Tackling Energy Infrastructure Vulnerability in Violence-Prone Zones

by Jennifer Giroux and Raymond Gilpin

Nearly two weeks after the January 16 attack on the In Amenas gas facility in southeastern Algeria, gunmen attacked a gas pipeline in Ain Chikh, a city seventy-five miles southwest of Algiers. These attacks expose the vulnerability of energy infrastructure in regions experiencing violent unrest. The attack on In Amenas resulted in the death of more than sixty people, the traumatizing of many more, and substantial damage to the facility over the course of a four-day stand-off, while the attack in Ain Chikh was relatively smaller, with two community guards losing their lives. Despite their difference in scale, these attacks are part of a larger trend of violent non-state actors targeting energy infrastructure in key energy-producing regions. Responding to these attacks with a “business-as-usual” strategy will not suffice.

Looking beyond Algeria, such targeting has come in the wake of political or civil unrest across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Following Egypt’s January 2011 revolution, suspected Bedouin activists in Sinai targeted natural gas infrastructure on a near monthly basis, creating energy shortages in Jordan and Israel. Political instability in Syria and Yemen has also led to repeated attacks on, respectively, pipelines and electrical infrastructure since 2011 and throughout 2012. The most recent attack in Yemen, on February 8, 2013, targeted the main crude export pipeline, which has been repeatedly bombed, causing a long closure of the line in 2012. Finally, recent cyberattacks on 30,000 of Saudi Aramco’s hard drives andQatar’s RasGas computer systems in the summer of 2012 reveal the evolving nature and scope of energy infrastructure attacks. While the motivations for these attacks vary (political messaging, criminality, undermining regimes, etc.), the consequences have invariably been dire in terms of fatalities, lost earnings, destroyed facilities, emboldened militia groups, and reputational damage to companies or countries looking to attract investment.

This trend, however, is not isolated to the MENA region. The Energy Infrastructure Attack Database (EIAD), developed by the Center for Security Studies at ETH University in collaboration with the Paul Scherrer Institute, finds that average annual attacks on energy infrastructure have risen from slightly less than 200 worldwide between 1980 and 1999 to almost 400 between 2000 and 2011. The EIAD data also reveal a tendency for attacks to cluster in certain regions and form a wave-like pattern over time. The crests of these waves tend to correspond with flashpoints of instability characterized by localized “bursts” of violence aimed at energy infrastructure. Such clusters have recently occurred not only across MENA but also in parts of South America and South Asia.

Given this information, it is clear that political instability and civil unrest in and around energy-producing countries trigger attacks, which can snowball into clusters. It is also clear that a more nuanced understanding and appreciation of energy infrastructure vulnerability is needed, particularly in violence-prone regions. We should not view energy infrastructure simply through the prism of physical infrastructure (e.g., pipelines, facilities) but should also consider the human capital (e.g., employees) and virtual networks (e.g., information infrastructure) that support operations, as well as interrelationships with the local context that can change the understanding and meaning of energy infrastructure. Rather than being simply a function of business activities, energy generation, and revenue, energy infrastructure can become a messaging and fundraising tool for the criminal and the aggrieved. Indeed, its vulnerability can drive and exacerbate conflict.

A more holistic, cross-sectoral approach to securing energy infrastructure is thus needed in such volatile regions. First, practitioners and policymakers need to understand and acknowledge interrelationships among the various types of energy infrastructure and design interventions that fit the local context. To do this, companies must expand their capabilities with respect to security and community engagement and coordinate resources, form partnerships, and share information with other private and public actors.

Second, better diagnoses of operating contexts are vital. This includes adopting an evidence-based approach to understanding the power of contagion that creates clusters and the motivations and characteristics of violent non-state actors. Today’s violent militia groups have a complex mix of shifting economic, social, political, cultural, and ideological grievances. They are also transnational and often have different, if not competing, agendas. Consequently, multi-pronged strategies must seek to isolate extremists by using a socio-anthropological lens to develop a deeper understanding of them, support host communities through tailored community engagement activities, and enhance cross-border collaboration that could diminish the capacity of such groups to carry out attacks.

Third, analysis and engagement must be sustained, not sporadic. This is not an insurmountable challenge. On the contrary, shifting away from a reactionary “business-as-usual” strategy to a more holistic and tailored approach will improve risk management in such volatile spaces and could help companies get ahead of the next wave of attacks on its energy infrastructure.

About the Author

Jennifer Giroux is a senior researcher with the Risk & Resilience Team at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. She also heads the targeting energy infrastructure project, overseeing the development of the Energy Infrastructure Attack Database (EIAD). Dr. Raymond Gilpin heads the Center for Sustainable Economies at the United States Institute of Peace. He leads the Institute's work on the economic dimensions of peacebuilding, hosts the business and peace taskforce, and manages the web-based International Network for Economics and Peace.

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