RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Days after its last leader was killed by police, Saudi Arabia's al-Qaida network is regrouping under its new chief, policeman-turned-terrorist Saleh Mohammed al-Aoofi, and is likely to continue its brutal assault on Westerners despite a massive government crackdown.
Al-Aoofi, who once sang to his mother about joining the Islamic holy war, reportedly knows bin Laden and other leading al-Qaida figures. And his expertise in security, say experts in Saudi terrorism, may make him even more effective than his predecessor, Abdulaziz al-Moqrin, who ordered the beheading of kidnapped American Paul Johnson.
The group posted a Web site statement over the weekend saying security forces participated in Johnson's abduction, a claim vigorously dismissed by the Saudi government. Authorities were continuing their search for Johnson's body on Monday amid an intense crackdown on suspected terrorist strongholds.
Johnson, a 49-year-old Lockheed Martin worker who was kidnapped on June 12, was beheaded by his al-Qaida captors last week. Al-Moqrin and three top lieutenants were killed hours later in a shootout with security forces in an east central Riyadh neighborhood.
While al-Moqrin's death was a major blow against the Saudi branch of al Qaida, the terrorist cell moved quickly to try to reassert itself by announcing al-Aoofi as its fourth leader in a year. The group, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, also claimed that Johnson's captors stopped him at a phony police checkpoint, using uniforms and police cars provided by security forces.
Al-Aoofi has consistently ranked among the top five, eventually rising to number three, on the list of the 26 most wanted terrorists sought by the government since December 2003. Nine have been killed, and a tenth surrendered.
Under its new leader, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is expected to persist in its fundamental goal of destabilizing the royal family and ridding Saudi Arabia of foreigners. More than 5 million expatriates, including an estimated 30,000 Americans, are scattered throughout Saudi Arabia.
"When you have your head man killed, that could do a lot of damage, but they will still continue to do terrorist attacks," said Abdulmuhsin al Akkas, a senior member of the government's legislative council. "You must understand _ these people are fanatics."
Ben Venzke, whose company, IntelCenter of Alexandria, Va., conducts intelligence analyses for the U.S. government, said the group will continue to target Americans and may carry out further brutal executions to draw attention to itself. The al-Qaida cell may also target individual members of the Saudi royal family and will likely attempt to carry out an earlier threat to go after the Saudi oil industry and Western airlines.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is the dominant terrorist organization in Saudi Arabia, said Venzke, IntelCenter's chief executive officer.
According to a profile by the reform-oriented Saudi Institute of Washington, D.C., al-Aoofi is a former police officer who was born in the holy city of Medina. He joined terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Bosnia, where he was injured, and returned to Saudi Arabia in 1995.
Under al-Moqrin, al-Aoofi kept a low profile and ran secret al-Qaida camps in Saudi Arabia. He was essentially responsible for training, recruitment and logistics.
He also met with Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, according to the Institute, attributing its information to intelligence sources.
The Saudi Institute said it had also obtained a recording of al-Aoofi singing to his mother about his decision to join "the holy war."
Mohsen al Awajy, a political activist in Riyadh who tried unsuccessfully to negotiate an end to the terrorist campaign, said he met al-Aoofi more than a year ago. Al-Aoofi, he recalled, "was fully charged with anger against any smell of the United States."
"He may lead this group into more bloodshed," al Awajy warned.
In 1995, according to accounts in the Saudi press, al-Aoofi established a car dealership that authorities suspected may have been used for terrorist money laundering.
In 2002, after he became a leading suspect in Saudi-based terrorist circles, al-Aoofi tried to return to the kingdom for his father's funeral, disguised as a woman. A report in the Arab News said he was rejected by his tribe because he incited extremism among the tribe's young people.
Unlike the more flamboyant al-Moqrin, who often used the Internet to espouse inflammatory rhetoric, the new leader may be more deliberate and calculating, said Ali al Ahmed, director of the Saudi Institute. He is also adept at recruiting disaffected young people from economically depressed areas, said al Ahmed.
"He is older and more in tune with the country than al-Moqrin," said al Ahmed.