ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The trans-Alaska pipeline looks like it would be an easy target for terrorists intent on destroying a valuable American asset, but those responsible for its safekeeping say looks can be deceiving.
The 800-mile pipeline _ which carries nearly 17 percent of domestic crude oil production _ snakes north to south across Alaska, from the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez, where tankers are loaded for delivery to West Coast refineries.
About half of the 48-inch diameter pipeline lies underground. The other half is visible _ a huge silver cylinder that parallels two Alaska highways and sits nearly in the backyards of some Fairbanks homes.
The Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the company that operates the pipeline, even has a visitors center outside Fairbanks where tens of thousands of people have gone to get an upclose look at the pipeline.
"You can walk right under it," said Alyeska spokesman Mike Heatwole.
Terrorism experts say pipelines in general are easy targets, but tend to be low priority because they can be repaired so quickly.
And officials with an intimate knowledge of the pipeline say it's far less vulnerable than it appears _ in part because of the difficulty a saboteur would have getting any weapon capable of serious damage into Alaska.
The pipeline has state, federal and local agencies keeping an eye on it, said John Madden, deputy director of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
When Madden was asked what would keep someone from, say, firing a shoulder-mounted rocket at the pipeline, he cited the difficulty of getting such a weapon near the pipeline.
"The very act of a shoulder-fired weapon suggests transport of that weapon," he said.
Agencies including customs, immigration, border control and state troopers, work to make sure that such a weapon would never make it into Alaska, he said.
"There are quite a bit of those layers of defense and observation which the public will never see," Madden said.
However, officials decline to discuss any specifics about what actions have been taken to protect the pipeline.
"We have a security component to our work," Heatwole said. "It is part of our business."
Concerns that terrorists were targeting the pipeline were raised several weeks ago when the SITE Institute in Washington, D.C. _ the acronym stands for Search for International Terrorist Entities _ discovered a well-researched, 12-page Arabic essay posted on the Internet that discussed targeting the Alaska pipeline. Its author is unknown.
"It is not everyone who could sit and write something like this. You would have to have some background on how pipelines work," said SITE Director Rita Katz.
While the pipeline would be easy to blow up, it is not an attractive target for terrorists, said Henry Lee, director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. The center focuses on international security.
Lee said terrorists blow up pipelines more as an irritant, pointing to a pipeline in Colombia blown up more than 100 times by rebels.
"Pipelines can be blown up, and they are fairly easy to blow up," Lee said. "The day they did it, it would get headlines in all the papers. The problem is you would have it fixed in a matter of days."
Chris Kendall, a petroleum geologist at the University of South Carolina who is an expert on the impact of war on oil supplies, described the pipeline as a "soft boundary" target.
"Of course it is vulnerable," he said.
However, the pipeline's isolation in Alaska probably works to its advantage, Kendall said. Terrorists need a certain amount of "internal synergy" to be effective, he said.
"They need each other socially," Kendall said.
He doubted terrorists had that much interest in Alaska.
"Fortunately these idiots, the nihilists, are preoccupied with other focuses. They're probably running away from people in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are preoccupied with surviving and fighting in Iraq," Kendall said.
Alyeska assessed its security following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, Heatwole said. That same year an Alaska man shot up the pipeline with a .338-caliber hunting rifle, spewing about 300,000 gallons of crude. The man, who is now serving a 16-year prison sentence, apparently had no political motives.
There have been other instances where the pipeline was shot but not perforated.
Alyeska became aware of the Web posting about two weeks ago and sent an e-mail to its employees so people would not become needlessly alarmed, Heatwole said. The company made no changes as a result of the Web posting.
"We are not aware of any pending or imminent threat to the pipeline," Heatwole said.
The Web posting provided numerous links to other Web sites with specific information on the pipeline, including Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.'s official Web site.
FBI spokesman Eric Gonzalez said when the FBI became aware of the Web posting it shared it with other agencies in a joint terrorism task force formed in 2001. He said the main role of the FBI is to pass on intelligence information and do follow-up.
The Web message was posted on a password-protected al-Qaeda-affiliated forum. It was in response to messages from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri regarding recommended targets. The Web message suggested that attacks be launched on oil pipelines, refineries and pumping stations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Alaska.
When referencing the trans-Alaska pipeline, it said, "This kind of target is considered an ideal target for a small group of mujahideen of 4-5 individuals."
It said members would ideally be American Muslims but if those couldn't be found than they could be recruited from foreign-born Muslims living in the United States, Canada or Mexico.
"This group should be divided into smaller groups of 4-5 individuals, who have the knowledge and skills need(ed) for explosives," the Web site said.
It recommended either shooting the pipeline or blowing it up.
"It is preferable that these groups prepare hiding places in different locations alongside the pipeline and detonate the packages from time to time until they can receive the news of the American devils' defeat," it said.
It recommended that any attack be planned for summer.