- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

The clock ran out on a Friday deadline set by a Saudi Arabian terrorist group calling itself al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a U.S. citizen working in the kingdom.

The group, reportedly led by Abdulaziz Muqrin, said it would kill Paul Johnson, an employee of Lockheed Martin Corp., unless the Saudi government released a number of Islamist radicals detained in Saudi jails by Friday.

And on Friday, the group carried out its gruesome task, releasing three photos on an Islamic Web site showing Mr. Johnson’s beheading.

“Let him taste something from what Muslims tasted who were long reached by Apache helicopter fire and missiles,” a statement from the group said. Mr. Johnson worked on Apache helicopter systems.

The alarming rise in the number of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia over the past two months has shed new light on a country that until recently was reputed for its lack of crime and strict enforcement of the law.

Since May, armed gunmen have killed six employees working for an American company in the Red Sea port of Yanbu, murdered 22 civilians in a housing complex in the Eastern province city of Khobar, killed an American, an Irish BBC cameraman and wounded a correspondent and kidnapped an American in the capital Riyadh. For more than a year now, the number of attacks in Saudi Arabia have increased and are getting more brazen, openly taunting Saudi authorities.

Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain’s ambassador to the kingdom, warned that more attacks are “clearly possible.” Speaking to the British Broadcasting Corp., the ambassador said, “I would go further than that and say they are probable. There is an active campaign, and we know that Westerners are targets.”

According to Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and author of “Understanding Terror Networks,” the terrorists seem to be applying the old communist logic — that “you wither away the state” in order to have it fall. Mr. Sageman, a former CIA case officer for Afghanistan, was speaking at the New American Foundation on Thursday.

By that, Mr. Sageman meant that insurgents would typically go after targets in order to weaken the country, be it its economy or infrastructure. Easy targets at the moment are Westerners, who in a country like Saudi Arabia, easily stand out. The Saudi terrorists hope to disrupt the inner workings of the state to the point where it will fall into their hands.

The real strength of the terrorists operating in Saudi Arabia is largely unknown. Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence, now serving as his country’s ambassador to Great Britain, told the BBC that all but one of six al Qaeda cells operating in the kingdom had been “dismantled.” That statement is contested by a number of analysts.

Mr. Sageman says he is “very worried.” The former intelligence officer said he believes Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a “full-blown insurgency.”

While this might be somewhat of an over-pessimistic perspective of events unfolding in Saudi Arabia, there is no doubt that the country is facing serious problems. Not since its founding has the kingdom faced internal dissension on the level represented by the events unfolding today.

Besides the future of the House of Saud, which the insurgents would like to see deposed, also at stake is the country’s free flow of oil — of paramount importance not only to Saudi Arabia’s economy, but to the rest of the world as well. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer, pumping some 10.5 million barrels a day, give or take a half million, depending on market demands and the politics of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Disruption of Saudi oil could result in an energy crisis. If you think the price of oil at $40 per barrel is high, just think what you would have to pay if Saudi oil suddenly stopped flowing.

Iraq, with the world’s second-largest oil reserves, is not yet ready to pick up the relay should Saudi Arabia become incapacitated as a result of internal strife.

The attacks in Saudi Arabia have forced Americans and Britons to leave the kingdom. In an e-mail made available to United Press International last week, an oil executive at Saudi Aramco, the largest oil company, criticized the “inadequate” state of security for expatriates and voiced his fears that the “exodus of ex-pats has begun.”

Following the Khobar attack, al-Muqrin, the leader of a terrorist group reported to be affiliated with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, published a statement on the Internet calling for urban warfare and the toppling of the royal family. He promised that the remainder of the year would be bloody for the kingdom.

Fighting the war on terrorism, said Mr. Sageman, is not going to be simple. “Military options have run out,” he said. “What is needed are idea-based solutions.” Although he was speaking of bin Laden’s al Qaeda, that same principle could just as well be applied to Saudi Arabia’s dilemma.

Claude Salhani is a senior editor with United Press International.

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