Al Qaeda terror riles Saudi public
Saudi forces searched the capital for militants Sunday. The Al Qaeda cell that killed US engineer vowed ongoing violence.
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA — The kidnapping and beheading of American Paul Johnson Jr. marks a turning point in Saudi public opinion against his Al Qaeda slayers.
Celebrations broke out at the news Friday night that Abdelaziz al-Miqrin, the man responsible for Johnson's death, had been killed. It was the first time in the kingdom's 13-month fight against terrorism that ordinary citizens expressed spontaneous joy at security forces' success.
"Whatever their disagreements with the United States, however much they are against US support for Israel or the war in Iraq, Saudis feel that Americans and foreigners in general should be able to feel safe in the kingdom," says Turki al-Dakheel, who hosts a show on the Al Arabiya network.
The need to win over public opinion has become more apparent as the Saudi government intensifies its battle against militants, who have killed more than 30 foreigners since early May. Al Qaeda's message of anger with Americans and its desire for revenge has resonated with many Saudi sympathizers. But if popular sentiment turns away from jihadists, analysts say, it could undermine their ability to find support in the form of hiding places and suicide cars.
Material incentives seem not to have worked. Though it has offered up to $2 million in reward money, the Interior Ministry has not reported receiving any major tips from the public. And Sunday, the Associated Press reported that the militant cell that killed Johnson said in a Web posting that sympathizers in the security forces provided it with police uniforms and set up fake checkpoints to aid in Johnson's abduction.
Still, the grisly nature of the Al Qaeda cell's latest attacks seem to have lost them significant support in the kingdom.
In attacks in Yanbu and Khobar last month, two Westerners were dragged behind cars through the streets. In the housing compound in Khobar, Muslims were spared and Christians were slaughtered. And the public's awareness of Johnson's decade in the kingdom and his sympathy toward Islam - as well as an appeal by a Saudi colleague praising him as a good man - made his violent death particularly distasteful.
"There was general shame at what was happening, a collective feeling of guilt that innocent foreigners that had come to our country not to kill us, but to work, were abused here," says Mr. Dakheel.
Indeed, Saudi businessman Zaid al-Sulaiman issued an open letter in Arab News last week, stating, "To every foreigner working in this country, I repeat that you are in your country. And we will not leave the job of protecting you, and your safety, to security men alone."
Dakheel received more than 30 messages from friends congratulating each other on the "end of that bloodthirsty terrorist." And crowds cheered police at the Malaz neighborhood where Mr. Miqrin and three other Al Qaeda linked members were killed. Abeer Hamza, a housewife, said, "It was the best news I heard in a long time. He had put us through a very scary period. I feel safer with him dead."
As Saudi security forces combed areas around the capital, Riyadh, on Sunday, searching for Johnson's body, Al Qaeda issued a statement confirming the deaths of Miqrin and three others, and vowed it will continue to fight.
"The holy warriors will continue the holy war they have pledged to God, and the death of their brothers will not weaken their resolve," said the statement.
US Ambassador James Oberwetter said the situation in the kingdom remained dangerous for Westerners. "A great deal was accomplished Friday evening. We also believe that much remains to be done," the official Saudi Press Agency quoted him as saying.
Still, the deaths of Miqrin, the most wanted man in Saudi Arabia, and Fahd al-Dakheel, also on a list of 26 suspects wanted by the authorities, are a blow to Al Qaeda. The four men killed Friday had participated in five different operations, including Johnson's slaying, the massacres in Yanbu and Khobar last month, and a car-bomb attack at a Saudi police building in Riyadh in April, the Saudi Press Agency says.
"This is the third-generation of Al Qaeda fighters, and a lot of their leadership has been killed," says analyst Adel al-Toraifi, who follows the group closely. "There are fewer people to lead attacks."
But Miqrin had been encouraging independent operations and praised the attack in Yanbu, in which six people were killed, as a good example to follow. Al Qaeda has been posting information on how to carry out assassinations and encouraging would-be followers to take the initiative in carrying out attacks.
"The following period could be more dangerous if disgruntled or disillusioned young men decide to carry out attacks on their own," says Toraifi.
Miqrin is the third Al Qaeda leader to be killed here since May, 2003, and will quickly be replaced, says Saud al-Sarhan, who follows Al Qaeda.
The group's strength lies not only in its leadership but in its ability to draw new recruits. Two of the men killed Friday, including a teenager, were not on the list of wanted suspects. Over the past year, many of the dozens of suspected terrorists arrested or killed in shootouts were also not on the list posted by the Interior Ministry.
Analysts cite several reasons for Al Qaeda's appeal. There is high unemployment, an uneven distribution of wealth, and a lack of alternative sources for peaceful dissent, says Fahd al-Shafi, a former extremist who knew Miqrin in the 1990s.
"If the situation remains as it is, what's to stop young people from resorting to violence?" says Mr. Shafi, who spent time in jail for opposition activities and is now a civil servant.
"Some people join these groups, not because they like them, but out of frustration with the current situation," he adds. "We need more social, political, and religious freedoms."
Public rallies and demonstrations are banned in Saudi Arabia. Only the official conservative version of Islam is publicly allowed, and writers who are critical of the status quo are often stopped from writing.
Al Qaeda has also made effective use of the Internet. In statements following the kidnapping of Johnson, who worked on Apache helicopters for Lockheed Martin, his kidnappers portrayed themselves as "defenders of weak Muslims."
"Many people feel guilty that they're not doing anything about US support for Israel, or the war on Iraq. Al Qaeda is seen as the only entity fighting the US, which many people consider an enemy," says columnist Abdallah Hameeduddin.
Youssef al-Dayni, who was himself an extremist as a teenager, says the only way to fight the group is through its ideology.
"These are not mercenaries. They are young men who believe jihad is a duty and their passions have been aroused by images of Muslims killed in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq," he says. "We need to teach them an alternate Islamic discourse that explains that jihad is not a duty on all Muslims till their death. We need to preach to them an Islam of forgiveness," he says.