Guest: Khaled Al-Maena, Walid Phares, Raghida Dergham, M.J. Gohel, Leon Fuerth
RANDY MEIER, MSNBC ANCHOR: And welcome to MSNBC‘s special report on the murder of American hostage Paul Johnson Jr. by al Qaeda terrorists in Saudi Arabia. THE ABRAMS REPORT will be back on Monday. I‘m Randy Meier at MSNBC World Headquarters.
BOB KUR, MSNBC ANCHOR: Randy, hello to you. I‘m Bob Kur in London.
Paul Johnson kidnapped from his home in the Saudi capital only last weekend and then on Tuesday, terrorists calling themselves al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula threatened to kill him in 72 hours unless the Saudi government agreed to release hundreds of al Qaeda prisoners. The Saudi government refused and despite pleas from his family, this afternoon Johnson was murdered.
Tonight, the Arab network Al-Arabiya is reporting that Abdul Aziz al-Mughrin is said to be the leader of an al Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia. He has been killed. Al-Mughrin took responsibility for Paul Johnson‘s murder and other Westerners working in Saudi Arabia as well.
We‘re going to begin this special hour with the president‘s reaction. NBC‘s Norah O‘Donnell is traveling with the president today, joins us now from Reno, Nevada—Norah.
NORAH O‘DONNELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: And good day to you, Bob. That‘s right, the White House is denouncing the barbaric beheading of Paul Johnson. President Bush sending his sympathies to the Johnson family and friends, but also sending a message to the world that America will not be intimidated by extremist thugs.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT: They are trying to intimidate America. They‘re trying to shake our will. They‘re trying to get us to retreat from the world. America will not retreat. America will not be intimidated by these kinds of extremist thugs. May God bless Paul Johnson.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O‘DONNELL: The president also saying that the murder of Paul shows the evil nature of the enemy we face. He also said there is no justification whatsoever for his murder and yet they killed him in cold blood.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who is campaigning in Colorado, also condemning the killing of Paul Johnson, issuing a very strong statement, saying that the killers have no shame, no decency and no mercy and Cheney saying—quote—“America will hunt down the killers one by one and destroy them”—Bob.
KUR: Norah, everyone today was stressing how closely the United States worked with the Saudis on this and Secretary of State Powell said today that this only means that the U.S. and the Saudis will redouble their efforts to try to go after groups that are responsible for things like this. Is the administration really satisfied with what the Saudis have been doing?
O‘DONNELL: Privately, no. Officials still want the Saudi government to do more. That‘s why we heard Secretary of State Colin Powell saying this is the time for both the U.S. and the Saudi government to redouble those efforts and they hope this military action and perhaps catching the person responsible is a good sign of that—Kur.
KUR: Nora O‘Donnell on the road with the president tonight. Thanks very much—Randy.
MEIER: Well, Bob, we heard the first official reaction from Saudi Arabia less than an hour ago. It came at the Saudi embassy in Washington from Adel Al-Jubeir, foreign affairs adviser to the Saudi crown prince.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ADEL AL-JUBEIR, SAUDI FOREIGN AFFAIRS ADVISER: Today we are faced with the tragedy of this gruesome death at the hands of barbarians who have rejected the teachings of their faith and the principles of humanity. His brutal murder illustrates the cruelty and inhumanity of the enemy we all are fighting. On behalf of my country and every individual with a sense of decency and humanity, I offer our most heart-felt condolences to his family and friends.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MEIER: For reaction in Saudi Arabia, we are joined now on the phone by Khaled Al-Maena, editor-in-chief of “Arab News”, the first English daily newspaper in Saudi Arabia. Khaled, I must first ask, what is this reaction in the Arab world and Saudi Arabia in particular to the murder of Paul Johnson?
KHALED AL-MAENA, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, “THE ARAB NEWS” (via phone): Well, it‘s a reaction of horror because this man was peacefully living here. He was a civilian. He did not harm anyone. He was a guest and under tradition he should have been protected and only yesterday, a well-known businessman wrote an appealance (ph) that we should protect expatriates and foreigners with our lives. So, it‘s a sad night. I mean it‘s very unfortunate that this has happened.
MEIER: Khaled, now we have learned in the last 15 minutes that Abdulaziz Almughrin, the ringleader, the alleged ringleader in the capture and the murder of Paul Johnson, himself killed and we‘re hearing reports that he was killed in a Saudi siege when he and two others, at least two others, were trying to dispose of the body of Paul Johnson. Has there been reaction in Saudi Arabia to that?
