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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Bureau Chief of Al-Arabiya Television Saw Video of Beheading of Kidnapped American Paul Johnson

Aired June 18, 2004 - 13:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: And this just in to CNN. We are being told the life of kidnapped American Paul Johnson is over.
Word just into CNN, the bureau chief of Al-Arabiya television in Riyadh saw the video of the beheading -- has reported to CNN that he did see that video, and that the pleas have now ended -- the life of kidnapped American Paul Johnson is over.

As you may remember, Johnson was abducted Saturday in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capitol. You'll remember that his wife went on Arab television -- also went on American television with us, with a tearful appeal for his release.

The kidnappers who say they have ties to al Qaeda had threatened to kill Johnson unless Saudi Arabia released al Qaeda prisoners by today, and now the news has come -- we are being told -- according to the bureau chief of Al Arabiya television in Riyadh that he did see the videotape, the beheading of al Qaeda militants beheading U.S. hostage Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia.

We've been telling you about this worker, Paul Johnson, who had been working on Apache helicopters in Saudi Arabia. Had been working on the helicopters for almost two decades. A friend of the Saudis; we had been told by a number of friends, his family coming forward, saying that he enjoyed living in Saudi Arabia.

Never had fears for his life. That came through with a very emotional interview with the relatives of Paul Johnson. An exclusive interview that our Deb Feyerick was able to obtain while visiting them in Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey.

Deb joins us now as this breaking news comes forward. Deb, I'm just curious if the word has gotten to the family, what you know, and what you can tell us.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We do understand that word has gotten to a representative of the family; that the video came in that Paul Johnson was killed by his kidnappers.

What we can tell you is that this was very close to the 72-hour deadline that they initially set back on Tuesday. The Saudi government has said that there was no attempt by any of the kidnappers to reach out to them, to even begin negotiations, or to even address any of the demands. Again the demands by the kidnappers that the Saudi government release all al Qaeda prisoners and also that Westerners get out of the Arabian Peninsula.

The family is in seclusion. They have tried to stay as private as they possibly can in this most difficult moment. But as you say, they began appealing as much as they could.

They were on CNN, they were reaching out to the kidnappers directly, pleading with them not to kill Paul Johnson, saying that he loved their culture, that he was beginning to read up on Islam and that he really just enjoyed being a part of the culture in Saudi Arabia.

Now, I did speak to one hostage negotiator earlier and he said that the situation was bleak. He said that because of the demands and the timeframe that the kidnappers set out -- made it virtually impossible that this would have any sort of a positive outcome.

Right now the family in seclusion. Again, a representative of the family was told that the video has been released, or at least the video is -- has been seen and that Paul Johnson seems to be dead -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Deb, just remind our viewers of the work that Paul Johnson was doing in Saudi Arabia -- this is someone that had been living there for quite a while.

He had a number of friends in Saudi Arabia. Even friends coming forward on Web sites, Muslims coming forward and saying to these captors -- this is not Islamic, this is not what we represent. Let him go. He's done nothing wrong.

This is someone who was well respected there among Saudis in an area he had worked for a number of years.

FEYERICK: Yes, absolutely. What was very interesting -- when the colleague came forward to say, you know, he has my protection as a Muslim -- to kill a man would be against Islamic law -- you know, and the friend was saying to the kidnappers you will be cursed forever. That e-mail, that message really prompted a whole string of e-mails on an -- on Al Arabiya television Web site with some people saying to the kidnappers let him go, let him go.

Others making the point that Paul Johnson because of the kind of work he was doing, even though he was with Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor -- their argument was that that kind of work was contributing to the death of other Muslims and they said is Muslim blood cheaper?

And so it really did spark a whole debate within Saudi Arabia and within that part of the world. But right now it's just such a difficult time for the family.

PHILLIPS: Deb Feyerick we're going to ask you to stand by there in southern New Jersey, close to the home of the family of Paul Johnson. Once again, if you're just tuning in -- breaking news right now. We are being told via the bureau chief of Al Arabiya television in Riyadh that the American that was kidnapped, Paul Johnson, has indeed been beheaded.

We are being told that the bureau chief saw the videotape, and that Johnson who was abducted Saturday in Riyadh, the Saudi capitol, indeed has been beheaded -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, let's talk a little bit more about the group that was apparently holding Paul Johnson. An organization that has links, we believe, to al Qaeda. Joining us now with some background on all of this is CNN's Nic Robertson who is in our London bureau.

Nic, at this juncture, how much do we know about who in fact held Johnson and apparently now may have killed him?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, just to bring you up to date with what we've been able to learn from here, as well from a source close to the Saudi government, they say at this time they cannot actually confirm that Paul Johnson is dead, because they say they haven't found a body yet.

