or Saudi air-defense systems.”

Continued discussions about flight path

Photos show drones

Max Boot: “Trump is weakening America with his incoherent foreign policy. Our enemies don’t fear us and our allies don’t trust us.”

BBC: Saudi Arabia said 18 drones and seven cruise missiles were fired from a direction that ruled out Yemen as a source. Defence ministry spokesman Col Turki al-Malki said the evidence showed the attacks were launched from the north and were “unquestionably sponsored by Iran”. However, Col Malki said the Saudis were still “working to know exactly the launch point”.

Trump instructs Treasury to substantially increase sanctions

Secretary Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Al Salam Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Pompeo responds to question about making the case that the attack did not come from the Houthis with convoluted response: “It doesn’t matter. This was an Iranian attack…were that true….it doesn’t change the fingerprints of the Ayatollah as having put at risk the global energy supply.”

Iran FM Zarif: “Iran does NOT want war, but we will NOT hesitate to defend ourselves.”

Air raid sirens tested in Riyadh

September 20

Saudi Arabia holds press tour of facilities struck.

 

Josie Ensor: “We’re now at Abqaiq. The largest oil processing plant in the world. It was hit by over 18 strikes. This is the damage to the UAS spheroid. A lot of work has already been done to restore it…Last stop: the three-phase separator that separates fluids into gas and oil and water. All three structures appear to have been damaged. #Abqaiq manager says ordinarily around 1,100 workers here. Now 6,000 are working around the clock to get plant fully operational ASAP…Bulk of strikes at Abqaiq were on stabilisation towers. Five of them here are clearly still in a bad way. It seems like the perpetrators were deliberately targeting them in both sites. Any oil experts who can maybe explain why? [Response: Custom made, play vital role in processing, not easy to work on because of strong acids] …Saudi Arabia put on a press tour of oil plants hit last weekend – a rare exercise in transparency for the hermit kingdom. My take on how Riyadh is drumming up support for coordinated response against Iran (and restore confidence ahead of Aramco IPO) …Engineers who looked at pictures from yesterday’s tour of #Abqaiq and #Khurais plants say Aramco came very close to complete disaster. The attackers clearly knew what to strike to cause maximum damage.”

U.S. Treasury Department takes action against Central Bank of Iran, the National Development Fund of Iran & Etemad Tejarate Pars.

Ryan Browne: President Trump approved a Saudi Arabia and UAE request for additional “U.S. forces which will be defensive in nature and primarily focused on air and missile defense” following attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

“We haven’t decided on specific units, broadly as the Secretary said it would be capabilities to enhance their air & missile defense it’s now my job to come back to the Secretary with the details of what we believe would meet the Saudis requirements & is sustainable” – US General Dunford

US SecDef Esper: “All indications are that Iran was responsible for the attacks.”

Houthis offer cessation of attacks.

September 21

Iran FM Zarif: “Since the Saudi regime has blamed Iran—baseless as that is—for the attacks on its oil facilities, curious that they retaliated against Hodaideh in Yemen today—breaking a UN ceasefire. It is clear that even the Saudis themselves don’t believe the fiction of Iranian involvement.”

US sending more troops to Middle East in wake of attack

The Economist: Unless Iran sees that aggression carries a cost, it will use force again. Sooner or later, that will lead to war

WSJ: The U.S. said it would send military forces and hardware to Gulf allies and moved to sever some of Iran’s last ties to world markets, in the wake of attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities.

IRGC head says Iran will defend against any aggression in front of image of UAVs. “Our readiness to respond to any aggression is definitive,” Maj-Gen Hossein Salami said. “We will never allow a war to enter our land.”

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