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Responding to Terrorism in Saudi Arabia: Memories of a Public Affairs Officer

When terrorists struck Americans in Saudi Arabia in 2004, Washington and a global public wanted answers. In June, Al-Qaeda kidnapped and executed Paul Johnson, an American helicopter engineer working for Lockheed Martin. He was the fifth Westerner killed in Saudi Arabia in roughly one week. Just months later, operatives linked to Al-Qaeda fought their way into the U.S. consulate in Jeddah with machine guns and explosives. Consulate security forces prevented the attackers from entering the main building until Saudi forces secured the area. Throughout this tense period Washington officials, family members, and a voracious international news media needed information.  Public Affairs Counselor Carol Kalin had to keep all these audiences informed and respond to their inquiries. Kalin recalls her experiences during this dangerous period.

Carol Kalin began her career in the Foreign Service as an economic officer in 1993, but later shifted to work in public diplomacy. She would go on to serve in multiple other capacities, including as a Congressional Liaison Officer in Afghanistan at the height of the war.  Kalin was deputy chief of mission in both Beirut, Lebanon (2001-2003) and Nouakchott, Mauritania (2010-2012).

Carol Kalin’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning November 10, 2014.

Read Carol Kalin’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Randy Huang

“So the Saudis … conducted a house to house search through much of Riyadh and ultimately discovered his head separated from his body.”


Tragic Fate of an American Contractor:  In June 2004 . . . an American who was working for one of the British security contractors on helicopters was kidnapped.  His name was Paul Johnson. And that sadly resulted in a public beheading on video by the Al-Qaeda operatives who had kidnapped him and that was a dramatic exercise in media relations. During the time that the captors publicized Paul Johnson’s disappearance, we worked with teams from the FBI who came into town and others to try to find him with the Saudis. So the Saudis, for example, conducted a house to house search through much of Riyadh and ultimately discovered his head separated from his body. As gruesome as that was it was necessary given the congressional reaction in the United States, those advocating that we do everything possible to rescue him. For example, we had Paul Johnson’s wife make an appeal on television. So it was necessary, sadly, to track every detail of that incident. For example, the ambassador got a request from the family that they would not accept anything less than the complete remains of their father. Well, since that was impossible the ambassador simply said, it’s up to you. We will keep the remains that we do have until you’re ready for us to send them to you. It was awful, right? For my part, one thing I remember is agreeing to do an interview with an American radio station. And as I was on the phone with the American radio station I heard the announcer of this morning program make a joke about the incident. Well, I told the producer that I would not go forward with the interview after hearing that context and hung up. So that was quite an experience. Ultimately, the family did have a memorial service and achieved at least some closure over Paul Johnson’s death. But it was very tough stuff.

“A small team of Al-Qaeda operatives . . . fought their way through the entrance of the consulate.”


Staving Off an Attack: This was, of course, sadly the precursor to what happened to our own consulate in Jeddah. In December of 2004 I was in my office as usual in Riyadh and I happened to have a Reuter’s correspondent with me for a meeting. His phone rang. He took the call and he looked at me and said, is something wrong in Jeddah? And I said not that I know of. Well, within five minutes there was an alert transmitted through the embassy that we needed to respond to an emergency. So, I escorted the Reuters correspondent to the exit and promised to stay in touch. It turned out that that consulate was indeed under attack.

A small team of Al-Qaeda operatives had . . . fought their way through the entrance of the consulate behind an American officer’s car. And the consulate staff was in the safe area with a phone connection to the ambassador in Riyadh, who was seeking help . . . from the Saudis and [was also] connected to the Department’s Operations Center. Meanwhile, our phones started to ring off the hook in public affairs, literally. We had Chinese news agencies calling, we had CNN calling, we had Saudi journalists calling, we had BBC calling; everyone was calling. So, with our phones glued to our ears I would, myself, run upstairs to the ambassador’s office to see what was developing in the situation, work on statements, respond to media inquiries, run back down, take another officer back up to keep in touch. The incident took place over the course of a day and just seemed to get worse over the course of that day. By evening the Saudi security forces had overcome the invaders. Our own RSOs had successfully staved them off and kept them out of the main consulate building. Unfortunately, five of our local staff had been killed by the invaders–some shot because they weren’t cooperative. So it was an awful day, a really awful day.

“So there were Saudi television programs featuring people who had at one time held extreme views and later renounced them ….”


Responding to the Attack: In the evening, the embassy organized a team to go to Jeddah and help the consulate. So I was part of that team. Three or four of us got on a plane to Jeddah and went to the consulate and started to help with the media inquiries and other urgent issues. Within a few hours the international press corps had begun to gather as well as the local media, of course. So that was also quite an intense day. The consulate held up pretty well even though people had been lost and several had been injured. But it was quite, quite tough. My mother called my residence when all this was happening, as it had started to break on news channels in the United States. And she spoke to my maid, a wonderful Moroccan woman [Amina] who … was living with us. So my mother gets on the phone with Amina and asks where I am. And Amina tells her that I’m in Jeddah. Well, my mother freaked out, of course, because she assumed that I had been traveling there while the incident was in progress rather than to help with it afterwards. But at any rate, we were able to make it through that incident as well. The consul general stayed in place, the officers stayed in place, local staff came back as they could and so for about a week I was there looking at the burned out buildings and bullet holes and trying to keep Washington apprised and keep the public affairs operation going.

Well, I think [there were] two tracks almost of Saudi [response]. One was to become much more aggressive in the security response, to essentially use force as required to stop incidents like the attack in Jeddah. Frankly, it took a little longer than we might have hoped for the Saudis to do so in that particular case. But the other track was one that related directly to the big emphasis in the so-called war on terror and that is to combat the ideology. What the Saudis did was culturally appropriate and religiously appropriate for their situation. Essentially what they did was offer an amnesty to those who would renounce terrorism and return home. Few people took them up on that but one or two did, and to publicize the views, let’s say, of those who had, in fact, come back into the mainstream, if you will. So there were Saudi television programs featuring people who had at one time held extreme views and later renounced them, lots of coverage of that sort of thing, programs to reintegrate those individuals and so on.




     BA in French, University of Kansas                                                                                                     1976-1981

     MA in Economics, New School for Social Research                                                                         1987-1992


Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                                                  1993

     Dakar, Senegal—Economic officer                                                                                                        1994-1996

     Cairo, Egypt—Economic officer                                                                                                             1996-1998

     Washington, D.C., USA—Assistant to the Undersecretary for Economics                                   1998-1999

     Washington, D.C., USA—Deputy Office Director for Egypt and North Africa                             1999-2001

     Beirut, Lebanon—Deputy Chief of Mission                                                                                         2001-2003

     Riyadh, Saudi Arabia—Public Affairs Counselor                                                                                2003-2005

     Washington, D.C., USA—Rapid Response team member                                                                 2006

     Athens, Greece—Information officer/spokesperson                                                                          2007-2009

     Kabul, Afghanistan—Congressional Liaison Officer                                                                           2009

     Washington, D.C., USA—Staff Member, Global Strategic Engagement Center                            2009-2010

     Nouakchott, Mauritania—Deputy Chief of Mission                                                                            2010-2012