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The drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil wells

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In the early morning of Saturday, September 14 last, at 3.31 and 3.42 a.m., the Yemeni Houthi Shiite rebels supported by the Iranian “Revolutionary Guards” – the right eye of Imam Qomeini, as they are called in Iran – launched about ten drones against the largest Saudi oil extraction area owned by ARAMCO.

Allegedly the operation was launched from Iraq. Both Abqaiq, the largest stabilization facility in the world, as well as the Buqaiq facility in the extraction field, and finally Kurais, about 60 kilometres from Abqaiq, were hit with drones.

  It is the largest oil disruption ever, considering all those caused by wars or other reasons.

The Shiite attacks have immediately reduced Saudi production by about five million barrels per day, i.e. about half of the Saudi Kingdom’s daily output.

 With the drone attacks, the world has lost 6% of its oil output.

 The Saudi authorities have said that, as early as September 17, everything has been under control.

The first geopolitical deduction that can be made is that the current attacks, much more virulent than those already occurred last May, open a second front of Arabia’s war against Iraq, which, in any case, would severely strain the Saudi armed forces, already absorbed by the war in Yemen- albeit with meagre results.

Moreover this could open a new strategic area, in which the USA could be forced to help Saudi Arabia and Israel could be forced to later project its power not only onto its northern and southern borders, but also onto eastern Syria and Iraq – and permanently so, unlike what currently happens.

Certainly, all this regards above all Iran that, however, could not afford a hybrid and conventional war with Saudi Arabia and its traditional regional allies.

 Moreover, the Shiite Houthi’s attack on the Saudi oil facilities was conceived and probably planned by the Head of the Pasdaran, Qassem Soleimani.

Hence the Houthi operation has run parallel with the action directly organized by the Pasdaran on September 15 last, i.e. the seizure of a ship – the name of which is still unknown -carrying a fuel cargo of over 250,000 litres.

 All this happened in the Strait of Hormuz, near the island of Tunb, in Iranian waters.

 A full option strategy to show Iran’s new regional strategic status.

According to Iranian sources, the rationale underlying the naval operation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards concerns the substantial oil smuggling to and fro the United Arab Emirates.

Tout se tient.

  Iran, on the one hand, while assessing the war burden for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, wants to open other fronts of the conflict, thus also extending Israel’s defence chain. Hence Iran pursues the overstretch of its traditional opponents.

 Another possible assessment of the drone operation carried out by the Houthis and Iran is that it could be an Iranian response to the actions undertaken by French President Macron who has recently tried to organize a side meeting, at the UN General Assembly, between US President Trump and  Iranian President Rouhani.

Ali Khamenei, the Rahbar and, hence, Iran’s Supreme Leader, was, however, clearly opposed to a new Iran-US diplomatic relationship, and his Revolutionary Guards have immediately understood the issue.

Moreover, the very recent drone attacks on the two Saudi facilities are not even the first and only ones. As mentioned above, on May 15 last, two Saudi pumping stations – placed on the East-West pipeline that reaches up to the Yanbu oil terminal were attacked with two drones probably launched from Iraq.

Hence Iran has an efficient and stable network in Iraq to launch attacks on the Saudi territory and its surrounding areas, not necessarily with drones only.

With its satellite photos, Israel has shown that the Al Quds Force, the elite of the Pasdaran, is building an Iranian military station in Albukamal, on the Syrian-Iraqi border-and probably these operations indicate that the base is already finished.

  It is supposedly a base for at least 3,500 soldiers, with means that should be used above all for the “hybrid war”, but not only for it.

Once again Israel has become a target for Iran, from the new bases in Northern Iraq. The United States, however, does not want to be entangled and bogged down into a new “long war” in the Middle East, even though it will help Saudi Arabia (and, obviously, Israel) from afar, while Saudi Arabia has explicitly stated that the Iranian drones are very hard to track.

At economic level, however, the Saudi oil crisis has the same magnitude as the oil crisis following the Yom Kippur war.

 This crisis, however, is really such only because Saudi Arabia has proved to be fragile, not only in terms of mere oil quantity, which has been immediately reintroduced into the daily balance, using the Saudi huge reserves.

