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Group's Leader Was Rooted in Jihad

A militant foot soldier who fought and later trained in Afghanistan, Abdulaziz Muqrin had returned to his home with a vengeance.

June 19, 2004|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — For the last two decades, Abdulaziz Muqrin's life had risen and fallen with the tides of the Islamic jihad. He was an arms smuggler, would-be assassin of Arab leaders and unabashed self-promoter.

He was also a man whose personal history reflected Saudi Arabia's bitter reality: He was a foot soldier in a home-grown movement meant to be exported to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, but he ended up coming home with a vengeance.

Saudi authorities said they killed Muqrin on Friday, along with at least two other members of his militant group linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network, after the group said it had beheaded American engineer Paul M. Johnson Jr. Saudi officials had refused its demand that imprisoned comrades be released.

Muqrin, who was believed to be about 35 and was also known as Abu Hajar, was the son of middle-class parents in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. He first traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s to help fight the Soviet invasion, and he returned there periodically to receive military training at Islamist camps.

According to a report in the London-based Arabic daily Asharq al Awsat, Muqrin was a high school dropout who married at the age of 19, fathered a daughter and eventually deserted his wife.

He fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina and helped run guns into Algeria. He found his way to Ethiopia and later boasted that he was part of a hit squad that tried to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1995.

Muqrin was arrested in Ethiopia and eventually extradited to Saudi Arabia, where he was imprisoned and reportedly tortured. According to unconfirmed reports, he was released early as a reward for memorizing the Koran.

"He's got revenge to do here, it's got nothing to do with jihad," said Mohsen Awajy, a lawyer who sometimes mediates between the government and militants.

Awajy had known Muqrin for years. "He thought he was treated unjustly," Awajy said. A few hours before Muqrin's death was announced, Awajy had called him "the most dangerous person walking on Saudi soil."

Muqrin emerged in recent months as the most prominent face of Saudi's armed radicals. He was beginning to personify a blood-soaked movement reminiscent of Bin Laden's.

He recently became leader of the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula after its previous leader was killed in a shootout with Saudi security forces.

"I have taken it upon myself and I have sworn to purge the Arabian Peninsula of the polytheists," Muqrin told an Arabic website last year. "We will fight the crusaders and Jews in this country.... They will not have any security until we evict them from the land of the Two Holy Places [Saudi Arabia] and until we evict them from the land of Palestine and the land of the Muslims, which they pillage and usurp from the east to the west."

Muqrin had a flair for promotion and a keen understanding of the usefulness of technology. He was an agile user of the Internet, posting frequent and fiery threats and condemnations on Islamist websites. He was accessible, and so his fame grew, fueled by the string of dramatic attacks for which he claimed responsibility.

He promised to make 2004 "bloody and miserable." On the Internet, he posted plans for urban guerrilla warfare to destabilize the Saudi kingdom.

Saudi officials believe that he plotted the bombing of a Riyadh housing complex in November in which 17 people were killed. Many of the victims were Arabs and Muslims, and the attack drew condemnation from moderate Saudis. Muqrin was also blamed for strikes on oil facilities in Yanbu and Khobar, as well as for some of the assassinations of Westerners.

A U.S. official said Muqrin was believed to have played a key role in the May 2003 bombings in Riyadh that killed at least 34 people and focused world attention on Al Qaeda's new strategy of attacking the kingdom.

He reportedly played a significant role in subsequent attacks and orchestrated the fatal shootings of two Americans and a Briton in recent weeks, as well as the kidnapping and beheading of Johnson.

"We don't know that he did wield the knife," the U.S. official said. "But he is clearly believed to have orchestrated the kidnapping and beheading. He would certainly be at the top of the list."

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Times staff writer Josh Meyer in Washington contributed to this report.

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