AL-MAENA: Well, we have received many calls, yes. People are very happy about this, at least something has come out and we wish that this would have happened months before so that the murder of Mr. Johnson would have been averted, but people are relieved that one of the ringleaders and one of the gang of murderous people is now dead.
But the question remains as to the other people. We want to see that the cell, the other people, the sympathizers, the people who incite others to hate, the people who preach violence should also be put behind bars.
MEIER: Khaled, should Americans and other Westerners be confident that the Saudi Arabia government in fact will step up its attack, its capture and if possible or needed, its killing of al Qaeda members in Saudi Arabia?
AL-MAENA: Well, I think they should feel relief that at least one of the ringleaders is disposed of. And I think also the people are—more than the government, I think the people of Saudi Arabia are tired. They want this to end. They really don‘t want their country to have that image of violence. And I think the people will do all out and to root out this evil. At the same time, I think those guys, the sympathizers of al Qaeda and those guys are sympathizers of these murders, I‘m sure are on the run, especially with Almughrin being killed a few minutes ago.
MEIER: Khaled, you mentioned sympathizers of al Qaeda. And you know as well as I do, there are clerics within that country who preach hate towards Westerners, the infidels, as they tell—as they pronounce them. Do you feel confident that that type of preaching of hate toward even the younger generations can be halted in Saudi Arabia to help stem the flow of terrorism there?
AL-MAENA: You need a rehab program, yes, it can be. And people are writing about it and if you read the Arabic press in Saudi Arabia, you will find dozens of writers writing columns, columnists, men and women, and only a few years ago, one of the royal family members, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) wrote a scathing attack on these people of how they dehumanized young people.
And I think these people are on the run, because we do not want our religion or our culture to be hijacked by people. And for a long time, the silent majority just kept quiet about it, but I don‘t think that we can anymore. And personally, I myself am leading a group of writers who (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and we just want these things to be finished once for all.
MEIER: Khaled Al-Maena, editor-in-chief of “Arab News”. We appreciate your insight from Saudi Arabia. Thank you very much—Bob.
KUR: Randy, Paul Johnson‘s family has been in seclusion quite understandably today in his hometown of Tuckerton, in New Jersey. That‘s where we find NBC‘s Michelle Franzen there tonight. And Michelle, it has been heartbreaking to say the least watching this family on television all week and now this.
MICHELLE FRANZEN, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: It certainly has Bob, and as you mentioned, the family is in seclusion at this hour. They may even have left this community and this neighborhood this evening just to get away from all the pain that they are certainly going to be feeling in the next few days. This community has rallied around the family all week long as you mentioned. They have held vigils and they have held out hope that Paul Johnson would return alive and safe.
However, that did not turn out to be the case. Instead, now their hopes have been dashed and their emotions are turning into anger, disbelief and grief. There are yellow ribbons that they have put out in this area and those ribbons will remain. They are planning, they have told people that they can come in the community to local churches. They are gathering there as they have been all week long. The family at this point, though, has not made a statement and we have no word yet on whether or not they will make a statement on Paul Johnson.
KUR: Michelle, to the extent you have been able to talk to family even before this happened, or some of the neighbors who have gathered there over the past few days, has this, today, sort of stiffened their resolve that the U.S. should really do more about this or is this something that they are upset about and saying you know this might never had happened had the government taken another course?
FRANZEN: I‘m not quite certain if the community is taking it quite that far yet. They are still dealing with the shock. They are still dealing with the initial response of learning about Paul Johnson‘s death. There is a certain disbelief here. Many people, again, had held out hope that he would return. They had held prayer vigils. They had really held out hope that he would return. And lot of it is shock that they are dealing with now and certainly some anger beginning to set in. So, I‘m sure those emotions will come out later on and discussions.
For now, though, their focus is on the family and is on definitely wondering what they going to do planning a memorial for Paul Johnson and remembering him from his childhood days here.
KUR: Michelle Franzen for us in New Jersey. Michelle, thanks.
We‘re going to go now to the Pentagon where NBC‘s Jim Miklaszewski is standing by with the latest from there—Jim.
JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Bob, we are learning now from Saudi officials that the alleged mastermind of this abduction and execution of Paul Johnson, an al Qaeda leader by the name of Almughrin and at least three other operatives were killed in a shootout with Saudi authorities tonight as Almughrin and the three others were attempting to dispose of Paul Johnson‘s body. We‘re still awaiting for further details from the Saudis themselves—Bob.
KUR: All right, “Mik”, thanks. Keep us up to date, if you will, on any other details that come your way tonight.
When we come back, we‘re going to take a look at how news of Paul Johnson‘s death is being covered in the Arab world and just what it means for America‘s relations with the Arab community. Stay with us.
MEIER: And welcome back to our special coverage of the murder of Paul Johnson, the American hostage being held in Saudi Arabia. A lot of developing issues coming out of Saudi Arabia right now and for those viewers who may not have joined us earlier in the day, I can give you a few more details.
American hostage Paul Johnson was in fact beheaded, murdered by the al Qaeda terrorist who had held him since Saturday. The 72-hour dead line passed. After that deadline passed, a short time later it was reported on a Web site housed by al Qaeda that he had in fact been murdered. He had been killed. And then during a siege, a short time later, when apparently some of those militants, those al Qaeda militants were attempting to dispose of his body, there was a siege involving Saudi officials and the ringleader of that al Qaeda group, a man by the name of Abdulaziz Almughrin, there he is there, a much wanted al Qaeda operative in Saudi Arabia was killed.
This has been confirmed by Saudi officials. A U.S. senior official—a senior U.S. official, rather, also confirms that he has been killed. This—those are the latest developments coming to us out of Saudi Arabia and they have been developing for us over the course of the last hour and a half now. That is the latest. Bob, your view from Washington?
KUR: Randy, one of the questions being asked in this capital is just how this news is being reported in other ones, especially by the Arab press. Dubai-based Al-Arabiya broke the story, they covered it quite extensively. The Al-Jazeera network, which is broadcast out of Saudi Arabia‘s neighbor, Qatar, is also covering it. Let‘s take a listen to just how both did.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): The latest according to our correspondents in Saudi Arabia is that the abductors of the American hostage, Paul Johnson, have carried out their threat and have killed Paul Marshal Johnson, beheading him. The abductors have threatened that unless the Saudi government released al Qaeda prisoners, they would kill Paul Marshal.
VOICE OF JACOB KERYAKES, MSNBC TRANSLATOR: The abductors have carried out their threat and killed American Paul Johnson who was in their custody since last Saturday. The killing came after a deadline of three days given to the Saudi government to release some of al Qaeda members in return for not killing the hostage. The abductors have said in their statement that they have killed the hostage to revenge what happened in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prisons.
According to the statement posted alongside the pictures on the Web site, it shows graphics of what they said were of the American hostage who was working as an Apache helicopter maintenance engineer. The killing of the hostage came after repeated calls from his family and calls from the imams in Saudi Arabia to release him. The latest of which came from the imam of the great (UNINTELLIGIBLE) who asked not to harm non-Muslims in the kingdom.
The Saudi decision not to negotiate with the abductors was politically understood as not setting an example for future abductions. As for their inability to free him in any way possible as an additional burden to the Saudi authority that is fighting a violence wave of multi targets from economic to assassination of leaders to the abduction operations that ends in killing.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The long-term solution has to rely on a clear vision that would counter the cultural promoted by this terrorist ideology. And the U.S. should work alongside the Arab countries from within to present a different model that will tell people that goals will not be accomplished by terrorists.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): There is an internal problem that is facing the Arab and Islamic world that has to be dealt with but also there is a problem with the American policy.
KUR: Interesting enough. Some of the reaction there from the Arab world this evening.
Joining us right now for more insight into the Arab world‘s reaction to Paul Johnson‘s murder, his beheading, correspondent for the Pan-Arab newspaper “Al-Hayat” and MSNBC analyst Raghida Dergham. Good to see you. And...
RAGHIDA DERGHAM, “AL-HAYAT” NEWSPAPER: Thank you, very much.
KUR: And at MSNBC headquarters, Middle East expert and professor at Florida Atlantic University, Walid Faris. Good to see you Walid.
WALID PHARES, MIDDLE EAST EXPERT: Hi Bob.
KUR: Walid, let me begin with you. Is it realistic to think that the Saudis can get a handle on this with or without U.S. help?
