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Hostage Murder Prompts Security Concerns Among Foreigners in Saudi Arabia - 2004-06-19


Recent killings and kidnappings of foreigners in Saudi Arabia, including the beheading of American Paul Johnson by al-Qaida terrorists Friday, has brought fear among foreigners living in the kingdom. Many say they plan to leave the country as soon as possible. But, some Saudis say a mass exodus of foreigners would prove to be victory for the terrorists.

One of the goals of terrorists working in Saudi Arabia is to create fear. In that respect, analysts, experts and politicians unanimously agree that al-Qaida militants appear to be succeeding in the Saudi kingdom.

Numerous governments, including the United States and Britain, have urged their citizens living in Saudi Arabia to leave the country. And, following Friday's beheading of American Paul Johnson, fear among foreigners has intensified. This, despite Saturday's announcement that the man thought to be responsible for Mr. Johnson's death was killed in a shootout with police late Friday that also resulted in the deaths of three other wanted al-Qaida terrorists along with the arrests of a dozen more suspected terrorists.

Some taxi drivers in the kingdom now say they have become afraid to transport foreign passengers.

The U.S. embassy in Riyadh is warning foreigners not to venture out in public, regardless of where they live. One U.S. embassy employee said no safe place exists in the capital.

Five star hotels are advising their foreign guests not to leave their hotels unless they have a specific destination that can assure some level of security.

Foreigners are even advised against traveling to heavily protected high-end retail malls because, as one Saudi woman working at the U.S. embassy said, "al-Qaida can be anywhere at any moment."

Following more than a year of escalating terrorist violence that has claimed scores of lives, Saudi officials have taken extraordinary measures to boost security throughout the kingdom. Along the route from the airport to Riyadh, for example, there are three security checkpoints, and there are dozens more at intersections throughout the capital.

Thousands of police and military personnel are patrolling the streets. Buildings, including ministries, hotels, and other locations that may be frequented by foreigners are surrounded by cement walls and barriers and guarded by armed men.

An American businessman, who asked not to be identified, said he and his colleagues were shocked by Friday's beheading of Mr. Johnson. He said the killing indicates that no foreigner, "can visit a clinic or a grocery store without fear of being killed."

Another American businessman said being in Saudi Arabia carries the "serious risk" of being killed anywhere at any time.

But editorials in Saturday's edition of the Arab News say a mass exodus of foreigners from the kingdom would show that the terrorists are winning. The editorial commentary also urges the Saudi government to increase security.

For it's part, the Saudi government has acknowledged that security is still lacking, but says thousands of security personnel are being trained and hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on state-of-the-art equipment to aid law enforcement in its attempt to crack down on militant groups.

Senior officials at the U.S. embassy concur that security has become the top priority for the Saudi government. However, they say until that security apparatus is completely functional, nowhere in Saudi Arabia remains safe for foreigners.

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