- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 22, 2004

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi security forces found the head of American hostage Paul M. Johnson Jr. in a freezer during a raid on a suspected al Qaeda hide-out that came days before the expiration of a monthlong amnesty offered to militants, officials said yesterday.

The raid targeted the hide-out of the al Qaeda chief in Saudi Arabia and left two militants dead, the Interior Ministry said. It was not clear whether Saleh Mohammed al-Aoofi, the man thought to be the top al Qaeda leader in the kingdom, was among three militants reported wounded. Three Saudi security officers also were wounded in the gunbattle on Tuesday night.

Security forces also seized weapons — including an anti-aircraft SAM-7 missile — explosives, chemicals, video cameras and cash from the al Qaeda house.

“Saudi authorities are pursuing every lead in their terror investigations,” said Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to Washington. “They are absolutely determined to bring these murderers to justice and end the threat to the peaceful citizens and residents of Saudi Arabia.”

Mr. Johnson, a 49-year-old engineer with Apache helicopter maker Lockheed Martin, was kidnapped and beheaded by militants in Saudi Arabia last month. Only his head was found, the Interior Ministry said, and a search continued for the rest of his body.

Video from Saudi TV of the site of the raid in the King Fahd neighborhood of Riyadh showed the hulks of several burned-out cars, a gutted pickup truck and a car with a shattered windshield and bullet holes. The footage also showed bloodstained and bullet-pocked walls, a bloodied blanket and a white robe, torn and pink with blood.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Carol Kalin said Saudi authorities had informed the embassy of the discovery of the head, and consular officials in Washington were in the process of notifying Mr. Johnson’s family.

Mr. Johnson’s son, Paul M. Johnson III, reached by telephone in Washington, said he has received no official confirmation of the identification. He had flown to Washington for a press conference with Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, at which they planned to press the Saudi Embassy for information about the search for the body.

An official at the Saudi Interior Ministry said authorities were holding al-Aoofi’s wife and three children after the raid.

The Saudi Embassy said security forces were investigating a residence in the King Fahd district when they were attacked with various weapons, including hand and rocket-propelled grenades.

They returned fire, killing two suspected militants, Issa Saad Mohammed bin Oushan, who was on Saudi Arabia’s most-wanted list, and Mujab Abu-Ras Al-Dossary, the embassy said.

Mr. Johnson was kidnapped June 12 by militants in Riyadh who followed through on a threat to kill him if the kingdom did not release its al Qaeda prisoners. An al Qaeda group claiming responsibility posted an Internet message that showed grisly photographs of a beheaded body on June 17. Later, video of the beheading was posted.

Hours after the first pictures of the beheading appeared on the Internet, Saudi security forces fatally shot Abdulaziz al-Moqrin, the purported mastermind of Mr. Johnson’s kidnapping and beheading. Al-Aoofi was thought to have succeeded al-Moqrin.

Last week, U.S. authorities announced that they had called off the search for the body of Mr. Johnson, who had worked in Saudi Arabia for more than a decade. He grew up in Eagleswood Township, N.J.

Under the amnesty, which expires tomorrow, the government pledged not to seek the death penalty against militants who surrender. The offer has failed to attract hard-core militants, but experts say some who have come forward could provide valuable information. Four wanted men have surrendered, including a confidant of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, and 27 others have been repatriated from a number of countries.

Alex Standish, editor of Jane’s Intelligence Digest in London, said the surrenders won’t have “an enormous impact.”

“The key militants, the senior members of al Qaeda and the people who are active outside the kingdom, these are people who are not likely to be taken in by any amnesty at all,” Mr. Standish said. “If you surrender to an amnesty, what you’re really saying is that the struggle was for nothing.”

In the past year, Saudi Arabia has been rocked by suicide bombings, gunbattles and kidnappings targeting foreign workers. The attacks have been blamed on al Qaeda and sympathizers of bin Laden’s terror network. Al Qaeda wants to topple the Saudi royal family and replace it with an Islamist government.

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