RIYADH, Saudi Arabia--On the surface, Suweidi seems littledifferent from any other Riyadh neighborhood. It's an eclecticmixture of tile-roofed villas, overcrowded tenements, strip mallsand even the ubiquitous golden arches.
But few places in Saudi Arabia are more treacherous forWesterners.
Suweidi is reputed to be home to 15 of Saudi Arabia's 26most-wanted terrorists, a haven for militant extremism and thescene of repeated clashes between security forces and alleged alQaeda operatives.
One reminder of the district's dangers came two weeks ago whengunmen attacked a BBC news crew there, killing a camera-man andcritically wounding a senior correspondent as they tried to film asuspected terrorist's family home.
Since that attack, two American defense workers have been gunneddown outside their homes in other parts of Riyadh, and a third waskidnapped.
On Tuesday, a militant Islamic Web site showed footage of ablindfolded Paul Johnson, 49, of Stafford Township, N.J. TheLockheed Martin employee was abducted Saturday by a group callingitself al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The kidnappers, believedto be headed by al Qaeda's chief in the kingdom, Abdulazizal-Moqrin, threatened to kill Johnson within 72 hours unless Saudiauthorities released al Qaeda prisoners.
CNN aired the Web footage, showing a hooded man reading astatement and holding an AK-47 rifle. As he was reading, a subtitleon the screen identified him as al-Moqrin.
Anyone trying to understand the yearlong terror campaign todrive Westerners from the desert kingdom need only turn to Suweidi,a diverse southern neighborhood of more than a half-million people.
For nearly two decades, clerics there have preached a virulentstrain of religious extremism that embraces contempt for the Westand helped fan the rise of Saudi-born Osama bin Laden's al Qaedaterrorist network.
"The face of extremism in Saudi Arabia is in that neighborhood,"said Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi human-rights activist who heads thereform-oriented Saudi Institute in Washington. "It is the mostpro-al Qaeda neighborhood in the whole country."
Two former Suweidi fundamentalists, who've since becomereformers, Monsour al-Nogaidan and Abdullah Bejad al-Oteibi,remember one young man who attended clandestine discussions onIslamic purism more than a decade ago.
The participant was al-Moqrin, who went on to become an Islamicholy warrior in Afghanistan and nearly a half-dozen othercountries. He's now believed to be the leader of the al Qaedanetwork in the Persian Gulf and the architect of escalatingterrorist assaults in Saudi Arabia.
In early December, Ibrahim al-Rayyes, who was No. 6 on theSaudis' list of most-wanted terrorists, was killed in a shootoutwith police near a Suweidi filling station. The BBC crew wasfilming al-Rayyes' family home when it was attacked.
Suweidi's citizenry reputedly includes Sheik Abdullah binJibrin, an inflammatory cleric who has espoused support for binLaden.
The Saudi government's war on al Qaeda has frequently come toSuweidi: Helicopter gunships swept into the neighborhood in August2003 in a five-hour gunbattle between police and suspected al Qaedaoperatives. In November, police came under machine-gun fire duringa raid on a suspected terrorist safe house in Suweidi. Eightsecurity officers were wounded, and a militant was killed.
Many of the wanted terrorist suspects from Suweidi presumablyhave fled to escape police, but authorities say they presume thatthe suspects covertly drift in and out of the district, aided by anetwork of al Qaeda supporters.
"They are not so many, but they are very violent," saidal-Nogaidan, a former radical cleric who now encounters deaththreats for his writings against Islamic extremism. "They arewilling to die for their concepts."
Suweidi's embrace of a radical brand of Islam began taking shapeduring Saudi Arabia's oil boom in the 1970s and 1980s, whenthousands of Saudis drifted from rural desert communities into bigcities to seek a share of the country's new prosperity.
The district became a magnet not only for job seekers but alsofor proponents of the Salafiyah movement, a puritanical strain ofIslam that calls for strict adherence to the teachings of theprophet Muhammad.
Al-Nogaidan said the Salifis and like-minded movements wanted tomold Suweidi into an Islamic Utopia.
Their teachings became more inflammatory after the presence ofthousands of U.S. forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf War provokedan anti-Western backlash.
Islamic policemen painted over Western advertising, snatchedcigarettes from smokers and pressured residents to give up theirtelevision sets, al-Oteibi recalled. The TV sets were then hauledinto a valley in the neighborhood, where they were hacked intopieces and set afire.
Al-Oteibi, who grew up in the neighborhood, became an extremistcleric under the influence of one of his secondary school teachers.Al-Nogaidan was raised in Buraida, another extremist hotbed, 200miles north of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and spent much of histime as a cleric migrating between his hometown and Suweidi.
Like scores of other true believers, the two men participated inclandestine discussions on Islamic fundamentalism and distributedaudiotapes to spread their message. Similar teachings poured out ofSuweidi's mosques.
Al-Oteibi rented a house to conduct Islamic lectures. Herecalled that al-Moqrin, whom he knew only vaguely, once mentionedthat he had attended his discussions. Another participant wasal-Rayyes, the future terrorist suspect who died in a gunbattle.
The former cleric now deplores the militants as "heartlesspeople." But al-Oteibi worries that they may be able to drawsupport among directionless young men unable to find jobs in aneconomy where unemployment may top 15 percent.
"In the beginning, I was thinking their influence was verylimited," he said. "Now I start thinking they're more organizedthan I believed."
Many Suweidi residents lament the district's dubious image andcondemn the wave of violence blamed on some of its best-knownresidents. Abdolalah al-Mouwaina, 37, who lives less than fiveminutes from al-Rayyes' home, recalls more-tranquil days when themost troublesome crime was the occasional car theft.
"We didn't use to have these things," he said. "We had commonproblems, but not like what's happening now."
A cursory tour of the district offers little evidence of itstroublesome reputation.
Last week, shoppers browsed through grocery stores or markets;salesmen hawked radios and CD players in rows of electronics shops.
Despite al Qaeda's disapproval of all things Western, well-knownAmerican icons such as McDonald's and KFC stand prominently on abusy thoroughfare.
Abdullah al-Gazn, 56, a retired school principal, acknowledgedthat the neighborhood has an unsavory element.
"They are outside the right path," he said while shopping atal-Othaim supermarket. "We have to get rid of these terroristpeople."