Soldiers of Fortune 500


In the aftermath of the recent bombing in Saudi Arabia, it became clear that all the Al Qaeda team needed was 30 seconds to take out the security guards at the Vinnell Corp. housing compound in Riyadh so they could drive the bomb-laden vehicles to their targets.

The U.S. quite understandably issued sharp criticism of the Saudi rulers’ ineffective security precautions. We ought to know. The Saudi National Guard, which provided at least some of the protective services for the compounds, is trained by American private military operatives, employees of Vinnell, a subsidiary of defense giant Northrop Grumman.

Some of the blown-up buildings housed the company’s workers. The point could not have been better made: Even as Bush celebrated his victory in the war on terror in Iraq, Al Qaeda scored a direct hit on American paramilitary troops.

And it’s not the first time terrorists have successfully attacked Northrop Grumman’s troops. In 1995 terrorists hit the Saudi National Guard headquarters and the nearby offices where Vinnell employees worked. Vinnell, based in Alexandria, Virginia, has been working under a five-year, $831 million contract to train the Saudi National Guard, which serves as a palace guard for the Saudi royal rulers. The contract is paid for by the Saudi government and administered by the U.S. Army Materiel Command. Vinnell got its start as a Los Angeles construction company, and after World War II it sent guns to Chiang Kai-shek in his losing fight to regain control of mainland China. By the 1960s, the company was being used as a cover for CIA agents working in Africa and the Middle East, and it built airfields in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. “We are not pulling the triggers. We train people to pull the triggers,” a Vinnell employee once told Peter Arnett. “Perhaps that makes us executive mercenaries.”

Additional reporting: Phoebe St John and Joanna Khenkine