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Last Updated: Monday, 21 June, 2004, 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK
Doubts over Saudi al-Qaeda blow
By Gordon Corera
BBC security correspondent

Saudi road block
Saudis say Muqrin's could have just been a lucky break
The swirl of mystery and rumour continues to flow around events on Friday night in Riyadh.

The original story was simple - Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin, a leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula - was killed in a shootout after trying to dump the body of the American hostage Paul Johnson.

Johnson had had just been beheaded by Muqrin's group after a deadline expired for the release of prisoners in Saudi jails.

But by Saturday the picture had begun to muddy.

It turns out that Paul Johnson's body had not been discovered after all and the search was still going on for it around Riyadh.

So how was it that Muqrin was found?

'Reckless mistake'

It seems strange that such a senior figure would be travelling round in the same car as other militants at just the moment that authorities were searching intensively for him.

Riyadh residents gather near scene of killing
Muqrin and three associates were killed at a Riyadh petrol station
One suggestion is that he was an extremely reckless individual who made a mistake.

It has also been suggested that his discovery was, in part, due to a high degree of luck, as the small team of Saudi security men who intercepted him didn't initially know whom they had found.

The authorities are, however, very keen to portray the events as a great success in order to dispel fears that they are not capable of dealing with the growing militant threat.

Then on Sunday, Muqrin's group - whom the Saudi authorities claim to have crushed - published its regular online journal as scheduled, hardly the sign of a group on the run.

There are suggestions there are other, more senior al-Qaeda figures who work out of the shadows
In it the organisation gave an account of the kidnapping of Paul Johnson - which claimed that the group had been aided by Saudi security forces who had provided uniforms and helped set up a roadblock at which Johnson was stopped and then drugged before being driven off.

The Saudi government has vehemently denied this account but the problem is that it plays to fears that the security forces are penetrated by al-Qaeda sympathisers.

Propaganda war

The claim of collusion made by the militant groups may well be simply a bit of made-up propaganda designed precisely to exacerbate those fears and increase the sense, especially amongst foreign workers in the kingdom, that their security cannot be guaranteed and they would be safest to leave as soon as possible.

It all goes to emphasise the degree to which the propaganda and psychological war can be as significant as the military action.

The al-Qaeda affiliate also said that its campaign of attacks would go on.

Muqrin's death is undoubtedly a blow to the militant cause - he had led a series of increasingly bloody and high profile attacks in recent weeks and used the media to multiply the fear he hoped to engender amongst foreign workers and Western governments.

But he is not irreplaceable. He had only taken over leadership of the group in March and there are suggestions that there are other, more senior figures who really run the show who work out of the shadows.

The Saudi government had undoubtedly destroyed one significant al-Qaeda cell but the question is how many more are there out there?


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