PHARES: It is very realistic to think that the security forces of Saudi Arabia can engage al Qaeda seriously if there is a political decision at the level of leadership. They do have the information, they know about those cells, but of course they know about the consequences of a full-fledged war with those terrorist who can really harm the Saudi economy. And this is a balance that the Saudi government has tried to establish until today. It seems with the killing of this leader they have crossed the line.
KUR: Raghida Dergham, it seems as though, in recent months anyway, the Saudis have entered this battle with a vengeance. What is your take on whether or not they really will go the distance needed in order to take care of this?
DERGHAM: They‘ll have to take the distance needed at this point. Whether they will succeed or not, we don‘t know. We have been taking the distance needed and we don‘t know if there will be any other attack here in the United States. So, they are doing their best, they are.
They are a bit late about it, yes, but I think they have been cooperating extensively with American authorities to see how come—how can they possibly just put an end to it. But I think it‘s a global fight at this point, it‘s not only Saudi.
KUR: You talk about a global fight. I was interested to hear one of the Arab commentators we saw on that last segment talk about you have to find a way, he said how to counter the culture that engenders this, that makes this happen. Any progress on that front? What has to happen for that to happen?
DERGHAM: Look, the Saudis have been doing some reform, slowly, maybe a bit too little, maybe a bit too late. They, in my view, might should have done a sort of a shock therapy. However, I don‘t think it‘s right to say well, this is the culture or the teachings that have been about this situation with al Qaeda and its types. Basically this is an organization, this is the people who belong to this organization who want power. They want to overthrow the royal family in Saudi Arabia. They want to break American/Saudi relations and they want the United States out of there.
So it is really a doctrine of destruction in order to build exactly the way they want things built up. Luckily, a lot of people in the Arab world are now reacting with dismay and disgust and they hopefully will be more upfront by saying you have to stop that. Yes, of course they would like to be empowered by policy by the United States, but I think there is going to be quite the backlash and continuous one at that.
KUR: Plenty more to talk about on this, so Raghida and Walid, please stay with us. We‘re going to come back with more on the Arab world reaction and what possibly can be done about this when we come back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just—I‘m trying to do everything I can and I don‘t know what else I can. I‘m just pleading. These are the people that can make this happen. And they got to make it happen. He just can‘t be another victim.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MEIER: And that was Paul Johnson‘s son, Paul Johnson III speaking about his father on the “Today” show. That was yesterday and we‘re back with more insight in the Arab world. And here is what has happened in the last hour right here.
Paul Johnson, the American hostage held since Saturday, the deadline, that 72-hour deadline passed. When it passed, an al Qaeda Web site confirmed that he had been beheaded, murdered by al Qaeda terrorists there in Saudi Arabia.
And if there is justice, it did come swiftly. Saudi security forces have killed the kingdom‘s top al Qaeda‘s leader, Abdulaziz Almughrin. He is the ringleader of that al Qaeda cell. He is also the man who claimed responsibility for the beheading of Paul Johnson. And that has been confirmed by senior U.S. officials as well.
And we‘d like to get some more insight into the Arab world‘s reaction to Paul Johnson‘s murder, as well as the death of Abdulaziz Almughrin in Saudi Arabia. Correspondent for the Pan-Arab newspaper and MSNBC analyst Raghida Dergham and at MSNBC World Headquarters, Middle East expert and professor at Florida Atlantic University, Walid Phares.
Walid, let me start with you. First and foremost, the death of Paul Johnson, the ramifications, the ripple effect around the world will be great and it will be the greatest in Saudi Arabia because this is by all estimations up until this point has been a peaceful society who are now recognizing we are no longer so peaceful.
PHARES: Not just peaceful, Randy, it was a very stable country with a regime that was known in the region to provide that security for the foreigners living on its soil. Killing with brutality, beheading, was a message by al Qaeda to the other foreigners, about 40,000 Americans, 100,000 foreigners in general as a way to cripple Saudi economy. That was the strategic aim of this criminal act.
MEIER: Raghida, how significant is the killing of this al Qaeda leader in Saudi Arabia in terms of the power of that al Qaeda cell within that nation.
DERGHAM: Well, it‘s quite significant because the Saudis were able to do that immediately. Had it lingered and had they failed in getting the person who was behind this horrible, awful act, then it would have been against them. But would it mean an end to any al Qaeda cell inside Saudi Arabia? I question that. I don‘t know the answer. I don‘t know if the person was operating alone or not, but of course they‘ll have to keep on with the grip that they have started in order to not leave any pages open for those who want to write a different story for Saudi Arabia.
