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US contractor shooting in Saudi raises questions about IS risk

Friday's shootout is the second time in recent months that US contractors have been targeted
A petrol station in Riyadh where a Vinnell Arabia contractor was killed in October (AFP)

A US defence contractor said on Sunday that two of its American employees came under fire in the latest attack against Westerners in Saudi Arabia.

The attack comes as several reports have emerged in recent weeks of IS-linked attacks at Saudi Arabia's northern border with Iraq.

It was also the second time in recent months that staff of the contractor Vinnell Arabia, which provides training for the 200,000-strong Saudi National Guard, whose duties include combating "terrorism", have been targeted.

"We can confirm that two Vinnell Arabia employees were involved in an incident on Friday, in which they were shot at by assailants in the al-Ahsa province of Saudi Arabia," the company said in a statement issued through a public relations firm. 

"Both employees were injured but are in stable condition at a local hospital," it added.

Immediately following the attack, Saudi police had said that one American had been wounded in a shooting just east of a National Guard base near Hofuf City.

"A car carrying two American nationals... came under fire from an unknown source" on Friday afternoon in al-Ahsa, part of the eastern region which is the source of most of the kingdom's oil wealth, police said.

Asked about a possible motive for the shooting, interior ministry spokesman General Mansour al-Turki said: "We're still waiting for the results of the investigation."

The attack is the fourth against Westerners in the kingdom since October. It coincides with Saudi Arabia's participation in US-led air strikes against the Islamic State group in Syria.

In December, according to a report in the International Business Times, IS announced for the first time that it intended to attack Saudi Arabia - and then was linked to an attack on the Iraq-Saudi border one week later, killing three Saudi soldiers.

Last week, a well-known Saudi blogger reported that “tens” of Islamic State militants had infiltrated into the country after a late-night attack on the northern border near the town of Rafha, on Tuesday.

A string of unverifiable tweets published by Mujtahidd, who has more than a million followers and is known for posting anti-establishment news from within Saudi Arabia, said that security services were left in a state of “confusion” after the attack, which was apparently supported by a “cell” from within Saudi Arabia.

In September, the country announced it was constucting a 900km fence across its border with Iraq. An 1,800km barrier has already been constructed along its border with Yemen.

Attacks on Westerners increase

In a shooting in October, one Vinnell employee was killed and another wounded at a petrol garage in the capital Riyadh.

The interior ministry identified the suspected shooter as a US-born Saudi who had been fired from Vinnell Arabia. He was shot and wounded in a gunfight with security officers.

"It was not a terrorist-related incident," Turki said.

The October shooting was the first deadly attack on Westerners in Saudi Arabia since several were killed in a wave of al-Qaeda violence between 2003 and 2007.

Among the targets at that time were housing compounds where foreigners lived, including one which was home to Vinnell staff.

Security around Western facilities has since been markedly increased.

The latest attack on Vinnell recalls the wounding of a Dane in November. He was driving away from his workplace when he was fired on from another car.

Last month, security officers arrested three Saudis on suspicion of involvement in that attack, saying the suspects acted "in support of" the Islamic State group.

A week after the Dane's shooting, someone stabbed and wounded a Canadian while he shopped at a mall on Saudi Arabia's Gulf coast.

Police arrested a Saudi suspect but Turki said the incident was not "terrorist"-related.

Saudi Arabia blamed IS-linked suspects for the November killing of seven members of the minority Shiite community in Eastern Province, including children.

National Guard development

In 2013, King Abdullah upgraded the National Guard to a ministry and assigned his Sandhurst-educated son, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, to lead it.

In November, Prince Miteb visited the US where he reportedly met with President Barack Obama, then-Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, to discuss the development of the Saudi National Guard forces in the field of armament and training, according to reports from the Saudi Press Agency.

The National Guards, trained by Vinnell, are formed from tribes traditionally loyal to the al-Saud dynasty and operate in parallel, and as a palace-directed counterbalance, to the regular armed forces.

The guard has infantry, mechanised and special forces wings, and is reportedly planning to acquire Black Hawk and Apache helicopters from the US this year.

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