Saudi Arabia-Tragedy and Triumph

By Valenti, Peter C. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Saudi Arabia-Tragedy and Triumph


Valenti, Peter C., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


"If all those who hate Arabs and Muslims, and their culture and humanity, had gathered in order to create the best way to malign us," suggested Ahmad al-Ruba'i in his June 20 op-ed in Saudi Arabia's Asharq al-Awsat, "even they wouldn't have done what a group of sickos did when they cut off the head of an innocent person in the name of Islam and transmitted this image through satellites to be seen around the world!"

Al-Ruba'i was referring to the kidnapping and subsequent beheading of Paul Marshall Johnson, a U.S. citizen who had worked and lived in Saudi Arabia for the past 12 years. After kidnapping Johnson from his car on June 12, his captors demanded that Saudi authorities release imprisoned terrorists within 72 hours, or Johnson would be beheaded. Saudi Arabia's stated policy, like that of the U.S., is no negotiations with terrorists-so Johnson's horrible fate was meted out on June 18. Pictures of his severed head sitting atop his back were released through an extremist Web site called "The Voice of Islamic Jihad."

On the same day Johnson was kidnapped, another expatriate, Robert Jacobs, who worked for the Vinnel Corporation, was killed in his garage in Riyadh. This attack also was filmed and released over the Internet. The events of June 12 had been preceded by attacks on employees of an oil company and a BBC film crew in Saudi Arabia. The day before Johnson was beheaded, Korean translator Kim Sun-Il was kidnapped in Iraq, and later beheaded on June 22.

While these events seem to be part of a growing trend among terrorist groups to compete over who can kill the most foreigners, Johnson was specifically targeted, according to the Web site statements, because of his work with Lockheed Martin on Apache helicopters for the Saudi government. The U.S.-made Apaches are symbolically linked with the Arab-Israeli conflict, because the Israeli government often uses them to fire missiles at Palestinians.

Innumerable press articles expressed the disgust and sadness Saudis feel over Johnson's murder. In case anyone in the U.S. questions the Saudi public's opinion of the men who kidnapped Johnson, Abd al-Aziz Hussein al-Sawigh's June 20 op-ed in Saudi Arabia's Okaz represents the united consensus: "it is impossible to describe [the group's] actions other than as terrorism and...the people doing them as terrorists."

The group that claimed responsibility for Johnson's kidnapping and beheading, as well as a number of other attacks inside Saudi Arabia, is the self-described "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula." Led by Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin, its members are primarily young radicals, many of whom fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Not only was Al-Muqrin the most sought-after man in the country, but his followers also were on Saudi Arabia's "most wanted" list. Just hours after beheading Johnson, Saudi security forces found al-Muqrin and his three top lieutenants in a car near a roadblock. In the resulting shootout, all four men were killed, as were two policemen.

Following the killing of al-Muqrin and his lieutenants, Saudi television and all major newspapers displayed photographs of the four dead men as proof to the public. Furthermore, information gathered from the on-scene evidence led to subsequent raids that netted the arrest of 12 more members of the group, as well as a large stash of arms-including bombs, grenades and grenade launchers-false identification and over $38,000 in cash. Among those killed or captured are individuals linked to a variety of terrorist attacks over the years, such as the bombing in 2000 of the U.S. destroyer Cole and attacks on residential complexes in Saudi Arabia.

Resolute Military Forces

Much of the success of this counterterrorism effort was due to the hard work of Saudi officials. More than 15,000 Saudi police and intelligence forces scoured the capital, as well as farms and even the caves outside of Riyadh, looking for Johnson throughout the 72 hour-period. …

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