Sunday, June 20, 2004

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi security agents searched homes in the capital and surrounding deserts yesterday for the body of slain American hostage Paul M. Johnson Jr., while Saudi officials hailed as a victory their slaying of his killer, the top al Qaeda figure in the kingdom, along with three other leaders of the cell.

“This was a major blow to al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia,” Adel al-Jubeir, foreign-affairs adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah, said in Washington. “We have substantially weakened the organization.”

Mr. al-Jubeir acknowledged that there likely are other al Qaeda cells in the kingdom seeking to topple the royal family for its close ties to the United States.

“We will continue to pursue them with vigor until we eliminate them from our midst,” he said.

The U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia said he doubted that the death of Abdulaziz al-Moqrin, who officials said was gunned down in a firefight the night before, would stop the violence against Westerners in Saudi Arabia.

“A great deal was accomplished last evening, but we also believe that much more remains to be done,” Ambassador James C. Oberwetter told reporters in Riyadh.

Saudi officials had reported that Mr. Johnson’s body was found Friday, dumped on the northern outskirts of the capital, hours after his captors killed and decapitated him and posted Web photos of his severed head.

But officials backtracked yesterday. “We haven’t found the body yet,” Mr. al-Jubeir said yesterday. “We think we know the area where it is.”

Al-Moqrin, who was the most-wanted man in Saudi Arabia and was believed to have been behind the kidnapping, was killed hours after Mr. Johnson’s death was reported.

The other slain militants included his suspected deputy, Faisal al-Dukheil, “who is believed to be the No. 2 al Qaeda person in Saudi Arabia,” Mr. al-Jubeir said.

The Saudi Press Agency identified the other two killed militants as Turki bin Fuheid al-Muteiry and Ibrahim bin Abdullah al-Dreiham.

Al-Dukheil may have appeared in video footage of Mr. Johnson’s killing, the agency said.

Al-Muteiry was among the militants who was involved in the May 29 shooting and hostage-taking attack on the oil hub of Khobar that killed 22 persons, it said. Al-Dreiham was linked to the Nov. 8, 2003, suicide bombing at Riyadh housing compounds that killed 17, the statement added.

Dia’a Rashwan, a Cairo specialist on Islamic militants, said the death of al-Moqrin will not end terrorism in Saudi Arabia, where he said conservative Islamic traditions make it fertile ground for extremism.

“There are always new generations who can take over and continue their course,” he said.

Al-Moqrin took over al Qaeda operations in the kingdom after his predecessor, Khaled Ali Haj, was killed by security agents earlier this year. Haj succeeded Youssef al-Airi, who was killed in a clash with Saudi security forces in early 2003.

Mr. Rashwan said, however, that the replacement terrorists may lack the combat skills and expertise of their predecessors, who, like al-Moqrin, trained in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Saudi TV broadcast pictures of the four bloodied bodies of the militants, apparently to refute denials by Islamic militants that al-Moqrin was dead.

Later yesterday, al Qaeda confirmed the killings in a posting on a Web site and said they “will not weaken [its] resolve.”

The four were killed in an hours-long gunbattle after Saudi security forces intercepted their car in Riyadh’s al-Malaz neighborhood at one of the mobile, “surprise” roadblocks they have been setting up in the capital, Mr. al-Jubeir said.

One security officer was killed and two were wounded in the gunbattle. The Interior Ministry said 12 suspected militants were also arrested in a sweep of the capital during the night.

The Interior Ministry said authorities had confiscated three cars used by al-Moqrin’s cell, including one believed to have been used in the June 6 killing of Irish cameraman Simon Cumbers.

Also confiscated were forged identity papers, $38,000 and a weapons cache, including three rocket-propelled grenade launchers, hand grenades and automatic rifles.

Mr. Johnson, 49, was kidnapped last weekend by militants who threatened to kill him by Friday if the kingdom did not release its al Qaeda prisoners. The Saudi government rejected the demands.

Three photos of Mr. Johnson’s body, the head severed, were posted on the Internet when the deadline ran out. A statement said “the infidel got his fair treatment. … Let him taste something of what Muslims have long tasted from Apache helicopter fire and missiles.”

It was issued in the name of the Fallujah Brigade of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Mr. Johnson had worked on Apache helicopters for Lockheed Martin.

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