Two different lives, but one violent end

The victim: expat engineer who read the Koran but was slain for being American
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You meet many expatriates like Paul Johnson in the tougher parts of the world - middle-aged, somewhat overweight Westerners from utterly ordinary backgrounds whose technical skills have taken them abroad in search of an income and lifestyle they could never have aspired to at home. Right down to his Seventies-style moustache, the 49-year-old American electronics engineer fitted the stereotype.

You meet many expatriates like Paul Johnson in the tougher parts of the world - middle-aged, somewhat overweight Westerners from utterly ordinary backgrounds whose technical skills have taken them abroad in search of an income and lifestyle they could never have aspired to at home. Right down to his Seventies-style moustache, the 49-year-old American electronics engineer fitted the stereotype.

Like other expats whose first union, to a woman from his own country, fell apart, he had married a foreigner the second time around. Often the second wife is a local woman, but that was never likely in Saudi Arabia, where foreigners live segregated lives in residential compounds. Instead Thanom Johnson came from Thailand, where the couple were using their savings to build a house.

Men like Paul Johnson used to take it for granted that they could travel to wherever their skills were in demand, and that their presence benefited the host country as well as themselves. But this presumption is being violently challenged by al-Qa'ida and its affiliates as they seek out symbols of the hated West to attack. The campaign is particularly virulent in Saudi Arabia, the location of the holiest places in Islam as well as the birthplace of Osama bin Laden and 11 of the 15 hijackers who struck New York and Washington on 11 September 2001.

In pursuit of one of al-Qa'ida's principal aims - driving out all infidels from the kingdom - militants have staged bloody attacks on expatriate compounds. Last weekend, when Mr Johnson disappeared, two other Americans had been stalked and shot dead in the previous few days. Earlier this month, an Irish freelance cameraman working with the BBC's security correspondent, Frank Gardner, was killed when the two were attacked by gunmen. Mr Gardner was severely wounded.

So the engineer's family had reason to expect the worst, especially when his captors discovered that he worked on targeting and night-vision systems for Apache helicopters. There was never any prospect that their demands for their comrades to be freed from Saudi jails would be met, and on Friday, despite the pleas of his family and a desperate search by the Saudi authorities, his decapitated body was found.

Paul Johnson's interest in electronics, which had taken him far away from his extremely modest beginnings in New Jersey, put him into the hands of "barbarians", as President Bush called them.

According to a local saying in the blue-collar towns of the Jersey shore, where the murdered American grew up, "Our creek may be shallow, but our roots run deep."

Paul Johnson bore the same name as his father, a carpenter and clam digger who died when he was a teenager, and named his own son Paul Johnson III. Most of the engineer's family have spent all their lives where they were born - his 67-year-old mother, who was said to be too ill to be told initially of his kidnapping, lives with another of her sons in a trailer park - but he appeared determined to get away.

According to former schoolmates interviewed by local newspapers, the young Paul Johnson studied hard while they were playing truant. He tinkered with toy cars and transistor radios for amusement as he grew up, but "set serious goals and would not be deterred", they said. He commuted by motorcycle to the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark so that he could live at home and help keep his family together, but finally he joined the US Air Force and left, never to return. "He knew where he was going and what he wanted to do in life," Debbie Fadde, a former girlfriend, told The Washington Post.

After leaving the air force, Mr Johnson joined the aerospace company Lockheed Martin in Florida, where his American family still lives. More than a decade ago he moved to Saudi Arabia, keeping in touch with only a handful of friends back home by email. He liked the desert heat, they said, and scuba-diving in the Red Sea. But he was not totally isolated from the local culture.

After he was kidnapped, a Saudi who identified himself as a friend and colleague posted a message on Islamic militant websites, saying he had bestowed his protection as a Muslim on Mr Johnson and that killing him would break Islamic law. If the American was harmed, he wrote, "I will never forgive you. I will curse you in all my prayers," signing himself Saad al-Mu'men, or "Saad The Believer". He pointed to a saying by the Prophet Mohammed: "If they were granted [Muslim] protection, then killing or taking their money or harming them is forbidden."

