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VOA Reporter Shares Fear of Terrorism in Saudi Capital - 2004-06-21

Numerous governments, including those of the United States and Britain, are asking their citizens living in Saudi Arabia to leave. A wave of terror has gripped the country for more than a year, claiming the lives of dozens of people. VOA's Greg LaMotte traveled to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where he found it almost impossible to avoid being affected by the fear the terrorists have created there.

Upon arriving at the Riyadh airport last Friday I was greeted by a hotel driver who was waving a placard that bore my name. I had previously been advised by the U.S. embassy in Riyadh that, for security purposes, I should not take a local taxi because there would be no guarantee I would arrive at my desired destination. In other words, a local driver might want to harm me, or take me to people who would like to.

Within seconds of getting into the car, my driver, who was from the Philippines, asked if I was an American. When I told him yes, he said this made him very nervous. He asked that I sit in the front seat because he said it would be less obvious to cars approaching from the rear that he was driving a foreigner. He insisted that two men sitting in the front seat of a car would draw less attention.

At first, I thought he was joking. But he was not, and I agreed to his request.

The driver went on to explain that Riyadh had become a very dangerous place for all foreigners, especially Americans. He told me that when his contract to work in the kingdom expires, he will leave Saudi Arabia out of concern for his own safety.

On the way to the hotel we encountered three security checkpoints. Trunks of cars were opened. Men with mirrors looked under the vehicles, while others searched engine compartments. The same routine was repeated several-hundred meters from the hotel, which was surrounded by cement barricades and men with guns.

Off in the distance were six helicopters hovering over selected neighborhoods as they searched for kidnapped American Paul Johnson. This was a city that appeared to be in a security lock down.

After checking in at the hotel, I decided to hit the streets and talk with local Saudis about the issue of terror in the kingdom. However, when I asked the hotel concierge to suggest a good place to start, he urged that I not venture out on my own, saying it was very unsafe for Americans to be seen anywhere in public. He also indicated I would not be able to find a taxi driver willing to be seen in public with me. I do not know if that was true, because I decided to stay in the hotel.

That night, it was announced that Paul Johnson had been beheaded by his al-Qaida kidnappers. It was also reported that those thought to be responsible for his death had been shot and killed by Saudi security forces.

The next morning, I called the Saudi ministry of information, looking for assistance in getting local and official reaction to the story. What I wanted was a ministry employee to accompany me to areas they believed were safe enough for me to speak freely with people. The ministry official I spoke with suggested he might be able to help me, but would have to call me back. In the meantime, he told me under no circumstances should I venture out on my own.

I called the U.S. embassy looking for the same kind of assistance. The woman I spoke with was a Saudi citizen. She insisted going to public places was too dangerous.

I asked if it would be safe to go to one of the more exclusive shopping malls in Riyadh to seek interviews. She responded by saying, "When it comes to al-Qaida, they can be anywhere at any time". She said no place was safe.

That afternoon, a reluctant hotel driver from India was assigned to take me in his car. He too, was afraid to be seen with Americans.

"We are worried, of course," he said. "Terrorists do not think anything. They can kill anybody. So we worry about that one."

The driver took me to another hotel, where the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James Oberwetter, held a news conference. Among other things, the ambassador said Americans are urgently being asked to leave the kingdom out of concern for their safety.

The next morning, local newspapers ran morbid, close-up photographs of the faces of the four dead terrorists who had been shot the night before.

These photos were so graphic that few, if any, Western news organizations would ever publish them. The image of them remains firmly emblazoned on my mind.

I spoke with the Saudi ministry of information again. This time I was invited to the ministry, where I was led to believe I would be helped with interviews and possibly even be given a guide. But neither occurred.

Frustrated, I got back in the car and instructed the driver to take me to a local coffee house. Just as I would have found in America, I came across people sipping their drinks, reading newspapers, and talking with friends.

I sat with a group of Saudi men who told me that while they understood why Americans would want to leave the kingdom, they wished the Americans would stay. These men said they like Americans and insisted that only a small group of uneducated, religious fanatics, as they put it, were responsible for acts of terror in the kingdom.

"It is not clear, even for them," he said. "They do not have clear vision about what they need because sometimes they say they are going for Saudi military people. Then, again they said, 'Europeans'. Then they said, 'The Arab people who help your [American] people'. Then they say, 'Okay the people not with us they should be our enemy.'"

One man said, If Americans left, it would mean the terrorists had succeeded.

As I got up to leave the group of men, one of them handed me a candy bar. "Here, this is for you," he said as he smiled and placed it in my hand. I returned the smile and thanked him and went back to the hotel to write a story.

But I must admit, I had no intention of eating the candy bar. Why? Because in just the few short days of my experience in Saudi Arabia I had been besieged with warnings concerning my safety.

My mind was still filled with thoughts of Paul Johnson being beheaded. I had images of the dead terrorists in my mind.

Never before have I been in a city, including Baghdad, where Americans were too afraid to be seen in public and local residents were equally afraid to be seen with them.

Never before had I contemplated keeping my head down while sitting in a taxi. Never before have I thought about a possible escape route from my own hotel room in case terrorists stormed the building.

As I sat in my room and looked at that candy bar I came to realize that I, like so many others around the world, had become a victim of terrorism. There I was, wondering whether that candy bar was filled with some kind poison. I was so angered that such a small group of people had managed to create such a tremendous amount of fear in the Saudi kingdom, and within myself, that I decided to open that candy bar and defiantly eat every bit of it. It was, in a word, delicious.