Saleh Mohammed al-Aoofi is a logical choice to replace Abdulaziz al-Morqin, mastermind of the kidnapping and beheading of American engineer Paul M. Johnson Jr., after the previous leader was killed in a shootout with Saudi forces Friday after his cell announced it had killed Johnson, Saudi analysts and newspapers said.
Al-Aoofi is fifth on the Saudi government list of most-wanted terrorists. Two of those above him on the list, including No. 1 al-Moqrin, are dead. A third, Rakan Mohsin Mohammed al-Saikhan, was believed wounded and arrested in the shootout in which al-Moqrin was killed. The fourth, Kareem Altohami al-Mojati, may not be considered the right man to lead a Saudi cell because he is Moroccan.
According to reports in Saudi papers closely linked to the government, al-Aoofi, believed to be in his late 30s, received military training in Riyadh before joining the kingdom's prison guard unit. He worked as a guard in the prison in Medina, near his hometown, before he was fired in 1992, apparently for misconduct.
A Saudi expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said al-Aoofi's military training and his reputation for devotion to al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden made him a particularly good candidate to take over from al-Moqrin.
Evan Kohlmann, a Washington-based expert on terrorism, said al-Aoofi would know the tactics and personnel of Saudi security forces. Kohlmann noted that al Qaeda claims to have infiltrated the security forces and said that while Saudi officials reject that, al-Aoofi's background is evidence it is possible.
Al-Aoofi traveled to Afghanistan and joined al Qaeda shortly after being fired, an indication he had had contacts with the group before leaving his prison job.
In Afghanistan, he met men who would later be his comrades in a Saudi terror network, according to Saudi newspaper reports. Among them was one of the nine suicide bombers in the May 12, 2003, car bombing of foreigners' housing compounds in Riyadh that killed 35 people.
Saudi experts on Islamic extremism, speaking on condition of anonymity, said al-Aoofi fought in Chechnya before returning to the kingdom in 1994 to open a car dealership in Medina that apparently was a cover for his terrorist activities. Some Saudi newspapers have reported that al-Aoofi was seriously injured in Chechnya and returned to Saudi Arabia for treatment.
He traveled again to Afghanistan shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States to meet bin Laden and Taliban leaders.
In an interview Monday with the Saudi daily Okaz, al-Aoofi's brother, Ali, called on him to surrender for his mother's sake, saying he would "not find anyone better or more just and merciful than the state."
"The path you have taken is wrong and leads to doom, and God accepts the repentance of he who repents," Ali al-Aoofi was quoted as saying.
The Saudi Qaeda cell said Monday that sympathizers in the Saudi security forces helped to kidnap Johnson, who was kidnapped on June 17 and threatened with death unless authorities released all Qaeda prisoners. The Saudi refused to negotiate, and Johnson was beheaded.
Saudi officials denied any complicity by security officers.
The Johnson killing came amid a rash of violence against the thousands of Western residents who are essential to the Saudi oil industry.
The day Johnson was seized, Islamic militants shot and killed Kenneth Scroggs, from Laconia, N.H., in his garage. An Irish cameraman for the British Broadcasting Corp. was killed on June 6 and another American was slain in his garage June 8.
Late last month, 22 people, most of them foreigners, were killed in a shooting rampage and hostage-taking in the eastern Saudi oil hub of Khobar. On May 1, gunmen entered the office of an oil contractor in Saudi Arabia and began shooting at random, killing at least seven people, including two American engineers.
In mid-April, two car bombs blasted the Saudi national police headquarters, killing at least nine people and wounding 125 others, police said.
The recent attacks come a year after the Saudi government began a crackdown following major terrorist attacks on May 12, 2003, which also targeted and killed Westerners.
The crackdown followed sharp criticism of Saudi Arabia by some U.S. officials after the Sept. 11 attacks, who saw Saudi financing supporting terrorism.
The staff of the Sept. 11 commission last week said in a report that no official Saudi financing was behind the attack, but Saudi charities might have helped to finance al Qaeda. The Saudi government has imposed tighter regulations on charities.
In neighboring Bahrain, authorities arrested six people in pre-dawn raids Tuesday, alleging they have ties to al Qaeda, according to Abdulla Hashim, a lawyer representing five of them.