Few people had ever heard of the Vinnell corporation before the recent bombings in Riyadh. The company, which is a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman of the US, has always kept a low profile, remaining behind the scenes throughout many of the most controversial chapters of US foreign policy over the past 70 years.
However, for members of the Saudi royal family, Vinnell is well known since in many ways the company represents the last line of defense between the crown and those that might seek to bring it down. And now the spotlight has fallen on Vinnell as the residential compound and the offices its used were hit, with nine of its employees killed, in the suicide attacks on Monday.
Founded in 1931, the Vinnell corporation was as a small contracting firm with one of its first projects being on the Los Angeles city highway system. Other lucrative contracts soon followed, but all were "decidedly civilian", according to William D Hartung, senior fellow of the World Policy Forum, who has tracked the company since 1995.
By the end of World War II, the company entered the overseas transport business, initially shipping food and equipment to the Chinese Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek in hopes of helping the US administration to roll back the red forces of Mao Zedong. Gradually, Vinnell expanded into the military construction business and it took a major role in building military airfields in Okinawa, Taiwan, Thailand, South Vietnam and Pakistan.
The war in Vietnam provided Vinnell with boundless opportunities and it won numerous million-dollar contracts, dispersing over 4,000 personnel to the country. Hartung points out that in a 1975 interview a Pentagon official described Vinnell as "our own little mercenary army in Vietnam" and asserted that "we used them to do things we either didn't have the manpower to do ourselves, or because of legal problems." But in overstretching its abilities, Vinnell almost ruined itself financially during the Vietnam War, and when a contract with the Saudi royal family opened up the timing could not have been better. "The firm's February 1975 contract for $77 million to train the Saudi Arabian National Guard [SANG] brought Vinnell back from the brink of bankruptcy," Hartung explains.
These ties have remained strong ever since. At present, Vinnell holds a five-year contract worth more than $800 million, employing more than 1,000 employees plus almost 300 US government personnel training the Royal Saudi Air Force, Saudi land forces and other elements of the Saudi military. The contract is financed by the Saudi government and run by the US Army Materiel Command.
The SANG is not part of the regular armed forces, but functions as a rough equivalent of Saddam Hussein's Royal Guard, slated specifically with the task of protecting the royal family. Historically, the guard is the descendant of the army that initially helped acquire the territory (now called Saudi Arabia) for the House of Saud. If in the future there were to be an internal uprising or a low-grade guerilla campaign conducted against the crown or its oil assets, the SANG would be the ones to respond.
The timing of the suicide attacks has drawn significant attention, particularly on the heels of the announcement that the US will withdraw most of its troops from the kingdom, starting next month. However, the planning for such a highly coordinated attack would likely have taken a considerable amount of time - several months according to some Saudi sources. In all probability, planning began before the announcement of the intended US troop withdrawal and before the announcement of Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit. The impetus of the act was probably intended to send a broadly framed message that the House of Saud and its significant remaining ties to the US are not safe. The timing was also probably tied to the major Riyadh raid on militants conducted a week and a half ago. In that raid, major stashes of arms were confiscated, but 19 suspects allegedly escaped. Militant cells in Riyadh may have felt that the time to make a move was now or never.
This is not the first time that Vinnell and the SANG have been targeted. On November 13, 1995, a 220-pound car bomb exploded in a parking lot adjacent to an office building housing the office of the program manager, Saudi Arabian National Guard, in Riyadh, causing five US and two Indian fatalities. The attack was widely assumed to be the work of Osama bin Laden, although the four men captured following the attack gave obviously forced confessions on TV before they were publicly beheaded.
After the 1995 attack, questions were raised about the quality of the security provided for Vinnell employees at the compound. Similar questions have been raised again, partially in light of the fact that US intelligence sources warned the Saudi government that there was reason to believe an attack was imminent. Other questions have also begun cropping up. For example, some wonder why it was so easy for the bombers to shoot their way onto the grounds of the compound. That the attackers apparently knew exactly where the switches were to open the steel gates allowing the cars strapped with explosives to enter the facilities once the outer guards were eliminated implies that the bombers may have had inside information.
Others wonder about Vinnell's own training capabilities. It was the very forces that Vinnell was in the process of training which were in charge of security on the compound. If this event was any indication of Vinnell's quality control, then the House of Saud may want to begin looking elsewhere for security assistance.
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