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ATTACK IN SAUDI ARABIA

Vinnell Corp., Targeted in Riyadh Before, Loses 9 More Workers

May 14, 2003|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Of the seven military and police forces in Saudi Arabia, perhaps none is more important than the National Guard. It has one overarching assignment: protecting the royal, ruling House of Saud.

Of the hundreds of U.S. firms operating in Saudi Arabia, perhaps none is more important to the royal family than the Vinnell Corp. The Fairfax, Va., unit of Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. trains the National Guard.

That Vinnell, active in the desert kingdom for more than a quarter-century, was among the entities targeted in the three coordinated explosions in Riyadh on Monday night surprised few Americans with detailed knowledge of U.S. companies' operations there. Indeed, Vinnell had been struck before: On Nov. 13, 1995, a car bomb destroyed a building in the Saudi capital that housed a Vinnell-linked military training program. Seven people -- five Americans and two Indians -- died.

But beyond historical military ties, Vinnell operates deep in the back-channel world that characterizes the U.S.-Saudi relationship, experts say.

"They're definitely one of the top hooked-in companies in the United States" providing services in Saudi Arabia, said Deborah Avant, a professor of political science at George Washington University who recently completed a book on private security forces overseas.

The company said Tuesday that at least nine of its employees were killed in this week's attack; seven were from the United States and two from the Philippines. Of the 70 or so Vinnell workers who lived in the building most heavily damaged, 50 were away on a training exercise, the company said.

Vinnell has about 800 employees in Riyadh, 300 of whom are American. Most of the Americans are retired military personnel, lured by the promise they can continue the work they did in the military.

Beyond Vinnell, the attack spread a wave of anxiety throughout U.S. companies in Saudi Arabia, which try to keep a low profile while coming up against the cultural divide that sets the West apart from traditional Islamic society.

To shake up the economic establishment in Saudi Arabia, the oil industry is a likely target that may yet be hit. But, said Andrew Hess, a professor of diplomacy at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Vinnell is the logical target of forces seeking to send a political message.

"You're saying you don't like the Saudi Arabian establishment, and you don't like the connections between the United States and the Saudi establishment, and you think the National Guard is not a military force defending the interests of the Saudi people but is something protecting the ruling class," said Hess, an engineer and former Marine who visits the desert kingdom regularly and worked from 1978 to 1984 for Saudi Aramco, the government-owned oil company.

Saudi Arabia's military defense is in the hands of the army, the navy and the air force. There is a conventional police force, a secret police force and the religious police, which guards against transgressions of public morals and demands adherence to Islamic law.

And there is the National Guard. While the guard's precise numbers vary, Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a draft of a review of Saudi Arabia as it enters the 21st century, has cited estimates putting its strength at about 100,000 and growing.

It is made up largely of members of tribes considered most loyal to the Al Saud family and is seen as "a counterweight to any threat from the regular military forces," he noted.

Because Crown Prince Abdullah, the country's de facto ruler, is head of the National Guard, the attack on Vinnell may have been an attack on the royal family.

For both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, the connection between Vinnell and the National Guard goes beyond military training, said David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the British American Security Information Council, an advocacy group studying defense and security issues.

"It provides political connections on both sides," offering an unofficial and discreet conduit between decision-makers in both countries, Isenberg said.

"In the pantheon of companies" linking the United States and Saudi Arabia, he said, "Vinnell would be among the top 10, and among the largest in political influence."

*

Times staff writer Peter Pae in Los Angeles and researcher Robin Cochran contributed to this report.

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