But they do suspect that the interior ministry would make a fairly swift statement fairly soon, as soon as they get more information on this.

That is, what we're hearing from a source very, very close to the Saudi authorities. As to the responsibility here, Abdul Aziz al- Muqrin has been claiming responsibility for Paul Johnson's kidnapping; has created the deadline, has put out the pictures that we've all seen so far.

He has been emerging since the -- late last year -- as the head of what Saudi officials describe as the last remaining al Qaeda cell inside Saudi Arabia.

Now they say that he's been responsible for a number of attacks. Indeed has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks recently. The killing of 22 Westerners toward the end of the month of -- toward the end of the month of May.

Now there are -- now we understand, Miles, pictures have been seen on the Internet that do depict this act, but again, at this stage Saudi authorities or sources closer than we, haven't been able to make their own confirmation...

O'BRIEN: Nic, could you explain -- because we've seen these pictures, and clearly I would presume that at least some of the Saudi security apparatus has what is their reluctance at this juncture to just say what has happened, apparently?

ROBERTSON: Miles, I think their reluctance at this stage is until they have the evidence, the firm evidence in their hands or at least within their own view of some hard evidence, if you will, that they would -- that they would hold back. But there is obviously a lot of sensitivity toward this issue. Saudi authorities not wanting to jump the issue, at least that's the appearance that we're getting at this time, but as you say and as we've seen now there are pictures and its quite clear at this stage at least what has happened.

But Al-Muqrin, the head of this group, the last remaining cell of al Qaeda, according to Saudi authorities at least, has a history of releasing videotapes. He was involved in fighting in Afghanistan; he was involved in fighting in Bosnia, Somalia. He was in Ethiopia, we understand.

But in Algeria, he developed a trait, an expertise we are told, in some very bloody acts and videotaping them and releasing that videotape just to promote his own cause and that appears to be what's happening within Saudi Arabia at the moment, that Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin is trying to promote himself and trying to create or make himself into a very senior figure within those jihadists circles -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Give us a sense, Nic -- I have read that there might be as many as 15,000 Saudi officers that are on this case right now. Do you have any sense at all as to how close they might be to tracking down this group. Obviously a rather elusive group.

ROBERTSON: I think perhaps the best information is the information we don't have, Miles.

Sources I talked to have talked about ongoing operations, operations that have already happened, people that are already in detention that they -- Saudi authorities say they don't want to discuss because they say that will compromise their ongoing operations and activities.

They have been making the point of making house-to-house searches; they have been making a point of promoting how active they've been on this issue stepping up security not only in Riyadh but in other areas.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia spends a huge amount of money, billions and billions of dollars on security within their Kingdom. So the -- perhaps the best information is information we don't have, but they do say that they have been making gains, that they have been picking people up at addresses, that people have been giving them information and that they have been seizing weapons but clearly they haven't made progress as far as we can see and this is one of those hidden cases they hadn't made the significant progress necessary on this particular case to save Paul Johnson -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Nic Robertson in London. Stay close, please -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Once again if you're just tuning in, word has gotten to CNN now that the life of kidnapped American Paul Johnson is over. According to the bureau chief of Al Arabiya television in Riyadh he says he saw the video, the video where Paul Johnson has indeed been beheaded. Seventy-two hour deadline was given. We are being told that no attempt to negotiate to release any al Qaeda terrorists in order to save the life of Paul Johnson had been made. The Lockheed Martin employee, 49-year-old, had been living in Saudi Arabia, working on Apache helicopters.

As you know his son Paul had come forward and made a desperate plea that his father be spared. That has not happened. Those pleas are now over; we are now being told the life of this kidnapped American, Paul Johnson, has ended.

Once again, Deborah Feyerick had the chance to exclusively speak with Paul Johnson's family. She's in southern New Jersey right now as word has been slowly trickling out about what has happened to Paul Johnson.

Deb, do you know if indeed the family knows any details now?

FEYERICK: We can tell you what we do know. We do know that a representative of -- a representative who is with the family was notified that the killing had taken place, that there were pictures on the Web site showing as much -- we do know that the family has been watching CNN and other news outlets, and so our understanding right now is that they likely do know what has happened.

Also, they have been in very close touch with the State Department and the State Department there keeping them in touch with what has been going on, all the efforts to try to find Paul Johnson. Saudi security forces as well as officers fanned out across the entire Kingdom of Riyadh over the last couple of days.

