By Rob L. Wagner
The Saudi Gazette
June 20, 2004
The moment that Saudi Arabia’s Al-Qaeda cell chief Khaled Ali Bin Ali Haj was shot dead by security forces in March, the terror group took on a new image that even its staunchest supporters thought not possible. It was more bloody, flamboyant and bombastic than ever before.
The face of Al-Qaeda that emerged almost immediately after Ali Haj’s death was that of Abdul Aziz Al-Muqrin, a sullen, bitter high-school dropout who grew up in the tough Al-Suwaidi District of Riyadh.
Al-Muqrin, 35, unleashed a reign of terror in the Kingdom that threatened even to rival the Qaeda operative in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. It began with the grisly Yanbu attack on May 1 that left six Westerners dead and ended with the beheading of helicopter engineer Paul Marshall Johnson, Jr. Friday night. Al-Muqrin’s own death followed moments later in a hail of gunfire at a gas station not far from the neighborhood where he grew up as a boy.
His group, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was ultimately responsible for the 33 deaths of mostly foreigners, but also Saudi citizens, and included the bloody attack at Al-Khobar and the killing of a BBC newsman and the wounding of another. It’s believed that Al-Muqrin also played a key role in the 2003 Riyadh residential compound bombings on May 12 and Nov. 8 that killed 43 people.
“I have taken it upon myself and I have sworn to purge the Arabian Peninsula of the polytheists,” Al-Muqrin told an Arabic website last year. “We will fight the crusaders and Jews in this country …. They will not have any security until we evict them from the Land of the Two Holy Places (Saudi Arabia) and until we evict them from the land of Palestine and the land of the Muslims, which they pillage and usurp from the east to the west.”
Al-Muqrin was a master of self-promotion, knew the value of publicity, and was skillful in using technology. He often used the Internet to post fiery condemnations that displayed his talent as a propagandist. As a strategist, he apparently abandoned car bombings for the far more effective street shootings by three or four gunmen engaging what he called “urban guerilla warfare.”
Bombings are the signature attack of Al-Qaeda, but calculated shootings of Westerners going about routine business in their own neighborhoods was both ruthless and particularly frightening to expatriates.
The shooting spree of lone Westerners began May 22 when extremists gunned down German airlines worker Hermann Dingel in front of a bank. The killings resumed after the Al-Khobar attack, in which all but one of the terrorists escaped, on June 6 with the killing of BBC cameraman Simon Cumbers and the wounding of veteran journalist Frank Gardner. Two days later American Robert Jacobs of Vinnell Arabia Corp. was gunned down in front of his villa. And on June 12, a colleague of Johnson’s, Kenneth Scroggs, was slain in front of his home.
And Al-Muqrin refined his tactics. Apparently responding to criticism that he was killing Muslims along with Christians, he became more selective during the Al-Khobar rampage, asking potential victims their religion.
But his lack of education made him unpredictable.
In a June 5 interview with Reuters, Moshen Al-Awaji, an expert on militants, said Al-Muqrin was out of control.
“He is shallow, very simple-minded,” Al-Awaji said. “He has no political brain. He’s got the weapon and no and to control the weapon.”
Al-Muqrin, also known as Abu Hajar, was the son of middle-class parents. The London-based Arabic daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Al-Muqrin was a high school dropout who married when he was only 19 years old. He soon fathered a daughter and eventually left his wife and child to travel to Afghanistan in the late 1980s to help fight the Soviets.
He fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and later in the 1990s he ran guns from Spain to Algeria. He would later brag that he was a member of a hit squad that tried to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1995.
All the while Afghanistan beckoned him. He returned to the country that gave him his fist taste of blood by periodically undergoing military training at extremist camps.
It was in Ethiopia that started his path toward waging war on the Kingdom. He was arrested there and extradited to Saudi Arabia, where he was incarcerated for two years in a Jeddah prison. He reportedly was released after memorizing the Qur’an.
“He behaved well while in prison and leaned the Noble Quar’an by heart,” according to one source. “His sentence was halved and he was released two yeas ago.”
Al-Aqaji said that Al-Muqrin was released from prison a changed man.
“After his release he acted as an avenger … He was a killer.”