Nevertheless they will run short and nobody really knows what the reserves of the Saudi wells are, which are reportedly still very large. However, there are those who have doubts in this regard, since it is the best kept Saudi State secret.

 This has been the worst attack ever on the “oil bank”, as analysts call the Saudi Kingdom.

Hence the attack is a real game change rand it is currently hard to predict all its effects, even for technical experts and  strategic analysts.

 It much depends on Mohammed bin Salman’s moves, as well as on the US real engagement in the region, and finally on Israel’s future military policy.

 According to some organizations that study oil markets, the Iranian and Houthi operation is at least as severe as the invasion of Kuwait – which also “sucked” Iraqi oil- or as  the 1979 Iranian Shiite revolution itself.

 President Trump has already authorized the release of US strategic reserves (SPR), where necessary, “to keep the markets well supplied”.

As early as September 16, however, Saudi ARAMCO has been expected to recover at least a third of its production, with a maximum of two or three million barrels of Saudi oil that will go back to the markets within two-five days, while additional 2.7 million barrels will arrive on the market later, considering the nature and specificity of the Abqaiq facility.

 It is a huge facility located in a Saudi area where the  presence of Shiite Islam is far from negligible, i.e. about 15-20%, mainly in the eastern zones and among the workers operating in the wells and facilities.

This is another political sign-halfway between religion and class struggle – not to be neglected.

When the markets opened, on the Monday following the attacks, the oil barrel price increased by 20%, with a peak of 71.6 USD per barrel.

However, what are the Iranian assets in the current war launched against the great Wahhabi and Sunni power, namely Saudi Arabia – a war which is a proxy one only from a formal viewpoint?

They are manifold and remarkable.

 There are over 45 Iranian military airports. The maritime positions currently held by the Revolutionary Guards are over 16, all located on the coasts and islands of the Persian Gulf.

 The missile stations in Iran and Iraq have several carriers capable of reaching a range of 2,500 kilometres.

 Iran’s area denial and access denial capabilities are much greater than those of any country in the region.

Iran has a significant submarine fleet, both in the Persian Gulf and in the Indian Ocean, as well as a large fleet of very fast motorboats and patrol boats.

At military level, Iran is not afraid of its obvious tactical superiority nor of the first or second-level reactions of its opponents.

Cyberattacks are another Iranian “excellence” while, only recently, Saudi ARAMCO has been updated in terms of protection from cyberattacks- albeit we are still at less relevant levels than Iran’s.

 It is no by mere coincidence that the Saudi oil company has already suffered cyberattacks, with the Shamoon virus in 2018. Moreover, due to their geographical location, also the Saudi ports and infrastructure are scarcely protected from missile or air attacks.

 But also from sea bombings, especially on the ports of Ras Tanura and Ras Juaymah, located in the Persian Gulf, and of Yanbu, in the Red Sea, which are hard to protect.

So far, however, the Saudi critical infrastructure has been defended only from Qaedist attacks, not from a real military operation, possibly with the Houthi conventional or hybrid war protection.

Not to mention the desalination plants, which process 70% of all the drinking water distributed in Saudi homes, in addition to electricity grids, which are based on the production of energy using over two thirds of the abundant oil supplies. They are surely targets of the drone attacks, as well as cyberattacks or conventional operations.

 Another factor not to be neglected regards one of the mainstays of Mohammed bin Salman’ strategy, namely the sale of Saudi ARAMCO.

Clearly the attacks significantly reduce the stock market value of the company, and it just so happened that, in the last days before the attack of last Saturday, the sale procedure had recorded a strong acceleration.

 Mohammed bin Salman has set the cost of the ARAMCO operation at 2 trillion dollars.

Hence, considering the infrastructure weakness shown by Saudi Arabia, it will be very unlikely for investors to run to buy the company and carry out transactions on the Stock Exchange.

It is also easy to understand that Iran’s and its proxies’ operation against Saudi Arabia is such as to place Iran in a vantage position in a future new negotiation on the nuclear issue.

It should be recalled that the war in Yemen started in 2015 when Saudi Arabia entered that country to free some areas, including the capital Sana’a, from the insurgents.

Later Saudi Arabia established a friendly government, led by Abu Mansur Hadi.

Saudi Arabia, however, was not able to hold its positions and reach its strategic objectives.

