Yesterday I said that I thought the official Saudi version of the death of Paul Johnson’s murderer, Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, lacked credibility. My question is simple, how did Saudi security forces find al-Muqrin so quickly after Johnson’s death? They still have not given a clear explanation.
Early Friday, al-Muqrin’s group, al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, announced on a website that they used to deliver their communiqués that they had killed their American hostage, Paul Johnson. They showed grisly pictures of the beheaded body as proof. A few hours later, the Saudi interior ministry announced that al-Muqrin and two associates had been killed in a clash with Saudi security forces at a gas station.
One of the first official reports of al-Muqrin’s death was made in Washington, DC.
Adel Al-Jubeir, the foreign affairs adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, told reporters in Washington that Saudi security forces discovered terrorist suspects fleeing in cars, gave chase and then battled them in central Riyadh.
"A number of terrorists have been killed," he said. "We believe they are part of the al Qaeda network in the kingdom. We don't know how related they are to the murder of Mr. Johnson."
This was followed by announcements on Saudi news and picked up by international news agencies. BBC’s earliest report said this:
AFP news agency quoted security personnel as saying the shootout occurred in Riyadh's al-Malaz district following discoveries at the house where Johnson's body was found.
There are two important and linked points in this statement. First, the statement that Johnson’s body had been found and, second, the implication that unnamed “discoveries” let them from the body to al-Muqrin.
Following this announcement, al-Qaeda issued a statement calling reports of al-Muqrin’s death a ruse "aimed at dissuading the holy warriors and crushing their spirits." Saudi officials replied by broadcasting pictures of the bodies of al-Muqrin and his three companions.
When BBC covered the broadcast of the terrorists' bodies story, the story of their death read this way:
Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin and three other militants died in a shootout in Riyadh after dumping American Paul Johnson's body, Saudi officials said....
Saudi officials say the militants were cornered at a petrol station in Riyadh, after witnesses spotted them throwing Mr Johnson's body from their car.
A fierce gun battle broke out, in which the four militants and at least one security officer died.
Notice the differences from the previous version. First the body was in a house, second it was dumped outside. First there were three dead terrorists, second there were four. These are the types of errors that are natural in coverage of a fast breaking story, and by themselves are not suspicious. One consistent element in both stories is the implication that al-Muqrin was followed directly from the body to the shootout. No suggestion is ever made that he was identified in any other way (say, recognized from his newspaper picture).
The second BBC article includes this passage: “The Saudi authorities were still searching for Johnson's body, [Mr Jubeir] added.” Two days later, Saudi security forces are still looking for Johnson’s body. CNN and other news sources tell essentially the same story.
The second BBC article also quotes Saudi officials gloating over the weakness of al-Qaeda:
Saudi government spokesman Jamal Khashoggi told the BBC World Service's Newshour programme that Muqrin's death showed that al-Qaeda was "running out of recruits and staff, as you can see when their leader is involved in basic planning, in dumping a body".
Of course if al-Muqrin was not involved in dumping the body, then we have no idea at all how strong they are or how significant losing al-Muqrin was to them.
No one is suggesting that Johnson’s body was taken. That means the Saudis never knew where it was. If Saudi security did not track al-Muqrin from Johnson’s body, how did they find him so quickly? This story from today’s New York Times gives some possible lines of investigation.
The searches around the area where the four were gunned down were particularly intense. The security forces arrested 12 suspects on Friday, and diplomats said those forces were likely using tips from the arrests to track down more extremists.
The group that claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, posted its monthly magazine on the web today, vowing to continue the struggle despite the death of its leader and providing new details about Mr. Johnson's kidnapping.
The Qaeda offshoot claimed, somewhat implausibly, that police sympathetic to its cause had provided the uniforms and vehicles needed to set up a phony checkpoint on June 12 not far from the industrial park at King Khalid International Airport where Mr. Johnson worked.
"A number of those cooperating, who are sincere to their religion, in the security apparatus donated those clothes and the police cars," the article said. "We ask God to reward them and ask that they use their energy to serve Islam and the mujahedeen."
I have been unable to find out when the twelve other suspects were arrested on Friday. If it was before the shootout with al-Muqrin, I suppose it is possible that one of them talked and gave away the location of their leader. However, I find it highly unlikely that they could have been found, arrested, interrogated, spilled the beans, and still have given the security forces time to act on their information in the few short hours between Johnson’s death and the shootout. Wouldn’t even the wimpiest terrorist have resisted interrogation for at least a couple minutes? I have no doubt that the Saudis could torture a confession out of a brick given enough time, but there just wasn’t enough time.
The twelve also have the same problem as al-Muqrin himself. If the security forces couldn’t locate them all week, why were they able to suddenly find them right after it was too late to save Johnson? It’s more likely that the same intelligence that led the security forces to al-Muqrin also led them to the twelve. This brings us back to the same old question: what was that intelligence?
Al-Qaeda claims to have sympathizers among the police aiding them with supplies. The Saudi government quite reasonably point out that uniforms and cars are not that hard to come by. Such a denial is to be expected. Has al-Qaeda infiltrated the Saudi security forces, making the confused stories about al-Muqrin’s death part of a police effort to cover up their culpability in Johnson’s death? Have the police infiltrated al-Qaeda, making the confused stories part of a cover up to protect their sources? Is someone playing both sides?
The normal conspiracy mongers are already saying Johnson had to die because he knew too much. Of course, by that logic, so did al-Muqrin. In the shadowy world of security forces fighting international terrorists, Johnson didn’t need to know anything; it’s possible the police could have let him die just to protect their sources of information.
Many things are possible. Until the Saudis give us a plausible story for al-Muqrin’s death, all we can do is pick our favorite conspiracy and assume the worst.