RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — An al Qaeda cell beheaded American engineer Paul M. Johnson Jr., and, in swift retaliation, Saudi security forces tracked down and killed the leader of the terrorist group in a shootout yesterday, officials said.
Mr. Johnson, kidnapped last weekend, was the latest victim of an escalating campaign of violence against Westerners that seeks to drive foreign workers from the country and undermine a ruling royal family hated by al Qaeda.
The slaying hours later of Abdulaziz Issa Abdul-Mohsin al-Moqrin, the reputed leader of al Qaeda in the kingdom, was a coup for the Saudi government, which has been under intense pressure to halt a wave of attacks against Westerners. In a video posted on the Internet Tuesday, a hooded al-Moqrin held an assault rifle and shouted demands for the release of al Qaeda prisoners as Mr. Johnson sat blindfolded.
Saudi forces killed four other al-Qaeda militants in yesterday’s shootout, which came after a witness reported the license plate number of a car from which the militants dumped Mr. Johnson’s body and police then stopped the vehicle at a gas station, security officials said.
But they were too late to save the American hostage, whose severed head was shown on a Web site earlier yesterday. The photographs and a statement, in the name of Fallujah Brigade of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, appeared after Mr. Johnson’s wife went on Arab television and tearfully pleaded for his release.
“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 Qaeda statement said.
“Let him taste something of what Muslims have long tasted from Apache helicopter fire and missiles,” the statement said.
Mr. Johnson, 49, worked on Apache attack helicopter systems for Lockheed Martin. His captors had threatened to kill him if the kingdom did not release its al Qaeda prisoners by yesterday’s deadline.
The Saudi government rejected the demands.
President Bush said the execution “shows the evil nature of the enemy we face.”
“They’re trying to get us to retreat from the world,” Mr. Bush said. “America will not retreat. America will not be intimidated by these kinds of extremist thugs. May God bless Paul Johnson.”
Mr. Johnson’s family in Galloway Township, N.J., said authorities worked as hard as they could to rescue him, and that his slaying did not dampen their respect for his adopted country.
“Paul considered Saudi Arabia his home. He loved the people and the country,” said an FBI agent speaking on behalf of Mr. Johnson’s relatives.
“They also know this act of terrorism was committed by extremists and does not represent the Saudi Arabia that Paul often spoke and wrote about to his family,” said Billy R. Joseph, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Newark, N.J., office.
John Hayes, a childhood friend of the slain hostage, was overcome with emotion.
“It’s just unbelievable. He didn’t deserve that,” said Mr. Hayes, 50. “This man wasn’t even fighting a war over there.”
Shortly after discovering Mr. Johnson’s body 20 miles north of the capital, Saudi police swooped down on the al-Malz neighborhood in central Riyadh and exchanged fire with al Qaeda suspects.
Saudi officials in Washington said on the condition of anonymity that five Saudi security officers were killed in the gunfight. Two suspects escaped, said one Saudi security official who took part in the raid.
A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that al-Moqrin, 31, was one of the dead. A Saudi official said forensic tests would be conducted on the body to confirm his identity.
Saudi security officials say al-Moqrin trained with Saudi exile Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and later fought in Bosnia and Algeria. Known as a smart and brutal tactician, al-Moqrin became the most-wanted militant in Saudi Arabia.
A senior Saudi official in Washington identified the other militants killed yesterday as:
Turki al-Sahaid, said to have been involved in the May 29 shooting and hostage-taking attack on the oil hub of Khobar that killed 22 persons, most of them foreigners.
Faisal Abdulrahman Abdullah al-Dakheel, on the government’s list of 26 most-wanted militants.
Rakan al-Sakhain, the second-most-wanted man and a reputed associate of the mastermind of the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen’s port of Aden in October 2000.
One of the three photographs posted yesterday 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 Mr. 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 Qaeda 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.
Mr. 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 Qaeda-linked Web site. His body was found May 8. U.S. officials say al Qaeda-linked Muslim militant Abu Musab Zarqawi may have been Mr. Berg’s killer.
Yesterday’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.
Mr. 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.
Mr. Scroggs worked for Advanced Electronics Co., a Saudi firm whose Web site lists Lockheed Martin among its customers. The office number on Mr. Johnson’s business card was for Advanced Electronics.
The same week as Mr. Scroggs’ death, militants fatally shot another American, Robert Jacobs, and an Irish citizen in Riyadh.
It appears that Mr. Jacobs was also was beheaded after being shot. Video shows his attackers bent over his body, making a sawing motion near the head, though there was no confirmation.
Earlier yesterday, Mr. Johnson’s Thai wife, Thanom, made an appearance on Al-Arabiya.
“When I see his picture in TV, I fall down,” Mrs. Johnson said, fighting back tears. “When I hear the name Paul Johnson, I cry a lot.”
But residents of three Islamic fundamentalist districts in Riyadh, interviewed before news broke of Mr. 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 said 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,” Mr. Nawaf said.
Associated Press correspondents John Solomon and Katherine Pfleger Shrader in Washington contributed to this report.