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Endless List of Rationales

June 19, 2004

The rulers of Saudi Arabia traditionally have beheaded drug smugglers and murderers, often in a public square with multitudes summoned to witness. Al Qaeda has usurped the state's method of death -- for journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, businessman Nicholas Berg in Iraq and, Friday, for helicopter engineer Paul M. Johnson Jr. in Saudi Arabia.

All three countries face insurgencies from Islamic radicals, men willing to grab any excuse to strike at their own governments and at nations, like the United States, that support them. For the murderers, simply killing Johnson in private wouldn't have been enough. They had to exhibit his head on a website to get their barbarous message across. Terrorists apparently believe such tactics to be a recruiting tool, but for the few who see the photographs, it's a sickening portrait.

Saudi Arabian officials looked the other way for too long after the Sept. 11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. Only in May 2003 did the kingdom realize it too was under attack, after a series of suicide bombings of Western residential compounds in the capital, Riyadh, that killed more than 30. Government investigators began arresting suspected terrorists and leaning on Muslim clerics to moderate their preaching.

Six clerics who once espoused Islamic radicalism recently condemned the wave of attacks on Westerners, issuing a statement through a government news agency calling the assaults "a heinous crime." Osama bin Laden had praised two of these clerics several years ago. The Saudi government clearly was counting on their change of heart to woo some of the faithful away from violence.

Al Qaeda is adept at finding different rationales for terror. Sometimes it blames "Jews and crusaders," other times the U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners. In the case of Johnson, a longtime resident of Saudi Arabia, the claim was retaliation for "what Muslims have long tasted from Apache helicopter fire and missiles."

After Johnson's killing, Saudi officials claimed to have killed the leader of Al Qaeda in their country. But that will not be enough to end the threat to the kingdom and its allies. Enhanced security is needed; so is a rethinking of an educational system that has led so many young Saudis to assume that Islam sanctions the killing of fellow citizens and foreigners -- even when scholars deny that interpretation. The kingdom's rulers also need to share more intelligence with Washington and understand how great is the threat, not just to other nations but to their own.

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