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Militants Say Saudis Aided Kidnapping

Officials deny that security forces played a role in engineer's abduction, but many suspect the regime has been infiltrated.

June 21, 2004|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Islamic militants used police uniforms and cars provided by collaborators among the Saudi security forces to erect a phony traffic checkpoint and kidnap an American engineer, according to an account posted on a radical Islamist website Sunday.

The body of Paul M. Johnson Jr., the engineer and longtime Saudi resident who was beheaded Friday, has not been found.

The notion that Saudi security agents aided in his kidnapping stirred lingering suspicions among diplomats and analysts here that Islamist insurgents had infiltrated government agencies.

"We've been concerned about that for some time. We've always assumed there has been leakage," said a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But then you have to figure out which units. There's no way of telling how deep it goes."

Saudi officials staunchly deny that the government has been infiltrated by what the website calls "cooperators who are true to their religion in the security apparatus."

"I think that's in the realm of fiction," Adel Jubeir, a senior advisor to Crown Prince Abdullah in Washington, told CNN's "Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer" on Sunday. "The notion that our security services are infiltrated by the terrorists really doesn't hold. If that were the case, they would not be going after soft targets, they would be going after government installations."

Police uniforms are easy to buy, Jubeir said. And although suicide bombers tried to drive an explosives-laden vehicle that resembled a police car into a housing compound last year, Jubeir said, the car had been disguised by militants.

Nevertheless, the militants' boasts of low-level cooperation from government agents tapped into a common suspicion. Even some Saudis quietly express fears that their security forces have been compromised by militant sympathizers, although virtually nobody will say so publicly.

After Johnson disappeared more than a week ago, his abandoned car turned up near Imam Mohammed bin Saud University. According to some reports, the car had been booby-trapped. But it has not been clear how militants managed to capture him.

In the online article, the militants claimed that they had erected a fake checkpoint on a road close to the university. They stopped Johnson's car, drugged him, loaded him into another vehicle and drove off, the article said.

The radicals' account of the kidnapping appeared in "Voice of the Jihad," an online magazine published by a group that calls itself Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Within hours of the appearance of photos on the Internet showing Johnson's severed head and body, the group's leader, Abdulaziz Muqrin, and three top aides died in a shootout with Saudi security agents. After their bodies were shown on Saudi television, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula acknowledged the leader's death.

On Sunday, some Saudi sources were identifying Muqrin's purported successor: a close friend of his named Saleh Awfi. He is described as a high school dropout and a former jailer who worked for the Saudi government before heading off to Afghanistan to fight the Russians.

However, the militant group did not announce Awfi's ascension, raising skepticism about whether he had been appointed. Some analysts familiar with the group cautioned that the militants were liable to disagree over who should follow Muqrin and that it could take some time for a new leader to be appointed.

The operation against militants continued Sunday, as security forces swarmed neighborhoods in Riyadh, surrounding and searching houses. By evening, forces had massed around a house where gunmen were suspected of hiding after the shootout with police. Sources said two suspects were taken into custody; a dozen others were arrested after the shootout Friday.

A separate article posted on the website Sunday, apparently written by Muqrin before his death, argued that Johnson had deserved his fate because he had specialized in Apache helicopters for Lockheed Martin Corp.

Although Johnson had lived in the kingdom for more than a decade and, family members said, had become interested in the Koran, he was apparently targeted because of his work. Apache aircraft are widely associated throughout the region with U.S. and Israeli assaults against Muslims.

Johnson "works for military aviation and he belongs to the American army, which kills, tortures and harms Muslims everywhere, which supports enemies [of Islam] in Palestine, Philippines, Kashmir," Muqrin wrote, according to a translation by Associated Press.

"Do those people want to see this infidel carry on the killing of the children and the raping of the women in Baghdad and Kabul?" he asked.

On Sunday, Islamist militants vowed to continue their campaign of killing foreigners.

"The mujahedin are continuing the [holy war] that they have pledged to God," Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula wrote on the site. "The killing of their brothers will not weaken their resolve but only increase their determination and commitment."

Meanwhile, the kingdom's state-run press agency attributed thundering condemnations of the militants to the ailing King Fahd, who heads the royal family, though Crown Prince Abdullah bears the day-to-day responsibilities of ruling Saudi Arabia.

"We will not allow a corrupt group led by deviant thought to violate the security and stability of this land," the king was quoted as saying. "The real Muslim has nothing to do with these actions and has no sympathy for those who carry them out."

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