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American Hostage in Saudi Arabia Beheaded by Captors

June 18, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Paul Johnson was the third American killed in Saudi Arabia in the last ten days. Who killed him, and with what goal in mind? We’re joined by Jean-Francois Seznec, an adjunct professor at Columbia and Georgetown Universities, he spent a decade living and working in the gulf, including Saudi Arabia, which he last visited in March; and Bernard Haykel, assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University. He’s writing a book about Saudi Arabia and visited mostly recently in January.

Professor Haykel, the group al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula. Until this most recent spate of killings, was this a known adversary to American and Saudi officials?

BERNARD HAYKEL: It has been known that al-Qaida has had at least one major organization or set of cells but a major presence in Saudi Arabia. This group has been active, very active, since at least the May 2003 bombings.

RAY SUAREZ: So you are saying that this is not a freelance group, a group willing to — wanting to associate itself but a bona fide part of the al-Qaida international network?

BERNARD HAYKEL: Oh, absolutely, and a number of its members are people who have received training in Afghanistan and who go back to the days when they were fighting together with Osama bin Laden against the Soviets in the ’80s.

RAY SUAREZ: And what about Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin? Was he a known name, a known target of investigations?

BERNARD HAYKEL: If you speak to the religious scholars as I have, the younger religious scholars in Saudi Arabia, he is an upstart. He’s considered an upstart. He’s not considered a religious scholar.

He’s someone who has received training apparently in Afghanistan and did fight there, but he’s not a known quantity religiously, and as someone who has taken over after a number of more senior people were killed by Saudi security forces.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Seznec, during the last year, we’ve seen a switch from large-scale attacks on shopping centers, on residential areas, now to targeted killings. What do you suspect is going on here?

JEAN-FRANCOIS SEZNEC: I think there’s been a switch in tactics. I think the attack on the compounds in particular were very badly looked upon by the society in Saudi Arabia because it killed a number of Arabs and a good number of Muslims, and I think they switched to targeting foreigners, because killing foreigners, especially Americans, would carry a lot more support, if you like, within the population, who is at this point for its vast majority very anti-American.

So I think by killing the foreigners they are trying to achieve a change into the influence of the western influence in Saudi Arabia to come closer to an Islamic state where they are trying to promote. They are trying to destabilize the royal family, of course, but they are also trying to gain support among other people and disaffected people.

RAY SUAREZ: Now Paul Johnson worked for Lockheed Martin in Saudi Arabia. During the public pronouncements about the terms for his release, al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula said let him taste something of what Muslims have long tasted from Apache helicopter fire and missiles.


RAY SUAREZ: Do you suspect that this is a genuine part of their motivation, or that when they found they had a helicopter repairman they made the most of it?

JEAN-FRANCOIS SEZNEC: Well, that could be the case, but I think they did look into this before they took him.

The Apache helicopters in particular have a great deal of symbolism because they are viewed as the helicopters which we Americans give to the Israelis to attack the Palestinians. We have seen the Apaches used in Iraq, and it’s on the press. It’s on the al-Jazeera all the time, the Apaches, the Apache helicopters, and I think they meant it, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Haykel, one of the stated objectives of this group, calling itself al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is to cleanse the Arabian Peninsula of all foreigners and non-believers, and ostensibly the killing of Paul Johnson was part of that.

Is that a goal that has much sympathy in wider Saudi society? If you asked people that you met on the street, are they as upset as these radical groups are about the large-scale presence of foreigners in Saudi Arabia?

BERNARD HAYKEL: No, I don’t think that’s really the issue that exercises most Saudis. You have to understand that this group is a domestic political group in Saudi Arabia that is fighting a public relations campaign against the Saudi government and trying to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Saudis.

And the claim that they are making for cleansing the infidels from Arabia is a claim that in essence that says that the Saudi government is not applying Islamic law as it should be, because the prophet Mohammed said Arabia should be free of infidels and we are carrying out the law, so we have religious legitimacy, we, that is, the al-Qaida group in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government is not a legitimate Islamic government. It’s a way of delegitimizing the Islamic credentials of the Saudi government.

RAY SUAREZ: Did religious leaders speak back to that point and discuss openly in the society the state of foreigners, the status of foreigners in the kingdom?

