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Washington uses attacks to expand the "war on terror"
What's behind the Riyadh bombings?

May 23, 2003 | Page 5

LAST WEEK, Saudi Arabia was hit by a devastating terrorist attack on three housing compounds in the capital of Riyadh. Thirty-four people--most of them foreign nationals, including eight Americans--were killed and about 200 injured in the simultaneous truck bomb attacks.

Within hours, U.S. officials were declaring that the bombings had "mark of al-Qaeda"--and promising to crack down on terrorism worldwide. ELIZABETH SCHULTE takes a closer look at the Riyadh bombings.

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"THESE DESPICABLE acts were committed by killers whose only faith is hate," George W. Bush blustered in response to the Riyadh bombings on May 12. "And the United States will find the killers and they will learn the meaning of American justice."

Seizing on a new opportunity to advance their never-ending "war on terrorism," administration officials made sure to claim a link to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, even before an investigation began.

Secretary of State Colin Powell--already scheduled to arrive in Riyadh the day after the bombing for a meeting to promote a new Middle East "peace" plan--rushed out to the site and declared: "These are people who were determined to penetrate places like this just for the purpose of killing people in their sleep, killing innocent people, killing people who had tried to help others."

But rather than "people who had tried to help others," to many Saudis, the compounds represented the greed of Western corporations--and the ease with which they deal with the corrupt Saudi regime.

In two of the complexes targeted, Al-Hamra and Jadawal, most residents work as corporate executives and oil industry professionals. Behind the 20-foot-high walls that protect the residents of Al-Hamra, there are restaurants, bowling alleys, half a dozen swimming pools, a health club, a sports center and even a race track Asian guest workers are brought in to take care of the lawns--and, of course, the village has its own security force.

The third target in the attack has a more sinister story. The Vinnell compound is named after Vinnell Corp., a U.S. defense contractor hired to train the brutal Saudi National Guard. Vinnell, whose employees are made up of former U.S. military personnel, has worked for the Saudi kingdom for more than 25 years.

The Saudi regime needs all the protection that Vinnell can offer. Saudi Arabia's ruling family, headed by King Fahd since 1982, with Crown Prince Abdullah taking on more power since Fahd's stroke in 1995, is one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world. With total control over the world's largest oil reserves, the Saud dynasty is well known for its luxurious lifestyle, widespread corruption and iron-fisted rule.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of the population lives in grinding poverty in the slums of Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam. Between 15 and 20 percent of the population is unemployed, and since the 1980s, per capita income has plummeted by nearly 75 percent, to around $7,000 a year. Yet in the last decade, state spending on basic infrastructure has been cut in half.

The regime has imposed its own hard-line version of Islam--Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Islamic law that includes stoning women who commit adultery. Women are denied all political rights and forced to remain covered. Public protests are banned, and torture, amputations and floggings are used regularly by Saudis officials.

Yet none of this has kept the U.S. government from considering Saudi Arabia a close ally in the Middle East.

The key to the relationship is oil. Toward the end of the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt met with Saudi King Ibn Saud on a U.S. warship in the Suez Canal. In return for access to Saudi oil, Roosevelt promised the king U.S. protection. That's been the relationship ever since.

Robert Baer, who worked for the CIA for 22 years, mostly in the Middle East, explained this relationship in a May article in the Atlantic Monthly. "[A]lmost every Washington figure worth mentioning has been involved with companies doing major deals with Saudi Arabia," Baer wrote. "Spending a lot of money was a tacit part of the U.S.-Saudi relationship practically from the very beginning: the Americans would buy Saudi Arabia's oil and would provide the Saudis with protection and security; the Saudis would buy American weapons, construction services, communications systems and drilling rigs."

Saudi Arabia has also happily served U.S. political interests in the Middle East. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Saudi Arabia helped to organize--with U.S. support--a conservative Islamist alternative to pan-Arab nationalism, socialism and the left wing of the Palestinian liberation movement. In the 1980s, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia teamed up to fund the Islamist resistance in Afghanistan to the ex-USSR's invasion. Among the leaders of that struggle was none other than Saudi businessman Osama bin Laden. After abandoning Afghanistan when the USSR was driven out, the U.S. backed Saudi Arabia's support for the hard-line Taliban regime, hoping to gain access to oil routes to the Caspian Sea.

The U.S. has had a military presence in Saudi Arabia for 50 years, but when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the U.S. jacked up the number of troops to half a million. Afterwards, around 5,000 stayed on to enforce the "no-fly zone" over southern Iraq.

This year, however, widespread anger at the new U.S. war on Iraq forced the Saudi regime to withhold all-out support for the invasion, and last month, the U.S. announced that it would pull its troops out of the country.

The day after the Riyadh bombings, U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Jordan accused the regime of not reacting quickly enough to requests for stepped-up security at Western compounds. A Pentagon official even recently described Saudi Arabia as the "kernel of evil."

This highlights divisions in the Washington establishment between the Bush administration hawks who accuse Saudi Arabia of backing terrorism and want the U.S. to break with it--and those who still see the Saudi regime as an important ally and oil producer.

But what they all agree on is that the Riyadh bombing is an excuse to extend the U.S. "war on terrorism" across the globe. Washington wars will only stoke more discontent and anger--including the kind that that fueled the attacks in Riyadh.