MEIER: Walid, let me carry on that theme that Raghida pointed out, the grip that al Qaeda can have on that nation. It‘s been debated and we have discussed that ourselves in terms of the generation that has been preached to in Saudi Arabia and many other Middle Eastern nations as well, the hatred for Westerners, the hatred for the infidel, as they‘re termed, clerics within Saudi Arabia preaching that hatred. In order to get a grasp on terrorism within that country, does it have to start there?
PHARES: Well, long-term, of course, at some point reforms will be the solution to terrorism. There is no doubt about that and change in foreign policy around the world. But right now there is a battle, an ongoing battle between the security agencies of the Saudi regime who understand that this is a strategic battle and the al Qaeda cell. Now each side in this battle has infiltrated the other side. Al Qaeda has certain cells within the security forces and the security forces have also agents within al Qaeda. That explains how fast was the killing of Almughrin.
MEIER: The Saudi security forces, the men who are now responsible for the death of that al Qaeda leader, are they capable, does Saudi have the capability of attacking al Qaeda effectively?
PHARES: The Saudi security agencies, certainly, according to most experts have long list of names of people who have either trained in Afghanistan or expressed their views in support of al Qaeda. However, the problem is not just security. It‘s a political decision that the Saudi royal family will have to make. It‘s a hard decision because that would also destabilize the kingdom if they go full fledge war against all the persons they know (UNINTELLIGIBLE) al Qaeda.
MEIER: Walid Phares, appreciate your time and insight, Middle East expert, and Raghida Dergham, correspondent for Pan-Arab newspaper “Al-Hayat”...
MEIER: Yes Raghida.
DERGHAM: I just want to...
MEIER: Sure, go ahead.
DERGHAM: ... for two seconds. My sincere sorrow and sincere condolences to the family of Mr. Paul Johnson. I just wanted...
MEIER: We appreciate that.
MEIER: Thank you very much.
MEIER: Thank you very much. And we thank both of you.
We will have more of our continuing coverage of the murder of American engineer Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia and the death of the leader of the al Qaeda cell who claimed responsibility for Johnson‘s murder when we return.
You‘re watching a special report on MSNBC.
MEIER: Thirty-three minutes past the hour. We‘re back with more of our special coverage on the murder, the beheading of American hostage Paul Johnson, Jr. by al Qaeda terrorists in Saudi Arabia. I‘m Randy Meier at MSNBC World Headquarters.
Bob Kur is also with us in Washington. Here is a recap of what has happened. Paul Johnson, Jr. worked in Saudi Arabia for a decade as an engineer, working on Lockheed Martin‘s Apache helicopters. He was kidnapped from his home in the capital of Riyadh last weekend on Saturday. Tuesday, his captors threatened to kill him in 72 hours unless the Saudis released hundreds of al Qaeda prisoners, militants. The Friday deadline went and they carried out their threat.
Also killed, we learned just about a half-hour ago, the man who took responsibility for Paul Johnson‘s murder, al Qaeda leader, Abdulaziz Almughrin and at least two more al Qaeda terrorists. They were killed while trying to dispose of Paul Johnson‘s body and they, too, were on Saudi Arabia‘s most-wanted list.
Our coverage of this continues now from Washington with Bob Kur.
Reaction from there, Bob.
KUR: Randy, thanks. This afternoon President Bush condemned the killing of Paul Johnson, Jr. as a barbaric murder which he said had no justification whatsoever. But for the record, this is how Mr. Johnson‘s killers justified themselves to the Arab world in a statement published on a militant Islamic Web site.
First, because they promised they would if their demands weren‘t met. As a justice punishment for an infidel, they called him, who worked on U.S helicopters used to fight Muslims. To—quote—“ease the pain of Muslims”. To disregard the anger of what the killers called Muslim failures who opposed taking Johnson. To support weak Muslim captives tortured in Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo and elsewhere. And to punish Americans and their supporters and send a lesson, they called it, that Americans who come to Saudi Arabia will face the same punishment.
Now, joining me from London at this point, terrorism expert M.J. Gohel. He runs the Asia-Pacific Foundation. It‘s an independent security assessment firm in London. Good to see you, sir.
M.J. GOHEL, ASIA-PACIFIC FOUNDATION: Good to be with you.
KUR: Well tell me, this killing goes on, as the past few have, in the name of Allah. Once the killing is framed on that basis, is it harder to stop?