BERNARD HAYKEL: Oh, absolutely. First of all, you have to understand there’s a spectrum of religious scholars in Saudi Arabia. You have the official scholars who work for the Saudi government, and they have many opinions called fatwas about the presence of non-Muslims in Arabia, and you have another group of scholars in between the official scholars of the government and these radicals who have also spoken on this issue.

And by and large a majority of scholars have said that non-Muslims are permitted to reside in Arabia as long as it’s a temporary residence. They are there for jobs or for a specific purpose. They are not permitted to reside there permanently.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Seznec, you lived in this area for a long time. Do you suspect that killings like Paul Johnson’s will lead to more foreigners leaving Saudi Arabia?

JEAN-FRANCOIS SEZNEC: Oh, definitely. I think it will lead to many foreigners leaving because de facto the families are going to come home so the schools are going to close. Whether the technicians will stay, many will try to leave. There’s already been a slowdown in some of the more industrialized activity, like petro-chemicals and so on, because many of the engineers had to leave.

A point which I might want to make, to add to Dr. Haykel’s point, is that there is some tension between the foreigners and the Saudis. They are 30 percent, probably 30 percent unemployment between the age of 18-25 in Saudi Arabia. Next to that you have seven to eight million foreign workers and, therefore, there are a lot of the unemployed would like to see the jobs go to them rather than stay with the foreigners.

So I think one of the motivations of this cell of al-Qaida is to really show that we can get rid of the foreigners and replace them with Saudis and get support from the Saudis to this effect.

RAY SUAREZ: And presumably that age group is a very fertile recruiting ground as well.


RAY SUAREZ: Now Professor Haykel, today the president said that violent extremists in this part of the world are trying to get the United States to retreat from the world, and he insisted we will not be intimidated, we will not retreat. Yet at the same time the State Department is suggesting that Americans leave Saudi Arabia.

BERNARD HAYKEL: Yes, that’s right, and I think there’s a contradiction that you highlight quite well. There is no question that I think all westerners at the moment, not just Americans, are in danger of staying, if they are to stay in Saudi Arabia because in addition to these organized groups you’ll have a number of vigilante type groups who will try to emulate them, so I don’t think westerners are safe at the moment in the kingdom at all and not just in the kingdom but also in the neighboring states like in Yemen and the gulf state.

RAY SUAREZ: A few senators today questioned whether the Saudis were providing enough support to suppress these groups and protect Americans. This was before word came that al-Muqrin was probably killed by Saudi security forces.

What is the disposition of the government? Are they really shoulder to shoulder with the United States when it comes to working security inside the country?

BERNARD HAYKEL: Yes. I mean I think that, you know, one should put to rest the argument that the Saudis are not doing everything to destroy these groups. These groups are the mortal enemy of the government of Saudi Arabia. They are trying to remove the present regime from power, and specifically the House of Saudi

I think the thing many Americans don’t understand is the Saudi government goes about attacking these people in a number of ways, some that may appear strange to us, like, for instance, they try to send scholars to speak to them about religious issues to get them to change their religious views. They speak to the elders of the tribes of these individuals to try to get them to back down. They try many different tactics and will only resort to violence as a measure of last resort, and this seems strange to us, but, again, as I said earlier, this group is a domestic group with a fairly large constituency. You can’t just excise it without doing fundamental violence to the Saudi society.

RAY SUAREZ: But at this point is this causing cleavages inside the Saudi leadership, professor?

JEAN-FRANCOIS SEZNEC: That is, of course, very hard to tell, but I think one of the key problems is perhaps not so much there’s a cleavage is the fact that you have the security forces, in my view, have been very, very inefficient, in fact, almost incompetent. I thought the attack on that Khobar by the extremists was very badly handled and the fact that three out of four were able to escape, some people have even said they were able to negotiate their escape with the security forces.

Really points out not so much that the security forces are doing their work and that the higher levels, that really applies to the royal family, certain members of the royal family, at the higher level there’s a sort of incompetence in dealing with those people. Now next to that you have people who are very competent in trying to develop the country, and they can’t — they are not able to work with the ones who are controlling the security, so I think there has to be some changes at this level, but this cannot happen until there is really a new king chosen that is really in power. Right now we don’t have a king in power at all.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen. Thanks a lot.