In fact, holding Yemen means to completely control the Persian Gulf and the areas pertaining to it.

Saudi Arabia has kept only Aden and Al Mokha, as well as few other areas, while the border between Arabia and Yemen is still a land of conflict and clashes, in a tribal zone, on the Saudi side of the border line, which has always been scarcely favourable to the Al Saud family and to the Wahabi tradition of Islam.

 Nevertheless, not the whole Ansar Allah, the Houthi Shiite movement, is strictly dependent on Iran.

Hence the war in Yemen is a huge cost for Saudi Arabia, while it is negligible for Iran.

We should also consider the support provided to the rebels in the South by Abu Dhabi, the other Emirates and Oman, a country that has always had its own specific policy vis-à-vis Iran.

It should also be recalled that Saudi Arabia was directly hit by drones on December 4, 2017.

However, only a part of the Yemeni tribes are currently  loyal to Hadi’s central government and they have often had to enter the Saudi territory, while the other tribes, including the Sunni ones, have supported the tribal-national autonomy proposed by the Houthis.

As already mentioned above, however, ultimately not even Iran will be able to control Ansar Allah completely.

 Other effects of the oil crisis will be seen in India, whose  economic take-off relies solely on Middle East oil, with 18% of its annual consumption resulting from Saudi oil alone.

 Other Asian countries shall change their main supplier, but also the United States – despite its shale oil production -has so far imported 400,000 barrels per day in 2019 alone.

 The situation is not bad at all for Russia which, for years, has been setting oil prices similar to OPEC’s. The same holds true for Kuwait and the Emirates, but the possible expansion of production could currently reach a million barrels per day, which are not enough to cover the Saudi shortfall.

 Reverting to Yemen, it should also be recalled that the local war is the result of the US-sponsored “Arab spring”.

Hence, it is however unlikely that the attacks on oil wells and facilities (and we should consider that they are not far from the Yemeni border) provide the opportunity for a combined Saudi, US and Israeli attack on Iranian military positions in Iraq or in the Persian Gulf.

From a disadvantaged position, Iran has managed to create its own strategic level playing field with regional and international players, which is the real new fact of the drone attack on the Saudi oil facilities that took place last Saturday.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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USA and Australia Worry About Cyber Attacks from China Amidst Pegasus Spyware

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Pegasus Spyware Scandal has shaken whole India and several other countries. What will be its fallout no one knows as we know only tip of iceberg. Amidst Pegasus Spyware Scandal USA and Australia both have shown serious concerns about Cyber Attacks on US and Australian interests. Both say that China is hub of malware software and both face millions of such attacks daily.

I am trying to understand why a software is needed to spy on a particular individual when all calls, messages, data, emails are easily accessible from server. In most of cases these servers are located in USA and some cases these are located in host country. In certain sensitive cases Government Agencies have their own server like Central Intelligence Agency and hundreds of other agencies and military establishment world over including India. Now point is who installs those servers.

A couple of years back I had talked to Mr Mike Molloy who is Chief Executive Officer of Orion Global Technologies previously known as Orion SAS. He had explained me how his company installs servers in host countries on request of private or gov bodies. He talks about contract and trust. That means even when a company or Gov buys a server or software for designated uses the “Secrecy” Factor remain on discretion of company which has supplied server or software.

Now  if all data, e-mail, chat, messages, calls are accessible to Gov as per law and technology (Through Server all components of Communication are accessible and thats why  me and you see start seeing call recording of a person even after many years later), I am unable to understand why a Gov will be needing a software to Spy on any one.

Now coming to where Australia and USA wants to carry the whole debate.

Australian Foreign Minister Sen Marise Payne said, “Australian Government joins international partners in expressing serious concerns about malicious cyber activities by China’s Ministry of State Security.

“In consultation with our partners, the Australian Government has determined that China’s Ministry of State Security exploited vulnerabilities in the Microsoft Exchange software to affect thousands of computers and networks worldwide, including in Australia. These actions have undermined international stability and security by opening the door to a range of other actors, including cybercriminals, who continue to exploit this vulnerability for illicit gain”, She further added.