GOHEL: Well, I think we are seeing a new tactic, a new strategy evolving in Saudi Arabia. Initially there were suicide car bombs. There were attacks in residential compounds. Now they are going in for hostage taking, to draw out the atrocity, as it were, to gain more attention around the world. And I‘m afraid we‘re going to see more of this happening unless the Saudi authorities can really clamp down on it.
KUR: But this is a religious-based thing, at least in the view of these killers, it seems. How does that fit into the equation, the fact that they murder in the name of Allah?
GOHEL: Well, indeed. I mean I think that there is no way one can justify a gruesome killing of this kind in the name of God, any god in fact. But we‘ve seen this happening before. We saw this happening with Daniel Pearl, “The Wall Street Journal” reporter in Pakistan. He was beheaded—there was a videotape—and then we saw it with American businessman Nicholas Berg in Iraq.
And these terrorists claim that they are doing this in the name of God. Now, obviously, this is quite ridiculous. It‘s important for Islamic clerics to stand up and to be counted and to speak as loudly as these terrorists and to say that you are committing a major sin. Unfortunately, we are not hearing the voice of moderation in all of this.
KUR: Interesting you mention, sir, the coverage of this. Here in the United States, and I suppose in many parts of the world, it is very emotional, and it is very extensive. Is that playing into the hands of these killers? Isn‘t that just what they want?
GOHEL: Well, yes, to some extent. It is playing into the hands of these killers. However, I think it‘s important that we do show our sense of horror, we do show how much we condemn this because a completely innocent man‘s life has been taken. His family obviously are deeply affected as also his colleagues. And the important thing is to really condemn this as loudly as possible. But it has to be condemned even more so from within Saudi Arabia, within the Arab world, within the mosques, in the madrasas, the religious schools.
This is where it‘s important that new generations of young men do not get indoctrinated into believing that somehow killing is the road to paradise. Unfortunately, too many of them think that they will be rewarded in paradise for killing completely innocent people.
KUR: Mr. Gohel, the killers in this instance had demanded the release of a lot of prisoners. Had that been done and certainly no one is advocating that—but had that been done, would it have been prevented this?
GOHEL: I‘m afraid it would have actually led to even more kidnappings
and more hostage taking. This is—one cannot give in to kidnappers. I
know one feels deeply sorry for Mr. Paul Johnson and for his family and one
has in fact been hoping and praying for the last few days that it would not
come to this. But in the past when one has caved into terrorists or to
hijackers, it only encourages more hijacking to take place. What was
needed in Saudi Arabia was for the Saudi regime to have taken action much
earlier. This regime has in fact created this problem by ignoring it, by
funding it, and by encouraging it in the past, in fact
KUR: You are, sir, an expert on security in Saudi Arabia and other countries. Talk to us about all of the American businesses that are based there that have people there, businesses from other countries that have people in that country. What has to happen now? Does everyone have to really retreat behind gates and does everyone now need a security guard or is business, international business in that kingdom threatened?
GOHEL: Well, this is a very important point. There are something like over six million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, 35,000 American citizens, 30,000 British citizens, and many of them actually live in fairly secure residential compounds. These are known targets. As yet, these compounds have not been provided with the kind of security that they should be. The trouble is that how on earth does one protect a foreign work force that is over six million strong? It is just virtually impossible.
The only way to protect these people is for Saudi security to hunt down, to capture and destroy the terror network inside the kingdom. But in the past, they‘ve been more interested—this regime has been more interested in persecuting foreigners.
It‘s not that long ago when two Britons were arrested on false charges of being involved in a bombing atrocity and those two victims were, in fact, only released from jail last August. There has been no apology given to them, no compensation. And this regime is really responsible for this problem that Saudi Arabia faces. I hope that it has now woken up and I hope it will crack down on terrorism as it has promised to do. Unfortunately, we hear a lot of fine words, but not enough action.
KUR: This afternoon you have a spokesman for the Saudi regime here in Washington talking about the need to work ever more closely with the United States in trying to combat this. Is that tantamount to having members of the Saudi regime sort of sign their own death warrants here? I mean how secure is the Saudi regime in your view?
GOHEL: Well, I mean, let‘s look back at the history. The Shah of Iran‘s regime was regarded as being solid as the rock of Gibraltar, but when the collapse came, it came very quickly. In the case of the Saudi regime, it is even more precarious.