We are told that more than 1,000 officers were going door-to-door to homes in some of the Islamic hotbeds trying to search him out, trying to find him. They met with absolutely nothing and so right now we do understand that the family does have the information -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: And this is a family that came forward, Deb, and talked with you, talked about Paul Johnson, talked about the relationship as a father. As a husband, and this community truly came together. This was someone who was very loved by this area.

Tell us about the candlelight vigils and just the efforts by this community to try and spare his life?

FEYERICK: It was a very moving effort last night. There was a candlelight vigil at about 7:00. And again everybody was very well aware that the deadline was nearing.

The mood in the entire town, the hometown where he grew up, was very anxious. It was very tense. Two of Johnson's relatives -- one, his daughter one his niece both spoke at that rally and their voices were just cracked with emotion. They were hustled off very quickly afterwards into a waiting car.

They really didn't want to spend a lot of time there. But a lot of people in the hometown -- it was one of those situations where a lot of revived memories. People talking about him, people talking about the interaction that they had had with him.

One woman who I met said, you know, they grew up very nearby, that he was a very good kid, that he was very much into electronics and that he had chosen to make a life for himself in Saudi Arabia and clearly the town going to be just so sad about this.

They were really praying for the best, they were really praying that the kidnappers would show some mercy and clearly that has not happened Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Deb Feyerick, going to ask you to stand by there in southern New Jersey to continue to get more reaction from you at the side of the family.

We want to turn to our Ken Robinson, CNN military intelligence analyst. He's on the phone with us from Arlington, Virginia.

Ken, you have just gotten word of this. I guess, first of all I want to ask you from a military perspective, what happens now with regard to the hunt for these killers? We're having a hard time getting a good signal, as you can imagine.

Ken Robinson has been meeting with different intelligence sources in Washington. He's actually in Virginia now via cell phone. We'll try to reconnect Ken with us with a better connection.

As we work that, let's go back to Deb Feyerick in New Jersey.

Deb, let's talk a little bit more about the family. I think one thing that definitely gripped all of us -- Paul Johnson had a grandchild that he never had a chance to meet, isn't that right?

FEYERICK: That is correct, Kyra. As a matter of fact, you know, when we spoke to Paul Johnson III, Johnson's son, one of the things that he wanted to do was show his son to the kidnappers, appeal to them on a more human level.

Saying that, you know, even directly address the kidnappers saying that some of you must be fathers, please let Paul Johnson come home, let him be a father, let him be a grandfather to his children and his grandchildren.

And one other thing: when he did bring the little boy, who is now three years old, one thing that they were also trying to show was the -- here is this little boy. Paul Johnson had never met him.

If indeed he saw any of the interview, any of the appeal, it may have been the one opportunity he had to see his grandson, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: So his grandson, his son Paul had come forward and he has another daughter, is that correct?

FEYERICK: He does have another daughter and she is here in this area. Again, the family remains very private at this time. It was an excruciating 72 hours for them and again they always held out hope. They said that they were very optimistic that there would be a positive outcome to this. They understood just how many people were searching for this one individual like looking for a needle in a haystack but they understood that all forces that could be used were being used and that gave them some hope. There was some gratitude that in fact such and effort would be mounted to find this one American.

PHILLIPS: And Deb, this is a man also that had been showing interest in Islam, had even voiced his opinion against certain parts of U.S. foreign policy. This was not an enemy at all of this country, of this religion, of these people.

FEYERICK: That is what it appears, that is the way a colleague who worked with him described him. He said that you know he would loan Paul Johnson different books on the Islamic religion, on the culture, and that Paul Johnson was really making an effort to be integrated and learn a lot about it.

His sister described him as very honorable man, a very decent man, a man who showed great respect for all different kinds of cultures and religions and that was one of the reasons he chose to make his life so far away.

So, again, when I spoke to a hostage negotiator earlier today you know the one point that that negotiator made and that is it was proving a point. Again, the demands, the deadline, completely unrealistic in terms of trying to effect any sort of positive outcome.

The negotiator telling me that, you know, in these kinds of cases it can take weeks if not months if not a year to successfully negotiate and get hostages out. Think of the hostages that were held at the U.S. embassy in Iran. It just, it took a very long time. There was no time in this case, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Deborah Feyerick, live there from New Jersey, not far from where Paul Johnson's family lives.

Deb was talking about the 72-hour deadline that was given from these militants who said they wanted to -- jailed militants there in Saudi Arabia to be freed in exchange for the life of Paul Johnson.

Once again, if you're just tuning in the life of kidnapped American Paul Johnson we are being told is over. This comes to us from the bureau chief of Al Arabiya television. He has reported that he has seen the videotape, the videotape where the militants have beheaded this American.