Mercenaries who trained Saudi police

"WE ARE not mercenaries because we are not pulling triggers," a former U.S. Army officer and recruiter for Vinnell Corp. told Newsweek magazine in 1975. "We train people to pull triggers." Added another officer: "Maybe that makes us executive mercenaries."

One of the targets of the May 12 bombing attacks in Riyadh, Vinnell trains the Saudi National Guard, which Jane's Defense Weekly described as "a kind of Praetorian Guard for the House of Saud, the royal family's defense of last resort against internal opposition."

Many of Vinnell's trainers got their experience "cleaning up" in Vietnam. According to a 1996 article in the Progressive magazine by William Hartung, Vinnell had some 5,000 people in Vietnam, which an anonymous Pentagon official described as "our own little mercenary army in Vietnam."

Vinnell's status as private company hides the fact that it's made up of former U.S. military personnel. The shadowy company has some powerful friends in Washington. They include James Baker, Bush Sr.'s secretary of state, and Frank Carlucci, defense secretary under Ronald Reagan.

The attack in Riyadh has exposed Vinnell and all the hidden U.S. corporations like it that peddle their military "expertise" around the globe.

"Hypocrisy of U.S. policy"

WILLIAM HARTUNG is the director of the Arms Trade Resource Center at the World Policy Institute and a contributor to the book Power Trip: U.S. Foreign Policy After September 11th. His article "Mercenaries Inc.: How a U.S. Company Props Up the House of Saud" appeared in the April 1996 Progressive after the last attacks on Vinnell operations and chronicles the U.S. military corporation's long relationship with the Saudi regime. Hartung spoke to Socialist Worker about the bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last week.

Why was Vinnell Corp. targeted in Saudi Arabia?

You're dealing with a monarchy where there's no democratic rights, no women's rights, where they engage in practices like public beheadings. It shouldn't be so surprising that Vinnell Corp., a company that's hired as the internal training services for that monarchy, would be targeted by opposition forces. The Pentagon said that they didn't hit a military sight, but this company is, of course, retired military guys on contract to the Saudi government brokered by the Pentagon. You can't get much more military than that.

What do companies like Vinnell say about the Bush administration's claims that it is bringing democracy in the Middle East?

The Vinnell contract goes back to the 1970s. It was during Donald Rumsfeld's first tour as defense secretary that they cut the original deal.

Look at the way the U.S. has approached the rebuilding of Iraq, where they used secret bids to give contracts to private companies connected to Bush's inner circle, companies like Halliburton and Bechtel. The whole idea that they're building a democracy is called in question if the decisions are being made by the Pentagon, in secret. Even if a nominally representative government eventually got in, presumably their hands would be tied on a lot of issues because the U.S. had already given contracts and authority to these companies.

If the war on Iraq was either about fighting terrorism or promoting democracy, Saudi Arabia should have been the first target. The majority of the hijackers were from there, most of the financing came from Saudi individuals and organizations, and they've been a much closer nexus with al-Qaeda and the Taliban than Iraq under Hussein.

It's the dirty little secret of U.S. foreign policy exposed. They're perfectly willing to play ball with undemocratic regimes if there's something in it for U.S. multinationals and a very narrow view of U.S. interests. And the Saudi regime has always played ball with U.S. oil companies, always adjusted their oil policies to meet U.S. interests and used their financial resources to help fund the contras and the Afghan rebels in the service of U.S. anticommunist and hard-line foreign policy.

The Bush administration like all the prior administrations, treads very lightly on pressuring the Saudi regime about democratization and about their behavior, even with respect to terrorism. The essential hypocrisy of the whole policy is clearly played out if you think about the differences between how they treated Iraq and how they're treating Saudi Arabia.

In the aftermath of the bombing, the Saudi government says it's cracking down on terrorists. What do you think this will look like?

The Saudis will try and show that they're going to get tougher on the Islamic fundamentalists, but the fact is that they can use that as an excuse to crack down on pro-democracy groups as well. Back in the 1970s and '80s, there were groups basically calling for great openness, and those groups were arrested, repressed and, in some cases, subject to public beheading.

The Saudi regime is only moderately less repressive than the Taliban; it's just that they haven't had to use the full weight of that repression for many years because they had enough oil revenues to create and buy off a middle class. Now the oil is not enough because prices haven't budged much in a couple of decades. Now they're in a tighter spot where they're going to have to rely more on repression or open up the system.

What has been the response to the revelations about Vinnell?

This could be a tipping point because one of purposes of using companies like Vinnell is deniability--you're not using troops, you're using contractors. If somebody gets killed, theoretically it's not as big a political issue in the states.

But the Vinnell case really blows this out of the water, because this company has been bombed twice in eight years. Their presence is a tremendous sore point not just with followers of bin Laden but Saudi nationalists and Saudi democrats.

If that can be an opportunity for the American public to look at this phenomenon where you've got Vinnell in Saudi Arabia, DynCorp in Afghanistan, bombing drug labs in Colombia, a whole panoply of companies alleging that they're going to run Iraq in a stable fashion. I think that a lot of people can understand that we shouldn't be contracting out our foreign policy to private companies.

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