CAIRO, Egypt – An Islamic Web site showed videotape Tuesday of a blindfolded American hostage in Saudi Arabia, and said abductors threatened to kill him unless Saudi authorities free al-Qaida prisoners within three days.
Paul Johnson, 49, of Stafford Township, N.J., was abducted Saturday by a group calling itself al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The organization is believed to be headed by al-Qaida’s chief in the kingdom, Abdullah-aziz al-Moqrin, who was identified as speaking on the tape.
“My name is Paul Marshall Johnson, Jr.,” the seated hostage says in the tape, an elaborate tattoo on his left shoulder. “I am an American. … I work on Apache helicopters.”
A U.S. official said the threat should be taken “very seriously” because the posting appears to be credible and militants have used the site before. “It has been a good indicator in the past,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The Web site was posted on the same day Saudi Arabia’s ruling crown prince warned Islamic militants that the kingdom planned to deploy more security forces than they had ever faced before.
“Be assured that the kingdom has enough men whom you haven’t seen so far, but within the coming few days you will see them,” Crown Prince Abdullah told the militants, whose attacks have increased during the past three months. His remarks were televised.
The tape on the Web site showed a hooded man read a statement and holding an AK-47 rifle. As the man was reading, a subtitle on the screen identified him as al-Moqrin.
His statement was similar to a printed message on the Web site that carried the name of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It said the group gave Saudi authorities 72 hours — by Friday — to release “mujahadeen” militants or it would kill the hostage.
Segments of the tape appeared to have been edited together and showed a blindfolded Johnson sitting in a chair with his profile to the camera. In one sequence, Johnson appeared to have a bandage around his neck, or a gag that had been pulled down from his mouth.
The tape, which was first aired by CNN, also displayed his Lockheed Martin identification card.
Adel al-Jubeir, foreign affairs adviser to the Saudi government, said shortly after the video appeared that the kingdom would consult with the Bush administration about how to continue, but Riyadh like Washington has a strict no-negotiation policy.
“We don’t negotiate with terrorists. We don’t negotiate with hostage-takers,” al-Jubeir said in an interview on CNN.
Al-Jubeir denounced the hostage-takers, but said it was premature to be able to verify any of the information on the video, saying, “We can’t simply go with what appears on Web sites.”
“It shows the cruel and inhumane face of the enemy we’re dealing with,” al-Jubeir said.
The statement on the Web site says the holy warriors of the Arabian peninsula’s Fallujah Brigade has “hit” the engineering team that “oversees the development of the American Apache helicopter that attacks Muslims in Palestine and Afghanistan.”
It says: “The Fallujah Brigade has killed the director of this team and kidnapped one of its engineers, Paul Johnson, and if the tyrannical Saudi government wants their American master to be released, then they have to release our holy warriors that are held in Ha’ir, Ruweis and Alisha prisons within 72 hours of this statement’s date or else we will sacrifice his blood to God in revenge for our Muslim brothers who have been liberally killed everywhere.”
The day Johnson was seized, Islamic militants shot dead another American, Kenneth Scroggs, from Laconia, N.H., in his garage. Scroggs was the third Westerner killed in a week, after the shooting death of an Irish cameraman for the British Broadcasting Corp. on June 6 and another American who was killed in his garage June 8.
Saudi security forces arrested a militant north of Riyadh on Tuesday as they stepped up their presence in and around the city in a hunt for Johnson’s kidnappers.
The Web site statement addressed Muslims all over the world, saying: “We have made a promise to ourselves to defend you. We will not let you down, and you should know that the treacherous tyrants who have helped the Americans against you, and shared your blood with them, do not represent the Muslims of Saudi Arabia. They are our enemies as much as they are your enemies. They are the enemies of God and his prophet.”
The militants have previously threatened to treat Johnson as U.S. troops treated Iraqi detainees, a reference to the month-old abuse controversy at Abu Ghraib prison.
Members of Johnson’s family, through a police officer stationed outside their home in Little Egg Harbor Township, N.J., declined an offer by CNN to view the video before it was aired. They could not immediately be reached for comment.
On Monday, Johnson’s son spoke to reporters about his father’s love of Arabic culture. Paul Johnson III said his father once sent a copy of the Quran to his sister, with passages highlighted from the Islamic holy text that he felt were especially important.
“He felt he never had any fear for his safety and respects and honors their traditions and cultures,” Johnson III said. “Dad said many times he loved living in Saudi Arabia.”
Westerners in Saudi Arabia are responding to the attacks by moving to high-security compounds or even to Bahrain, and by pushing for the right to armed private guards, according to diplomats and real estate agents.
Western embassies in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, are negotiating with the government for a relaxation of the ban on private security guards carrying firearms, a Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.