RIYADH, Saudi Arabia--On the surface, Suweidi seems little different from any other Riyadh neighborhood. It's an eclectic mixture of tile-roofed villas, overcrowded tenements, strip malls and even the ubiquitous golden arches.
But few places in Saudi Arabia are more treacherous for Westerners.
Suweidi is reputed to be home to 15 of Saudi Arabia's 26 most-wanted terrorists, a haven for militant extremism and the scene of repeated clashes between security forces and alleged al Qaeda operatives.
One reminder of the district's dangers came two weeks ago when gunmen attacked a BBC news crew there, killing a camera-man and critically wounding a senior correspondent as they tried to film a suspected terrorist's family home.
Since that attack, two American defense workers have been gunned down outside their homes in other parts of Riyadh, and a third was kidnapped.
On Tuesday, a militant Islamic Web site showed footage of a blindfolded Paul Johnson, 49, of Stafford Township, N.J. The Lockheed Martin employee was abducted Saturday by a group calling itself al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The kidnappers, believed to be headed by al Qaeda's chief in the kingdom, Abdulaziz al-Moqrin, threatened to kill Johnson within 72 hours unless Saudi authorities released al Qaeda prisoners.
CNN aired the Web footage, showing a hooded man reading a statement and holding an AK-47 rifle. As he was reading, a subtitle on the screen identified him as al-Moqrin.
Anyone trying to understand the yearlong terror campaign to drive 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 virulent strain of religious extremism that embraces contempt for the West and helped fan the rise of Saudi-born Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.
"The face of extremism in Saudi Arabia is in that neighborhood," said Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi human-rights activist who heads the reform-oriented Saudi Institute in Washington. "It is the most pro-al Qaeda neighborhood in the whole country."
Two former Suweidi fundamentalists, who've since become reformers, Monsour al-Nogaidan and Abdullah Bejad al-Oteibi, remember one young man who attended clandestine discussions on Islamic purism more than a decade ago.
The participant was al-Moqrin, who went on to become an Islamic holy warrior in Afghanistan and nearly a half-dozen other countries. He's now believed to be the leader of the al Qaeda network in the Persian Gulf and the architect of escalating terrorist assaults in Saudi Arabia.
In early December, Ibrahim al-Rayyes, who was No. 6 on the Saudis' list of most-wanted terrorists, was killed in a shootout with police near a Suweidi filling station. The BBC crew was filming al-Rayyes' family home when it was attacked.
Suweidi's citizenry reputedly includes Sheik Abdullah bin Jibrin, an inflammatory cleric who has espoused support for bin Laden.
The Saudi government's war on al Qaeda has frequently come to Suweidi: Helicopter gunships swept into the neighborhood in August 2003 in a five-hour gunbattle between police and suspected al Qaeda operatives. In November, police came under machine-gun fire during a raid on a suspected terrorist safe house in Suweidi. Eight security officers were wounded, and a militant was killed.
Many of the wanted terrorist suspects from Suweidi presumably have fled to escape police, but authorities say they presume that the suspects covertly drift in and out of the district, aided by a network of al Qaeda supporters.
"They are not so many, but they are very violent," said al-Nogaidan, a former radical cleric who now encounters death threats for his writings against Islamic extremism. "They are willing to die for their concepts."
Suweidi's embrace of a radical brand of Islam began taking shape during Saudi Arabia's oil boom in the 1970s and 1980s, when thousands of Saudis drifted from rural desert communities into big cities to seek a share of the country's new prosperity.
The district became a magnet not only for job seekers but also for proponents of the Salafiyah movement, a puritanical strain of Islam that calls for strict adherence to the teachings of the prophet Muhammad.
Al-Nogaidan said the Salifis and like-minded movements wanted to mold Suweidi into an Islamic Utopia.
Their teachings became more inflammatory after the presence of thousands of U.S. forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf War provoked an anti-Western backlash.
Islamic policemen painted over Western advertising, snatched cigarettes from smokers and pressured residents to give up their television sets, al-Oteibi recalled. The TV sets were then hauled into a valley in the neighborhood, where they were hacked into pieces and set afire.
Al-Oteibi, who grew up in the neighborhood, became an extremist cleric under the influence of one of his secondary school teachers. Al-Nogaidan was raised in Buraida, another extremist hotbed, 200 miles north of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and spent much of his time as a cleric migrating between his hometown and Suweidi.
Like scores of other true believers, the two men participated in clandestine discussions on Islamic fundamentalism and distributed audiotapes to spread their message. Similar teachings poured out of Suweidi's mosques.
Al-Oteibi rented a house to conduct Islamic lectures. He recalled that al-Moqrin, whom he knew only vaguely, once mentioned that he had attended his discussions. Another participant was al-Rayyes, the future terrorist suspect who died in a gunbattle.
The former cleric now deplores the militants as "heartless people." But al-Oteibi worries that they may be able to draw support among directionless young men unable to find jobs in an economy where unemployment may top 15 percent.
"In the beginning, I was thinking their influence was very limited," he said. "Now I start thinking they're more organized than I believed."
Many Suweidi residents lament the district's dubious image and condemn the wave of violence blamed on some of its best-known residents. Abdolalah al-Mouwaina, 37, who lives less than five minutes from al-Rayyes' home, recalls more-tranquil days when the most troublesome crime was the occasional car theft.
"We didn't use to have these things," he said. "We had common problems, but not like what's happening now."
A cursory tour of the district offers little evidence of its troublesome 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-known American icons such as McDonald's and KFC stand prominently on a busy thoroughfare.
Abdullah al-Gazn, 56, a retired school principal, acknowledged that the neighborhood has an unsavory element.
"They are outside the right path," he said while shopping at al-Othaim supermarket. "We have to get rid of these terrorist people."