She opined, ”The Australian Government is also seriously concerned about reports from our international partners that China’s Ministry of State Security is engaging contract hackers who have carried out cyber-enabled intellectual property theft for personal gain and to provide commercial advantage to the Chinese Government”.

She warned China by saying, “Australia calls on all countries – including China – to act responsibly in cyberspace.  China must adhere to the commitments it has made in the G20, and bilaterally, to refrain from cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets and confidential business information with the intent of obtaining competitive advantage”.

On other hand USA’s The National Security Agency (NSA), Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a Cybersecurity Advisory on Chinese State-Sponsored Cyber Operations. National Security Advisor said, ”Chinese state-sponsored cyber activity poses a major threat to U.S. and allied systems. These actors aggressively target political, economic, military, educational, and critical infrastructure personnel and organizations to access valuable, sensitive data. These cyber operations support China’s long-term economic and military objectives”.

The information in this advisory builds on NSA’s previous release “Chinese State-Sponsored Actors Exploit Publicly Known Vulnerabilities.” The NSA, CISA, and FBI recommended mitigations empower our customers to reduce the risk of Chinese malicious cyber activity, and increase the defensive posture of their critical networks. 

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Afghan issue can not be understood from the simplistic lens of geopolitical blocs

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pakistan-terrorism

Authors: Tridivesh Singh Maini  and Varundeep Singh*

On July 14, 2021 a terror attack was carried out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province in which a number of Chinese engineers, working on the Dasu hydropower project (a project which is part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor) were killed. The attack predictably evinced a strong response from China. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi speaking before a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Foreign Minister’s meeting asked the Taliban to disassociate itself from ‘terrorist elements’ and in a meeting with Pakistan Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, asked Pakistan to bring the perpetrators to book. Earlier in April 2021, a car bomb attack took place at Serena hotel in Quetta which was hosting China’s Ambassador to Pakistan (four people were killed and twelve were injured)

Wang Yi significantly praised the Ashraf Ghani government, for its attempts towards building national unity and providing effective governance. Beijing clearly realizes that its economic investments in the country as well as big ticket infrastructural projects can not remain safe if there is no security. Afghanistan also criticized Pakistan for its role in sending 10000 Jihadis to Taliban, this is important in the context of the region’s geopolitics.

 Like all other countries, Beijing and Islamabad, would have expected uncertainty after the US withdrawal of troops but perhaps over estimated their capabilities in dealing with the turbulence which had been predicted by many.

Importance of Chinese Foreign Minister’s statements

Wang Yi’s statements are important because days earlier a Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen had praised China and welcomed its role in the country’s reconstruction. He had also assured China that those involved in the insurgency in Xinjiang would not be given refuge in Afghanistan (one of China’s major concerns has been the support provided by Taliban to the East Turkmenistan movement)

While Beijing may have opened back channels with the Taliban and realized that it needs to adapt to the changing geopolitics, recent developments would have increased its skepticism vis-à-vis the Taliban. On the other hand, Russia has been more favorable towards the Taliban. Russia’s Deputy Chief of Mission in India, Roman Babushkin argued that the Taliban are a reality which needs to be accepted, and also that any military activities without a political process are insufficient.

Babushkin did make the point that for successful negotiations, Taliban needed to end violence.

‘that Taliban should deal with the problem of terrorism and other related issues in order to become legitimate, in order to [get] delisted [at the UN Security Council], in order to go ahead with the future Afghanistan and creation of the inclusive government

It would be pertinent to point out, that Zamir Kabulov, Russian President’s Afghanistan envoy went a step further and said that the Afghan government was not doing enough to make talks with Taliban a success.

China’s statements subtle warning to the Taliban, indicating its reservations, and praise of Ghani indicate a possibility of greater understanding between Washington and Beijing (even though Beijing has repeatedly attributed the current troubles in Afghanistan to Washington’s decision to withdraw troops).

Can US and China find common ground

 It remains to be seen if Biden who has exhibited dexterity on a number of complex issues reaches out to Xi Jinping to find common ground with regard to Afghanistan. Significantly, while US-Turkey relations had witnessed a downward trajectory and Biden has been critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies and Human rights record, both leaders met on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in June 2021. During the meeting Turkey agreed to secure Kabul Airport. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan while commenting on Turkey’s assurance said

‘The clear commitment from the leaders was established that Turkey would play a lead role in securing Hamid Karzai International Airport, and we are now working through how to execute to get to that,’

Taliban earlier this week warned Turkey of ‘consequences’ if the Middle Eastern nation increased its troop presence in Afghanistan.

