Islamic Radicals Behead American In Saudi Arabia
Kidnap Victim's Body Is Found Near Capital
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 19, 2004; Page A01
BERLIN, June 18 -- Islamic radicals in Saudi Arabia on Friday beheaded an American contractor whom they kidnapped six days earlier, and in a defiant statement on the Internet pledged more attacks on Americans. Hours later, Saudi security forces reported they had shot dead the leader of the group that asserted responsibility for the abduction.
The decapitated corpse of Paul M. Johnson Jr., an employee of Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., was found on the outskirts of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Friday, after the group calling itself al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula announced his death and posted photos of his remains on a Web site.
Johnson was the third American in less than two weeks to meet a violent death in Riyadh. His kidnapping, the first of a Westerner in Saudi Arabia, and the manner of his killing marked a new kind of assault on the American presence in the oil-producing kingdom. "The infidel got his fair treatment," the group said in a statement.
Radicals say that vengeance for the occupation of Iraq is part of the reason for the campaign, which has led many Americans to leave the country and made those who remain fearful of streets they once found safe. The ultimate goals, the groups say, are to drive foreigners out of the kingdom and overthrow the House of Saud royal family.
Saudi officials reported Friday that one of three men killed in a shootout with security forces about an hour after the announcement of Johnson's death appeared to be Abdulaziz Muqrin, leader of the al Qaeda group. The Saudi government has said that Muqrin's death or capture would be key to suppressing the group; DNA testing was planned.
President Bush denounced the killers as "barbaric people" trying to intimidate Americans. "The murder of Paul shows the evil nature of the enemy we face," Bush said in Fort Lewis, Wash. "They're trying to shake our will. They're trying to get us to retreat from the world. . . . America will not be intimidated by these kinds of extremist thugs."
Johnson was reported missing by his family last Saturday, the same day that another American contractor who worked out of Johnson's office, Kenneth Scroggs, was killed by gunmen as he drove into his garage in Riyadh.
Last weekend, the group announced it was holding Johnson and said he would be treated as Muslim detainees were treated in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, scene of abuse by U.S. jailers, and Guantanamo Bay.
On Tuesday, Muqrin's group released a short video showing a blindfolded Johnson. A masked man, identified in a caption as Muqrin, threatened to execute him within 72 hours unless Saudi officials released an unspecified number of fellow jihadists from prison. The Saudi government refused and launched an effort to find and rescue Johnson.
According to Saudi spokesmen, the operation drew on 15,000 security personnel, including fire departments familiar with streets and neighborhoods. More than 1,200 homes had been searched by Thursday night.
In addition, the U.S. government dispatched 20 FBI agents to Saudi Arabia to assist in the search. The presence of American agents on Saudi soil was a sensitive subject for Saudi government officials, who played down the U.S. role and bristled at the suggestion that they were unable to control the insurgency.
Prince Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, said in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro that the Saudi government did not need outside assistance. He noted that the United States has had difficulty finding terrorist suspects elsewhere, singling out Abu Musab Zarqawi, a radical who has eluded capture in Iraq despite a $25 million reward offer. Zarqawi has claimed responsibility for beheading another American, Nicholas Berg, in a kidnapping in Iraq this year.
In the days leading up to the deadline, Johnson's relatives and friends made emotional appeals on television for his release, telling the kidnappers that he was a friend of Muslims and deeply interested in their culture.
"Please release my father," Johnson's son, Paul Johnson III, told al-Arabiya television a few hours before the station reported the execution. "He is an innocent man. He loves Muslims. Saudi Arabia was his home." Johnson's wife, Thanom, made a similar plea in television interviews.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company