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Jun 14, 2004

Kidnapping in Saudi. PB and Anderson Cooper

In New Jersey, a family is holding out hope tonight that Paul Johnson will be found alive and well. The American contractor who works for Lockheed Martin is missing far away from home. He was kidnapped by terrorists in Saudi Arabia on Saturday. His son says he’s likely wondering how he got himself in the situation and how he can get himself out of it. May be tough. His kidnapers say they are members of a group called the Arabia Peninsula Mujahideen, a splinter group of al Qaeda and they make clear on their Web site they had been staking him out. Joining me now from Washington, CNN’s terrorism analyst Peter Bergen. Peter, good to see you tonight. This group, have you heard of them before? What do you know?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: I haven’t really heard of this specific group but I imagine it’s one of many splinter groups from al Qaeda or maybe just a new name. I mean, essentially it’s the same policy that these groups are pursuing which is, a, to get foreigners out of Saudi Arabia, b, to jack the price of oil up, which they’re succeeding at unfortunately rather well, and c, to get rid of the House of Saud which is the long-term objective of all these groups to get rid of the House of Saud and install some kind of quasi- fundamentalist state in Saudi Arabia.

COOPER: The Saudi Arabian government says, look, we’re doing all we can. They’re actively trying to track down this group. What I don’t understand, though, I mean, they’re basically a police state. It’s an incredibly repressive government, they clearly seem to know a lot what’s going on in their country. It’s very hard to get into the country. Why aren’t they more on top of this?

BERGEN: Well, one thing is the size of the opposition is pretty large. Since May of 2003, Anderson, we’ve seen multiple attacks by al Qaeda or al Qaeda affiliates in Saudi Arabia; 85 people killed. We’ve also seen, you know, random shootings of westerners and now targeted kidnappings, as a result of which the price of oil has gone up from about $32 a barrel some months ago to 42 barrels today, which is the highest it’s ever been.

And substantial amount of that is the so-called fear premium on the price of oil. And I think that number is going to go up. You did have a piece earlier pointing out that the gas price seems to have gone down temporarily. But the price on a barrel of oil, which ultimately leads to the price at the pump, is going up, and if this continues, westerners will not — are leaving already Saudi Arabia in droves and these kinds of targeted kidnappings are obviously going to encourage more people to leave. In fact, the United States State Department has already said that the people should leave.

COOPER: But has the Saudi government really done all they can? The sites where westerners live are limited. They’re supposed to be protected. And yet, people are able to drive in. There was the hostage taking just the other week.

BERGEN: Well, they’re certainly doing a lot more than they did up to — after May, 2003, they’re in a different posture, after the first attack in Riyadh which killed some school — score people. It’s a big country. This is a substantial opposition movement. They did try and do this rescue, a very screwed up rescue some weeks ago where 22 people were killed and three out of the four people who were doing this kind of hostage operation escaped.

COOPER: Right. They let the guys go and they said we know who they are but still they let them go. Are these groups becoming — is al Qaeda becoming more of a horizontal organization? We’ve sort of heard that before. These sort of splinter groups, are they part of al Qaeda or are they wannabes?

BERGEN: Probably at the end of the day if the bomb goes off, you don’t care if it’s al Qaeda or al Qaeda wannabes. I think there are people operating in the name of Osama bin Laden. At this point, you know, Osama bin Laden is just giving general ideological direction, there’s no command and control but certainly the word has already gone out for the past year at least that attacks in Saudi Arabia are OK. Previously, al Qaeda or its affiliates would not attack inside Saudi Arabia. Obviously, some kind of message came down from the top that that was OK. This is really the main thing they want to do is destabilize Saudi Arabia to the point where the House of Saud may disappear.

COOPER: It’s an interesting new tactic. Peter Bergen, thanks very much.

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