RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Saudi security agents searched homes in the capital and surrounding deserts Saturday for the body of slain American hostage Paul Johnson, while Saudi officials hailed as a victory their slaying of his executioner, the top al-Qaida figure in the kingdom.
But the U.S. ambassador said he doubted the death of Abdulaziz al-Moqrin during a Friday night shootout would stop the ongoing violence against Westerners in Saudi Arabia.
Militants initially denied that al-Moqrin had been killed, but late Saturday the al-Qaida cell in Saudi Arabia confirmed his death in an online statement. The group also vowed to continue its attacks.
Saudi officials initially said Johnson’s body was found Friday dumped on the capital’s northern outskirts, hours after his captors killed and decapitated him and posted Web photos of his severed head. But officials backtracked Saturday.
“We haven’t found the body yet,” said Adel al-Jubeir, foreign affairs adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah in Washington, D.C. “We think we know the area where it is.”
Saudi security officials said they were searching desert areas around Riyadh and dwellings they suspect were used by militants.
Johnson, 49, was taken last weekend by militants who threatened to kill him if the kingdom did not release al-Qaida prisoners. The Saudi government rejected the demands.
Three photos of Johnson’s body, the head severed, were posted on the Internet when the deadline expired. The photos were accompanied by a statement from the Fallujah Brigade of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula that said “the infidel got his fair treatment. … Let him taste something of what Muslims have long tasted from Apache helicopter fire and missiles.”
Johnson worked on Apache helicopters for Lockheed Martin.
Al-Moqrin, the most-wanted man in the kingdom, and three other militants were killed in a shootout hours after Johnson’s death was reported.
Forces also killed Faisal al-Dukheil, “who is believed to be the No. 2 al-Qaida person in Saudi Arabia,” al-Jubeir said. The other slain militants included Turki bin Fuheid al-Muteiry and Ibrahim bin Abdullah al-Dreiham.
Al-Moqrin, who trained in Afghanistan, took over al-Qaida operations in the kingdom after his predecessor, Khaled Ali Haj, was killed by security agents earlier this year. Al-Moqrin is believed to have led the recent campaign of violence against foreigners.
“This was a major blow to al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia,” al-Jubeir said.
But he acknowledged that there likely are other al-Qaida cells in the kingdom seeking to topple the royal family for its close ties to the United States.
U.S. Ambassador James Oberwetter said the situation in the kingdom remains dangerous for Westerners.
“It will be some time before we achieve a comfort level that the situation returns to normal,” Oberwetter said in Riyadh.
“The Saudis are doing an excellent job working on their most-wanted list and taking people off that list. But not everyone has been removed from the list.”
Saudi TV broadcast pictures Saturday of four bloodied bodies it said were al-Moqrin and his three colleagues. The four were killed after Saudi security intercepted their car in Riyadh’s al-Malaz neighborhood at a mobile roadblock, al-Jubeir said.
One security officer was killed and two were wounded in the ensuing gunfight, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.
Late Saturday, the group calling itself al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula posted an online statement saying the militants were killed “when the soldiers of the tyrants (the Saudi government) set up a trap for them. … Suddenly they began shooting gunfire at the mujahedeen using different kinds of weapons, leading to their killing.”
The statement gave the same identities Saudi officials gave, and vowed that the group would continue its holy war.
“The mujahedeen are continuing the jihad that they have pledged to God, and the killing of their brothers will not weaken their resolve but only increase their determination and commitment,” the statement said.
The Interior Ministry said 12 suspected militants also were arrested during a sweep of the capital. Authorities confiscated three cars used by al-Moqrin’s cell, including one believed to have been used in the June 6 killing of Irish cameraman Simon Cumbers, the ministry said.
Authorities also confiscated forged IDs, $38,000 and a weapons cache that included three rocket-propelled grenade launchers, the statement said.