The Middle Eastern press was still reeling Monday morning from the double-barreled impact of a weekend of terrorism-related news.
On Sunday, readers were offered a glimpse of the bodies of four men killed Friday night by the Saudi security forces in Riyadh, including that of Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin, the head of a group called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, an apparent subsidiary of al-Qaida. This came hours after al-Muqrin and his men were said to have decapitated an American engineer, Paul M. Johnson. The Saudi daily Al-Riyadh had a triumphant headline Monday quoting Saudi Arabia's King Fahd (or more likely the senior princes around him, since the king suffered a debilitating stroke years ago) as saying: "We Will Not Allow an Evil Group that Follows a Twisted Idea to Harm the Security and Stability of the Nation."
The paper also placed a story on an inside page paraphrasing Muhammad Bin Said Tantawi, the senior cleric in Egypt, as having said, in reference to Johnson and other Western hostages murdered on video recently, that "cutting off heads and exposing the bodies of the dead [has] nothing to do whatsoever with religion and Sharia [Islamic law]." Ironically, Egypt's Al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya, which fought the Egyptian government during the 1990s and was critical of pro-government clerics like Tantawi, also condemned al-Qaida. According to the London-based Saudi Al-Sharq al-Awsat, the group issued a text, which the paper covered extensively, stating: "Al-Qaeda and its ideas … harm Islam and … have harmed Islamic movements all over and have tightened the stranglehold on them." In 1997 the Jamaa agreed to a truce with the authorities, so the statement was an effort to reconfirm this. However, it was also a reminder that Arab regimes can still call upon official Islamic institutions and even one-time rivals to buttress their position, suggesting they have more resources to defend themselves against Islamist terrorism than many skeptics assume.
In an obituary of al-Muqrin, London's Guardian rained on the Saudi parade by noting, "some experts believe that he was merely the charismatic figurehead of the [Al-Qaeda] movement in the kingdom," so that, as one put it, he was "the face, not the brain ... important but replaceable." His background was similar to that of other Bin Laden followers: Al-Muqrin dropped out of school at 17, traveled to Afghanistan, and "was reportedly sent to Algeria, where he apparently smuggled in arms from Spain and perfected the now common custom of videoing gruesome atrocities." By coincidence, it was reported on Monday that the Algerian army had killed the head of an Islamist group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. Al-Riyadh published a story on ties between al-Muqrin and the group and noted that the Salafists had benefited from his smuggling operation during their war against the Algerian government during the 1990s.
Who will succeed al-Muqrin in Saudi Arabia? According to experts cited by the London-based Saudi Al-Hayat, al-Qaida has about four experienced leaders still at large in the kingdom, including one Salah al-Oufi, who, the paper says, is considered the "most dangerous." He is believed to have joined al-Qaida in 1993 and two years later set up a car dealership in the holy city of Medina, which allowed him to travel around the world on behalf of the group. The paper also noted, without explaining the meaning of the information, that al-Oufi reportedly "met Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taleban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar in Afghanistan a short time before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks the shook New York and Washington."
On the theme of Islamist militants moving between countries, an intriguing front-page item in the Saturday edition of Al-Sharq al-Awsat caught many an eye. According to an Iraqi military source, the Iraqi authorities arrested an officer of Lebanon's Hezbollah, who had crossed into Iraq from Iran. The source said the officer "had three identity documents, including an Iraqi document issued by a known Iraqi party allowing him to circulate inside Iraq." It accused the man of having thrown a grenade at Spanish forces when they were still deployed in Iraq. The story is odd for several reasons. While it is likely that Hezbollah does have men in Iraq, there is as yet no clear evidence the party is carrying out systematic actions there. Moreover, the Iraqi military source's ambiguity on who supplied the officer with Iraqi identity papers suggested the accusation might have been at least partly motivated by a domestic settling of scores.
Beirut's English-language Daily Star took the high road on such developments. While acknowledging the danger of terrorism in Saudi Arabia, the paper observed that the "the factors that spawned the current generation of terrorists remain widespread in the entire Arab world, not just in Saudi Arabia or its greater peninsula, and if they persist these factors will give birth to new cohorts of killers as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow." It warned: "The only effective, long-term antidote to such terror is political, social and economic reform that wipes away the false allure of killing as a tool and civilizational warfare as a goal."