Bombing with a Message
President Bush characterized the May 12 suicide bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as being carried out by "killers whose only faith is hate." In fact, the devastating attack was a calculated, political act that was probably not orchestrated by al Qaeda and not directed primarily against the United States.
A thorough understanding of the incident -- a repeat of a similar attack that took place in 1995 -- might help the United States to act in a responsible and measured manner.
Both the recent bombings and the 1995 attack were made against the same target. This was the Vinnell Corp., a Fairfax, Va., company recently acquired by Northrop-Grumman that trains the 80,000 member Saudi Arabian National Guard under the supervision of the U.S. Army.
The Vinnell operation represents everything that is wrong with the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the eyes of anti-monarchist revolutionaries. The corporation, which employs ex-military and CIA personnel, has close connections with a series of U.S. administrations, including the current one. It has had a contractual relationship to train the Saudi Arabian National Guard since 1975. The corporation was instrumental in the American "Twin Pillars" strategy, whereby both the Saudi Arabian regime and the Shah of Iran would serve as U.S. surrogates in the Gulf region to protect American interests against the possible incursion of the Soviet Union.
Even before the first Gulf War, when the United States established a formal military presence in Saudi Arabia, Vinnell was a "stealth" military presence in the Kingdom. It was seen as a military colonizing force. The Saudi Arabian National Guard, by extension, was seen as a de-facto American military force.
Additionally, the Guard has the specific duty of protecting the Saudi Royal Family, which the revolutionaries see as corrupt. Without the National Guard, the family would be weakened, perhaps to the point of dissolution.
Thus, since the Vinnell operation looks to revolutionaries like a body of United States-sponsored mercenaries shoring up the National Guard, and by extension, the royal family, striking the Vinnell operation is a logical strategy to damage the Saudi regime.
There is another reason for attacking Vinnell. The dissidents know that the United States has agreed to withdraw the 5,000 troops stationed at the Saudi Arabian Prince Sultan Air Force Base. However, the withdrawal would not cover the Vinnell contract employees, who presumably will stay in Saudi Arabia and keep propping up the regime. Since the revolutionaries want all Americans out of Saudi Arabia, they are looking to the ouster of this group as well as the troops based at the Prince Sultan base.
Furthermore, the compound that was bombed was a relatively easy target. It was not as heavily defended as an embassy or ministry.
This is not the first attack involving Vinnell. In 1995, the terrorists attacked the Saudi National Guard Headquarters, where the Guard was trained by Vinnell. The bomb killed six people and injured many more. Among the dead were five U.S. citizens, including two soldiers. Two Saudi opposition groups took responsibility for the blast, the Tigers of the Gulf and the Islamic Movement for Change. Both have previously criticized the ruling Saudi monarchy and U.S. military presence.
The facts of this earlier attack call into question the theory that the al Qaeda operation was responsible for the May 12 bombing. Ali al-Ahmed, executive director of the Washington-based Saudi Institute for Development and Studies, said on the PBS NewsHour of May 13 that this was a "home-grown operation" that borrowed ideas from al Qaeda but was not directed by Osama bin Laden.
Americans have become used to thinking of al Qaeda as the primary terrorist opponent of the United States. The Bush administration has encouraged a public view of al Qaeda as a highly organized group with omnipotent, worldwide reach. This has led to a general view that every group espousing violent political change is an emanation of Osama bin Laden's machinations. That view is inaccurate. Insofar as it has a structure at all, al Qaeda is a group of loosely affiliated cells, many of which have no knowledge of the operations of the others.
Groups opposed to the Saudi regime have been in continual existence for decades, predating bin Laden's activities. As soon as their leaders are arrested or killed, they regroup and renew their attack. It is more likely that al Qaeda, a relatively new organization, sprang from these earlier groups, rather than the other way around.
Currently the United States is wedded to a bipolar, black-and-white view of the world. On one side are the United States and its friends. On the other are the dark forces of terrorism.
So strong is this formulation, and so self-centered the American worldview, that Washington no longer seems able to entertain the thought that there might be revolutionary groups that have entirely local reasons for their actions. This tragic attack might well have taken place if the United States had not had a presence in Saudi Arabia. However, the existence of a quasi-military command force in the form of the Vinnell Corp. virtually guaranteed that Americans would be caught in the cross fire of what was arguably a local revolutionary action.
PNS contributor William O. Beeman is director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 30 years.