The House of Saud in reality is really a house of cards for the simple reason that the regime is deeply despised within the country, within Saudi Arabia, as also with neighboring Arab countries. It is not loved by anyone for the simple reason that it has kept all the oil wells to itself. It has not allowed the wealth to percolate downward to the rest of the country. There‘s massive unemployment there.
There are a lot of frustrated young men there. And if there is any breakdown in law and order, the regime, the members of the regime will be the first ones to fly out of there under a fleet of Bowing 747‘s and they‘ll leave a mess behind for someone else to clear up. Unfortunately, the situation in Saudi Arabia is really very dangerous. In some ways even more dangerous than the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan.
KUR: International security expert M.J. Gohel, we thank you very much tonight.
GOHEL: My pleasure. My pleasure.
KUR: And still ahead, we‘re going to have more from the Pentagon and our correspondent there, Jim Miklaszewski. That‘s for you when our continuing coverage of al Qaeda‘s murder of American hostage Paul Johnson, Jr. returns.
MEIER: And welcome back to MSNBC‘s special coverage of the murder of Paul Johnson. A group calling itself al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken responsibility for that murder in Saudi Arabia. It appears al Qaeda has been changing its strategy and is now targeting individuals.
NBC News correspondent Jim Miklaszewski joins me now with the latest from the Pentagon‘s response. Jim, what do you know?
MIKLASZEWSKI: Well, here at the Pentagon, it‘s pretty much a quiet, quiet anger and resolve. Pentagon officials here are saying this barbaric act today is proof actually that the war on terrorism is far from over. And although there was some symbolism in both the beheading of Johnson and of Nick Berg some weeks ago, the fact that both of them were wearing orange jumpsuits, very similar to the prison jumpsuits that are warn by many detainees being held not only at Guantanamo Bay, but also some of those being held in Iraq, and the claim by both Abu Musab Zarqawi, who masterminded and in fact, probably personally took part in the beheading of Nick Berg in Iraq and the claim of these al Qaeda operatives in Saudi Arabia that they were doing so in response to prisoner abuse, Pentagon officials totally reject that notion, saying that they are using that simply as an excuse for carrying out wanton acts of murder.
Although Pentagon officials will also acknowledge that that prisoner abuse issue actually handed the terrorists, al Qaeda and the like, and Zarqawi you know a public relations for them bonanza and a serious problem and headache for the U.S.—Randy.
MEIER: Jim, terrorists acts of murder like this, what we have seen with Paul Johnson, with Nick Berg in these cases like this, do you get a sense from a military arm of the government that the Pentagon does have a relationship, a working relationship with the Saudi government to stamp out terrorism, al Qaeda cells within Saudi Arabia or is that hands-off policy from the Saudi government one that the United States is going to have a hard time cracking?
MIKLASZEWSKI: Well, you know, the history of the U.S. military and their involvement with the Saudis in terms of trying to attack terrorism has not been a good one. It was back in 1996 that the Khobar Towers was bombed, that‘s where U.S. military personnel were living, killing 19 U.S Air Force airmen, and the investigation there really as of today is still wide open. It never went anywhere.
And in fact, the U.S. was very suspicious about how the Saudis conducted their investigation. The Saudis at one point claimed that they had captured a number of suspects that were believed directly involved in the bombing, and then when the U.S. asked to question those suspects, the Saudis said, oops, sorry, we have already executed them. And I have to tell you that here in Washington, some U.S. officials are already raising eyebrows at how quickly they were able to locate and kill the alleged mastermind, al Qaeda mastermind of the abduction and execution of Paul Johnson.
This is Abdulaziz Almughrin. They are saying that it just appears very coincidental that they would have been able to locate and kill Almughrin and three of his cohorts as they were—quote—“apparently disposing of the body.” So there are some eyebrows being raised as to the official Saudi explanation. After all, Almughrin was well known to them.
He is believed to have been the mastermind of at least two suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia in the past six months that killed 53 people, primarily Arabs. At 17 he joined al Qaeda in Afghanistan, went to fight in Bosnia and was in fact jailed in Saudi Arabia. So the big question is if he was so well known, why couldn‘t they have tracked him down sooner? And isn‘t it coincidental, they say, that they could have found Almughrin and his cohorts so soon after the assassination or execution of Johnson? So questions being raised about that.
