- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2004

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — An al-Qaida cell beheaded American engineer Paul M. Johnson Jr., posting grisly photographs today of the hostage’s severed head. Hours later, Saudi security forces tracked down and killed the leader of the terrorist group, according to Saudi and U.S. officials.

President Bush vowed that “America will not be intimidated by these kinds of extremist thugs.”

In a swift retaliation shortly after discovering Johnson’s body, Saudi police swooped down on the al-Malz neighborhood in central Riyadh and exchanged fire with al-Qaida suspects. Abdulaziz al-Moqrin, the reputed leader of al-Qaida in the kingdom, was killed along with two other militants, Saudi officials said.

A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed al-Moqrin’s killing. A Saudi official said forensic tests would be conducted on the body to confirm his identity.

The killing of al-Moqrin, 31, would be a coup for the Saudi government, which has been under intense pressure to halt a wave of attacks against Westerners in the kingdom. In a video posted on the Internet Tuesday, a hooded al-Moqrin held an assault rifle and shouted demands for the release of al-Qaida prisoners as a blindfolded Johnson sat in a chair.

A senior Saudi official in Washington said a second operation aimed at al-Qaida supporters or suspects was under way.

The executioners’ photographs and statement, in the name of Fallujah Brigade of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, appeared on a Web site hours after Johnson’s wife went on Arab television and tearfully pleaded for his release.

Johnson, who had worked in Saudi Arabia for more than a decade, was the latest victim of an escalating campaign of violence against Westerners that aims to drive foreign workers from the kingdom and undermine the ruling royal family, hated by al-Qaida. Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida’s leader, is a Saudi exile.

“In answer to what we promised … to kill the hostage Paul Marshall (Johnson) after the period is over … the infidel got his fair treatment,” the al-Qaida statement said.

“Let him taste something of what Muslims have long tasted from Apache helicopter fire and missiles,” the statement said.

Johnson, 49, who worked on Apache attack helicopter systems for Lockheed Martin, was kidnapped last weekend by militants who threatened to kill him by Friday if the kingdom did not release its al-Qaida prisoners. The Saudi government rejected the demands.

At the top of the list of suspects was al-Moqrin, believed to have been involved in the May attacks on housing compounds in Riyadh, as well as other attacks in the kingdom. Al-Moqrin’s group has claimed responsibility for most attacks against Westerners in Saudi Arabia in the past two months.

Bush, who learned of Johnson’s death after a speech to troops at Fort Lewis, Wash., said the killing “shows the evil nature of the enemy we face.”

“They’re trying to get us to retreat from the world,” Bush said. “America will not retreat. America will not be intimidated by these kinds of extremist thugs. May God bless Paul Johnson.”

After Johnson’s death was reported, his family was in seclusion at a town house in Galloway Township, N.J., where they have been holding a vigil.

John Hayes, a childhood friend of Johnson’s, was overcome with emotion.

“It’s just unbelievable. He didn’t deserve that,” said Hayes, 50. “This man wasn’t even fighting a war over there.”

One of the three photographs posted on the Web site showed a man’s head, face toward the camera, being held by a hand. The two others showed a beheaded body lying prone on a bed, with the severed head placed in the small of his back, the clothes underneath bloodied. One showed a bloody knife resting on the face.

The beheaded body was dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit, similar to one Johnson is seen wearing in earlier videos released by the kidnappers.

“To the Americans and whoever is their ally in the infidel and criminal world and their allies in the war against Islam, this action is punishment to them and a lesson for them to know that whoever steps foot in our country, this decisive action will be his fate,” the al-Qaida statement said.

There are 35,000 Americans among the millions of Westerners who work in Saudi Arabia.

Soon after the statement appeared, the Web site was inaccessible, with a message saying it was closed for maintenance.

Johnson is the second American to be kidnapped and beheaded in the Middle East in just over a month.

American businessman Nicholas Berg was beheaded by his captors in Iraq, and his last moments later appeared on a videotape posted on an al-Qaida-linked Web site. His body was found May 12. U.S. officials say al-Qaida-linked Muslim militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi may have been Berg’s killer. Johnson’s beheading is the latest in a new, more dramatic wave of terror attacks for Saudi Arabia: bodies dragged on streets, traffic police blown up in their offices, hotel guests taken hostage and a chef shot outside an ATM machine. The attacks have killed dozens of people, mostly foreigners, over the past two months.

The violence is escalating despite an aggressive campaign by the government to root out terrorism, leaving many wondering whether the attacks are just the beginning or - as the government continues to insist - the last gasps of a desperate group reacting to the pressure of the hunt.

Johnson was seized on June 12, the same day that Islamic militants shot and killed Kenneth Scroggs of Laconia, N.H., in his garage in Riyadh.

Scroggs worked for Advanced Electronics Co., a Saudi firm whose Web site lists Lockheed Martin among its customers. The office number on Johnson’s business card was for Advanced Electronics.

The same week as Scroggs’ death, militants shot and killed another American, Robert Jacobs, and an Irish citizen in Riyadh.

It appears that Jacobs was also decapitated after being shot to death. Video shows his attackers bent over his body, making a sawing motion near the head, though there was no confirmation.

Earlier, as the deadline approached, Saudi security forces and the FBI launched an all-out search, going door-to-door in some Riyadh neighborhoods, and Johnson’s Thai wife, Thanom, made an appearance on Al-Arabiya.

“When I see his picture in TV, I fall down,” Thanom said, fighting back tears. “When I hear the name Paul Johnson, I cry a lot.”

Former Deputy Minister of Interior Ibrahim Alebaji acknowledged the shortcomings of Saudi security forces.

“Our security apparatus is not well trained in combating terrorism, but they are learning,” Alebaji said on Saudi television. He added that the Interior Ministry could not defeat terrorism without greater cooperation from the people.

But residents of three Islamic fundamentalist districts in Riyadh, interviewed before news broke of Johnson’s killing, suggested that the kidnappers enjoyed popular support, partly because of U.S. policy in Iraq and its perceived backing for Israel.

“How can we inform on our brothers when we see all these pictures coming from Abu Ghraib and Rafah,” Muklas Nawaf told The Associated Press as he ate meat grilled on a spit at a restaurant called Jihad, or holy war in Arabic.

He was referring to the pictures of Iraqis abused by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and Israeli military incursions and killings in the Gaza refugee camp of Rafah.

“This is not a little skirmish. It is a war,” Nawaf said.

A man who was shopping with his family in Sweidi, an Islamic fundamentalist district of the capital, agreed.

“These (kidnappers) are holy warriors, heroes, who never waver, even if they will fail,” Mizahen al-Etbi told the AP. “All Saudis hate Americans, not only these heroes.”

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