The kidnappers who said they had ties to al Qaeda had threatened to kill Paul Johnson unless Saudi Arabia released al Qaeda prisoners by today. It seems to be that that timeline is over.

Johnson was abducted Saturday. You may remember in Riyadh the Saudi Arabian capitol today we are being told he has been beheaded -- Miles. O'BRIEN: In addition to that report from Al Arabiya, there is a Web site that shows images which appear to be Paul Johnson having been beheaded.

That Web site is part of what Octavia Nasr has been looking at as our senior editor for Arab affairs.

Why don't we -- we're not going to be putting those images on the air, clearly -- they're very startling images -- let's just talk a little bit about the language of the statement there, Octavia.

OCTAVIA NASR, CNN SENIOR EDITOR FOR ARAB AFFAIRS: Well, first of all, this is called the "Voice of Jihad" and this is the voice of the Mujahedeen in the Arabian Peninsula.

They're calling this their "News Summary, Number 14," which concerns especially, as they say, of the American hostage.

Basically what this says is, as we promised, the Mujahedeen killed the American hostage to make him pay basically for what he's done.

So basically he's being punished in this life before he's punished in the afterlife and they do mention him working on Apache helicopters so basically they're saying that he deserves what happened to him because now he will get a taste of what Muslims feel when they get hammered by these American-made Apache helicopters.

Very disturbing words, very disturbing day and these people seem to be very happy about what they've done, what they've done.

O'BRIEN: So is the tone if you could describe it, is it gloating?

NASR: It's a gloating tone, it's a victorious tone, it's we told you we're going to do this and since our demands were not met, we went ahead and did it. Now of course many observers in the Middle East and elsewhere have been saying Paul Johnson is dead already.

This whole idea of a deadline was just a ploy to attract the world's attention to this group and what they've been doing.

But of course, Miles, you know since this happened there has been plea after plea on the Internet and in mosques all over the world -- pleas for saving the life of Paul Johnson. Nothing it seems nothing at all worked and the kidnappers went ahead and did what they promised they'll do.

O'BRIEN: Paul Johnson by all accounts was a man with many friends, including many Muslims, who actually made statements on his behalf in an attempt to appeal to what are obviously cold-blooded killers.

Obviously that fell short. Did they make any reference to the pleas at all in this statement? NASR: No, no. These people seem like they live in their own world. Which explains what observers were telling us that this is going to happen regardless of how politics are going to play in this negotiations and pleas -- it's interesting that you mention his Muslim friends.

You know yesterday there was a very interesting letter that was posted on an Islamic Web site to try and save the life of Paul Johnson and this is someone who goes by the name of al Moqman (ph), the believer.

And he claimed that he's a friend and colleague of Paul Johnson. He said that he's a very good man -- he had done nothing wrong, he's a lover of Islam and the Muslim people and he ever went to the point of telling the kidnappers that this is a man protected by me and this is in Islam very important.

When a Muslim takes you in and protects you in other words if another Muslim kills you, you're going to be cursed by your own people so you have this man saying, telling a story about how he met Johnson how he started liking Johnson and how Paul Johnson started asking questions about Islam, about Jesus Christ and Islam how he's perceived, about how the Virgin Mary is perceived in Islam.

And then he goes on to say I invited him over to my house, which is a very significant thing in Islam and the Arab world. In other words, he is appealing to these kidnappers as Muslims and Arabs telling them he's a friend, he loves Islam, he read books about Islam, he read the Quran translated, spare his life -- and this letter got a lot of reaction from people all over the world, but it seems nothing helped.

O'BRIEN: Octavia Nasr stay close; we want you to keep reading and give us more of your interpretation of this statement, which reflects terrible brutality -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: If you're just tuning into to CNN breaking news that we're following right now. American hostage Paul Johnson has been beheaded.

Three chilling photographs on Islamic Web sites show the beheaded body of this American hostage who was kidnapped a week ago on Saturday you'll remember by Islamic militants connected with al Qaeda. Video we are told is also been shown.

The bureau chief of Al Arabiya television is reported that he has seen the video. Who is to blame? Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin is the self- proclaimed military leader of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.

He is the one claiming responsibility for Johnson's kidnapping and the death of another American on that same day on behalf of another group called the Al-Fallujah Squadron.

Nic Robertson now live from London. Nic, what do we know about the Al-Fallujah Squadron? ROBERTSON: Well, we know that under their leadership, under Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin's leadership, they've taken part in a turn -- a significant turn of terrorist events in Saudi Arabia, moving from what in the past has been bombings of targets into cold-blood attacks on individuals in May.