Conclusion

Russia’s statements with regard to the Taliban indicate that it is not totally on the same page as China (its prior experience in Afghanistan has made it more cautious and circumspect), and that the Afghan issue can not be understood from the simplistic lens of geo-political blocs and traditional lenses. All major stakeholders in Afghanistan, both within the region and outside, seem to be understandably befuddled by the turn of events. It is not just the US, but even China which would be worried not just from an economic stand point but the overall security implications of the turmoil in Afghanistan. The terror attack in KPK indicates that other CPEC related projects could also face threats from militant groups. Beijing would thus need to be quick to react to the overtures from the Taliban in order to secure its economic assets and lives of Chinese workers in neighbouring Pakistan.

 It is especially important for Washington, Beijing and other important stakeholders in the region to work together for dealing with the near term turbulence as well as long term challenges Afghanistan is likely to face.

*Varundeep Singh is an Independent Policy Analyst.

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Pegasus: Human rights-compliant laws needed to regulate spyware

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The UN human rights chief on Monday said the apparent widespread use of Pegasus spy software to illegally undermine the rights of those under surveillance, including journalists and politicians, was “extremely alarming” and confirmed “some of the worst fears” surrounding the potential misuse of such technology. 

“Various parts of the UN Human Rights system, including my own Office, have repeatedly raised serious concerns about the dangers of authorities using surveillance tools from a variety of sources supposed to promote public safety in order to hack the phones and computers of people conducting legitimate journalistic activities, monitoring human rights or expressing dissent or political opposition”, said High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in a statement

According to reports, the Pegasus data leak allegations which surfaced through a consortium of media organisations over the weekend, suggests widespread and continuing abuse of the software, which the manufacturers insist, is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists. 

The Pegasus malware infects electronic devices, enabling operators of the tool to obtain messages, photos and emails, record calls, and even activate microphones, according to the consortium’s reporting. The leak contains a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers which reportedly belong to those identified as people of interest, by clients of the company behind Pegasus, including some governments.  

‘Indispensable role’ 

Surveillance software has been linked to the arrest, intimidation and even killing of journalists and human rights defenders, according to the senior UN official.  

Reports of surveillance also trigger fear and cause people to censor themselves.   

“Journalists and human rights defenders play an indispensable role in our societies, and when they are silenced, we all suffer”, she said, reminding all States that surveillance measures can only be justified in narrowly defined circumstances when necessary and proportional to a legitimate goal.  

‘Deep intrusions’ 

Given that Pegasus spyware, “as well as that created by Candiru and others, enable extremely deep intrusions into people’s devices, resulting in insights into all aspects of their lives”, the UN rights chief underscored, “their use can only ever be justified in the context of investigations into serious crimes and grave security threats.” 

If recent allegations about the use of Pegasus are even partly true, she maintained that the “red line has been crossed again and again with total impunity”. 

‘Due diligence’ 

Companies developing and distributing surveillance technologies are responsible for avoiding human rights abuses, she said, and they must take immediate steps to mitigate and remedy the damage their products are causing, or contributing to, and carry out “human rights due diligence” to ensure that they no longer play a part in “such disastrous consequences” now, or in the future. 

States also have a duty to protect individuals from privacy rights abuses by companies, she added.  

One key step in this direction is for States to require by law that the businesses meet their human rights responsibilities by becoming more transparent in their design and use of products and by putting in place effective accountability mechanisms. 

Better regulation key 

Reports also confirm “the urgent need to better regulate the sale, transfer and use of surveillance technologies and ensure strict oversight and authorization.” 

Governments should not only immediately stop using surveillance technologies in ways that violate human rights, but also “take concrete actions” to protect against such invasions of privacy by “regulating the distribution, use and export of surveillance technology created by others”, the High Commissioner said.  

Without human rights-compliant regulatory frameworks, Ms. Bachelet upheld that there are “simply too many risks” that the tools could be used to intimidate critics and silence dissent.

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