MEIER: It does raise a whole new series of questions, as you point out. NBC‘s Jim Miklaszewski at the Pentagon. Thank you very much, Jim.
MIKLASZEWSKI: You bet.
MEIER: Coming up, the U.S. has condemned the murder of Paul Johnson Jr. and sent FBI agents to help with the investigation. What more could the U.S. do, can they do? We‘ll have more on that when this MSNBC special report returns.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: The murder of Paul shows the evil nature of the enemy we face. These are barbaric people. There‘s no justification whatsoever for his murder.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KUR: President Bush there late today reacting to news that captured American Paul Johnson has been murdered, beheaded in Saudi Arabia. Johnson, the third American to be murdered by terrorists in just 10 days.
So what does it mean for other Americans still in the region?
Joining me now to discuss that and other questions of the night, Leon Fuerth, professor of international relations at George Washington University. Also has served as Vice President Al Gore‘s national security adviser.
Good to see you Mr. Fuerth.
LEON FUERTH, PROF., GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIV: Thanks.
KUR: Well, so you have Secretary of State Powell today talking about this means that we‘ll redouble our efforts, he said. We will—the Saudi regime will redouble efforts to try to go after these groups. What does that mean? What more can be done? What more should be done?
FUERTH: It‘s a little hard to say unless you are on the inside and have an idea about what the possibilities were. To me, it just means that there‘s going to be a lag before any of this can be accomplished. And during that lag, we‘re going to see, unfortunately, more attacks and possibly more tragedies like this.
FUERTH: There is something I wanted to point out. I‘ve been listening to a lot of the commentary and it‘s been very interesting. But it might be useful to point out the importance of Saudi Arabia to the rest of the world. Because that is really what‘s being put on the line here. Saudi Arabia is the only country, the only oil producing country that has surplus pumping capacity. When things get a little jumpy in the oil market, it‘s the Saudis alone who have the capacity to enter and as a voluntary matter, stabilize it.
Aside from the magnitude of their reserves and the amount that they pump into the world, their ability to stabilize it is just critical to the modern economy. So when al Qaeda goes after them, it is going after not just a Middle Eastern country. It is going after us as well.
KUR: Well, you obviously state very well there the high stakes involved here internationally. What does that mean in terms of a scenario? Does that mean that the U.S. has to get more involved? Can it? More weapons? Even people, perhaps?
FUERTH: I think another commentator pointed out that there are limits to what we can do if it involves more visibility for us inside Saudi Arabia. We pump in more people, we actually, I think, undermine our case. We‘re going to have to find a way of improving coordination with them that‘s not so visible from the street but is effective. That should be possible.
KUR: You worked for Vice President Al Gore, who of late has accused President Bush of—quote—“you know playing to our fears.” When something like this happens, does that ring a little hollow?
FUERTH: I don‘t think the vice president‘s comments refer to something like this. On an issue like this, there‘s real blood on the ground. And I think the vice president joins—the former vice president joins all Americans in feeling sympathy for the family and anger at those who did this. The issue you‘re talking about is another one and we don‘t have time to go into it this evening...
KUR: How do you separate those issues? Because President Bush clearly doesn‘t. He thinks this is all one and the same war.
FUERTH: Well, it‘s really an interesting question, whether going to war in Iraq did anything really to help us deal with the kind of network terror systems that we‘re seeing operating in Saudi Arabia and in other parts of the world where there have been massive incidents involving foreigners. And I think a very good case can be made that there is not much of a connection between those two things. You may want to argue that going to war with Iraq was right. But I think you‘re on much weaker ground trying to argue somehow that that‘s where the center of the terrorist problem was or remains.
KUR: Leon Fuerth, thanks very much for joining us this evening.
FUERTH: You‘re welcome.
KUR: All right. Well, that‘s going to have to do it for this special hour here on MSNBC. I‘m Bob Kur in Washington.
MEIER: And at MSNBC World Headquarters, I‘m Randy Meier.
Just to update our viewers very briefly before we send you to the next hour, Paul Johnson Jr., the American hostage, kidnapped in Saudi Arabia, was murdered by his captors, an al Qaeda cell. Shortly after that, the ringleader, the man who claimed responsibility for that murder, was himself killed by Saudi forces while allegedly trying to dispose of his body.
Our coverage of the murder of al Qaeda hostage Paul Johnson continues now with “HARDBALL” and Chris Matthews. Have a great night.
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