We are told by sources close to Saudi authorities that Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin was responsible for the attack. Indeed, he has claimed responsibility on Web sites for the attack on some -- on some compounds where Westerners were working and lived, which resulted in the death of 22 Westerners.

This was a change of tactics. He we are told has been responsible for this. He's also been responsible for the deaths of the shootings of several other Westerners in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia over the last week or so, and as we have seen responsible for Paul Johnson's kidnapping and apparently it appears through the words of his own threats it appears at this stage responsible for Paul Johnson's killing as well.

So what we have seen and certainly what the -- what the Western community -- Western workers inside Saudi Arabia -- what they have witnessed under Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin is a change in tactics, something that has given them a great deal of cause for concern.

The attacks that they have been able to sort of think were perhaps were at arms length, that they were bombs that would happen occasionally. Have become much more up front, much more cold-blooded, much more aggressive, so he's really changed the dynamic of the situation inside Saudi Arabia.

PHILLIPS: Nic, you talk about this change of tactics. Something very interesting too and that is sort of a change of defense. For the first time here, publicly, we saw Muslims, friends of Paul Johnson, other Muslims, high-ranking clerics, come forward and say this is not right, this is not about Islam, this is not about our religion. And this is absolute terrorism; there is no courageous movement behind what you are wanting to do.

Have you noticed that, have you noticed sort of a -- who many thought maybe were an enemy are coming to the defense of Americans and trying to show that this is not what they are about?

ROBERTSON: Well, this is what a lot of people in the Middle East have been telling us for a long time, that these groups don't represent the vast majority of people.

These pleas and appeals have sparked a huge amount of debate within the Middle East and that's what people have been telling us about. This is isn't their culture, their culture is much more hospitable, it's much more peaceful and that these people really do represent a minority.

If you read some of the accounts that these groups -- in fact, al-Muqrin's group -- has published perhaps of it's attack and the methodology and the rationale behind its attack, on the 22 Westerners at the end of May that they killed it is very, very cold blooded and stands out as being incredibly brutal and that's what the debate has been about that this is not about Islam that this is not the way that the people of the Middle East want to be perceived.

It doesn't -- you don't' have to go as far as the Middle East. You can talk to anyone of Arab descent around the world and they will tell you pretty much the same thing that this is not representative and they really don't want to be judged in this way, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Nic Robertson live from London. Thanks so much, and if you are just tuning in once again Al-Fallujah Squadron is the organization, the terrorist organization taking responsibility for the beheading of American Paul Johnson, the leader Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin had threatened to kill Johnson in 72 hours unless the Saudi government released al Qaeda prisoners and Westerners left -- a number of Westerners after that left this area.

You remember that he was kidnapped on Saturday. The statement now coming across the Web site we gave you the deadline but you did not respect it. This is what we promised to do.

Three chilling photographs on this Islamic Web site in addition to the bureau chief of Al Arabiya television saying that he saw the videotape of American hostage Paul Johnson being beheaded -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Let's turn now to one of our security analysts to talk a little bit more about this organization, shadowy and cold-blooded as it is.

Sajjan Gohel joins us on the line now from London. Mr. Gohel can you hear me OK?

SAJJAN GOHEL, TERRORISM EXPERT: I can hear you great. Thank you.

O'BRIEN: All right, I can barely hear you. Hopefully that will improve as time goes on here. What can you tell us about this organization?

GOHEL: Well, Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin is developing a reputation similar to that of other big high-profile terrorists linked with al Qaeda.

He's in fact a very young individual that based his training in other countries around the world such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and he's taken his know how of terrorist activities and brought it into Saudi Arabia and he's been largely responsible for a variety of compound attacks, assassinations of individuals and now of course this terrible, brutal beheading of Mr. Paul Johnson.

O'BRIEN: All right, Mr. Gohel, can you also tell us when you say there are links to al Qaeda, what precisely does that mean when you say links?

GOHEL: Well, al-Muqrin was based in training camps in Afghanistan which were largely maintained by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda. And he describes himself as a keen ardent (ph) of bin Laden's philosophy which is to create Islamic super states throughout the world and Saudi Arabia as an example of that.

And certainly if you look at the type of tactics that are involved such as brutal beheadings, those are tactics that are used by al Qaeda.

Let's not forget that Daniel Pearl, the U.S. Wall Street journalist -- he met the same terrible fate in Pakistan by al Qaeda affiliated groups and certainly what we're witnessing now inside Saudi Arabia is that the situation has become totally inhospitable for any foreigner. Each and every single one of them has now become a target for the terrorists.

O'BRIEN: All right Sajjan Gohel. Thank you very much.

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