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Radicals Kill American in Saudi Arabia

Photos of the New Jersey man's severed head and body are posted on a website. The kingdom's security forces say they killed the group's leader.

June 19, 2004|Megan K. Stack and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

CAIRO — Islamist radicals killed an American engineer held hostage in Saudi Arabia, then posted photographs of the man's severed head and bloodied corpse on a website Friday.

Hours later, Saudi security forces reported that they had tracked down and killed at least three militants, including the reputed leader of a group responsible for beheading 49-year-old Paul M. Johnson Jr., a native of New Jersey.

A group calling itself Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula threatened Tuesday to kill Johnson within 72 hours unless the Saudi government freed imprisoned Islamist militants. Saudi officials refused, insisting that they wouldn't negotiate with terrorists.

In a statement posted with the grisly photographs on an Islamist website, the group said, "As we promised the mujahedin [holy warriors], we have beheaded the American hostage Paul Marshall after the deadline that the mujahedin gave to the tyrannical Saudi government passed."

Three pictures showed the decapitated remains of a man resembling Johnson. In one picture, a hand cradled the severed head. In another snapshot, the slain man was sprawled on his stomach, and somebody had balanced the head, face to the camera, atop his back.

In the United States, Johnson's death drew expressions of sorrow and condemnation from top U.S. government and business officials. President Bush said Johnson's death was part of efforts by "extremist thugs" to intimidate Americans.

"The murder of Paul shows the evil nature of the enemy we face," said Bush, who spoke to reporters after a speech to troops in Ft. Lewis, Wash. "These are barbaric people. There's no justification whatsoever for his murder, and yet they killed him in cold blood. And it should remind us that we must pursue these people, and bring them to justice before they hurt other Americans."

The State Department issued a heightened alert Friday evening, warning U.S. citizens throughout the Middle East and North Africa that further attacks were likely.

A State Department official, citing recent intelligence, said the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, was urging all Americans to leave the kingdom.

"It's terrifying when you read all the threat reporting that's out there," the official said. "It's just unreal."

Johnson was kidnapped last weekend, on the same day militants gunned down another American worker in his garage in Riyadh.

Militants apparently targeted Johnson because he was an engineer with Lockheed Martin Corp. who specialized in Apache helicopters.

"Let him taste something of what Muslims have long tasted from Apache helicopter fire and missiles," the statement posted Friday said.

In the Arab world, Apache helicopters are associated with U.S. military strikes in Iraq and Israeli strikes in the Palestinian territories -- fighting perceived by Islamic radicals as part of a global campaign of persecution against Muslims.

After provoking popular outcry by bombing a Saudi police station this spring, Islamist militants have in recent weeks picked their victims with increasing sophistication. Their attacks have included large-scale suicide bombings at housing compounds that cater to foreign workers, shooting rampages at oil industry facilities and the fatal shootings of Westerners in the streets of Riyadh.

Johnson's kidnapping was the latest strike in an increasingly vicious battle waged by Islamist militants against Saudi Arabia's royal family and those the militants describe as Western "infidels" who live and work in the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. The engineer's killing deepened the fear among foreign workers living here, and the outpouring of condemnation paralleled that following the beheadings of American captives Nicholas Berg in Iraq and Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.

"The inhumanity of the crime exceeds all boundaries of civilized peoples," U.S. Ambassador James C. Oberwetter said in a written statement.

In a reference to criticism of the Saudi government for failing to crack down on insurgents, Oberwetter said Saudi officials were given only three days to find Johnson in a city the size of Chicago. But he reminded the Saudi government that Americans had "helped advance the interests of Saudi Arabia" and said good relations between the two nations depend on the protection of American expatriates.

"This has been a rough year for Americans in Saudi Arabia," he said. "We urge the government of Saudi Arabia to continue its efforts to bring Paul's murderers to account, as well as those who have carried out other terrorist crimes in the kingdom."

Later Friday, Saudi forces said they had killed the militants' leader, Abdulaziz Muqrin, and three others.

In Washington, Saudi spokesman Adel Jubeir said Muqrin was killed in a gun battle along with two of his lieutenants and a fourth person. Three Saudi security officers also were killed in the shootout in Malaz, a mixed commercial-residential neighborhood in Riyadh.

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