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Saudis Televise Images of Slain Militant Leader, Aides

Officials see the death of an Al Qaeda radical as a victory. Others say it won't end the violence.

June 20, 2004|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Keen to show strength in the face of a deepening Islamist insurgency, Saudi authorities televised images Saturday of the blood-spattered corpses of a man regarded as the kingdom's most powerful militant and three key aides.

The four men were gunned down by security agents Friday night, just hours after photos of American engineer Paul M. Johnson Jr.'s decapitated body appeared on Islamist websites. Saudi officials -- stung by a spate of shootouts, bombings and slayings of Westerners -- cast the death of Abdulaziz Muqrin, who headed the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and had threatened to kill Johnson, as a major success.

But analysts and diplomats played down the importance of Muqrin's death and predicted more violence. Although he was an experienced fighter and a master self-promoter, Muqrin was only the latest militant to storm to the forefront of the Saudi insurgency. He was the third militant leader killed by security forces in the last year. Analysts said others probably would follow his path.

"This is not a personality-dependent organization," said W. Patrick Lang, former head of Middle Eastern affairs for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. "They'll just generate another man. They regard this guy as a martyr, and martyrs inspire other people to come forward. You have to destroy the organization, not just the leaders."

Muqrin was a veteran of fighting in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Algeria.

"He traveled widely and had an array of contacts, including some of Al Qaeda's most senior figures," said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Muqrin was a close associate of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a top Al Qaeda operative thought to be the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, the official said.

In a statement posted on an Islamist website early today, the Al Qaeda-linked group in Saudi Arabia confirmed that Muqrin and the three others had been killed in a shootout with security forces. The group also vowed to continue its fight.

Muqrin had portrayed himself in a series of fiery Internet statements as the driving force behind the recent spate of attacks -- and Saudi officials had more or less agreed.

Osama bin Laden and other Islamic militants have long sought to overthrow the Saudi ruling family, which they regard as corrupt and apostate. But Saudi officials say a single cell of armed radicals, headed by Muqrin, has caused most of the havoc in the last few months.

Muqrin's death will provide a measure of the strength of the insurgency.

"For a year there has been a push and pull between the government and Al Qaeda," said Abdullah Bejad, a former Saudi militant who is among activists seeking to democratize the kingdom. "At times it looked like Al Qaeda was winning, and at others it looked like the government was winning.... The government now has the upper hand.

"But this doesn't mean the terrorists will stop their acts," he said. "They may just change their tactics."

As with many of the clashes between armed radicals and the Saudi government, accounts of the Friday shootout remain tangled. The four men were detected when they tried to pass through a checkpoint Friday night, Adel Jubeir, a senior advisor to Crown Prince Abdullah, told reporters in Washington.

But an Interior Ministry official quoted by the state-run Saudi Press Agency said the men had been cornered at a filling station in Riyadh, the capital. Security forces opened fire and killed all four suspects. A security agent died in the shootout, and two others were wounded.

Saudi officials said Saturday that Johnson's body had not yet been recovered, and there was no word on where he had been held hostage or how his kidnappers had evaded a massive manhunt until after they had killed him. Earlier reports that Johnson's body was dumped in a remote corner of Riyadh were false, senior U.S. and Saudi officials said.

Johnson was identified by investigators who viewed the photos of his body that militants had put on the Internet, the U.S. Embassy here said.

The government said that besides Muqrin, it had killed Faisal Dakheil. An Interior Ministry official said Dakheil had been among Johnson's captors and had appeared in a videotape of his execution.

Another of the dead men was identified as Turki Mutairi, one of the militants said to be responsible for a hostage crisis and shooting rampage in the oil hub of Khobar last month. Three of the four men who were holed up in Khobar's Oasis housing compound with dozens of hostages managed to slip past commandos ringing the area, embarrassing the Saudi government.

The fourth militant killed Friday was Ibrahim Duraihem, who was accused by Saudi officials of aiding in an attack in November on a Riyadh apartment complex housing mostly foreign workers, including many Arabs and Muslims. The attack drew deep anger in Saudi Arabia because it had marked a shift in tactic from targeting Westerners to attacking fellow Muslims.

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