The American once sent his sister a copy of the Koran in which he had highlighted passages he considered important.

Paul Johnson III said his father "never had any fear for his safety", adding: "Dad said many times he loved living in Saudi Arabia."

That meant nothing to his killers, however, and security is increasing throughout the kingdom, with razor wire and high walls being erected outside compounds and some buildings. In Khobar, where 22 people died in a rampage by militants late last month, convoys of police vehicles were seen driving around key locations yesterday, and armoured personnel carriers were stationed outside many compounds.

While many of the estimated 35,000 Americans in Saudi Arabia have ignored Washington's call to leave immediately, Paul Johnson's death has given others the final push.

Steve, a 53-year-old business consultant from California who would give only his first name, said he doubted the death of the kidnappers would halt attacks in the kingdom.

"I need to get into a stable environment for my family, and I think the time has come to move," he said.

The executioner: terrorist who used the internet to strike fear into the West

By Paul Lashmar

Until last November, Abdul-aziz al-Muqrin was just another obscure Saudi mujahed who had fought in a number of foreign conflicts. Today he is a martyr, a symbol of anti-American defiance to Saudi's burgeoning Islamic radical opposition.

By the time of his death on Friday in a gunfight with Saudi security forces, he had already achieved legendary status among those who sympathise with the aims of al-Qa'ida's leader, Osama bin Laden.

Just hours before his death Muqrin had beheaded the American hostage Paul Johnson in cold blood. As was Muqrin's trademark, a video of the beheading was on the internet within hours.

It was the latest in a series of bloody attacks on foreigners by Muqrin's terrorist network that won him fame among Islamist militants and notoriety elsewhere. Saudi officials believe he orchestrated attacks in the past eight months that killed 40 Westerners as well as many Saudis and came close to destabilising the Saudi government.

"Muqrin came from nowhere to being a major threat to the status quo in Saudi Arabia," said a British intelligence source. "He was a rallying point for Saudi's growing radical opposition. His death may at least give the authorities a breathing space until another leader emerges."

The death of Muqrin and two other radical leaders in the shootout will be seen as a major coup for Saudi security, which has been criticised for being often less than determined to track down the terrorists who are causing Westerners to flee the country by the hundreds.

Muqrin's rise started at the end of November, when a small cell loyal to him carried out a suicide bombing at a residential compound in Riyadh that housed mostly Westerners, killing 17 and injuring 122. The attack placed him top of the Saudi government's wanted list of 26 terrorist leaders.

Muqrin knew how to chill the blood of every Westerner living in the kingdom. Three days after Paul Johnson's kidnapping, an internet video showed a man wearing a black hood and gripping an AK-47 as he threatened to execute the American hostage. Despite his disguise, the subtitle named the speaker as Abdulaziz al-Muqrin.

A graduate of jihadi training camps in Afghanistan, and reputed to be a veteran of conflicts in Somalia and Bosnia, Muqrin also pursued his radical cause in Algeria, according to Saudi officials and terrorism analysts. There he was part of a group known for dismembering the bodies of its enemies on videotape.

A handsome, almost elfin-faced man in his early 30s, Muqrin left school at 17 and travelled to Afghanistan. He spent about four years there, then took his terrorist skills to Africa and Europe.

He was arrested in Ethiopia in 1998 for belonging to an Islamic rebel group, and extradited to Saudi Arabia, where he was sentenced to four years. His conduct in prison was considered exemplary - he spent much time memorising the Koran - and he was released two years early.

In early 2001, Muqrin returned to Afghanistan. He joined the Taliban in fighting US forces there, then returned to Saudi Arabia a year later. It was then, Saudi security officials said, that he began to establish his own local network of radicals.

He was one of a new generation of al-Qa'ida leaders who filled the gaps left by those captured or killed in operations against Bin Laden's organisation after 11 September. It is not clear whether his group was under the control of the Bin Laden network or were merely sympathisers.

Muqrin was not considered a particularly clever or inspirational leader. His great talent was for graphic violence against Westerners.

After killing 22 people in a shooting spree in Khobar at the end of May, Muqrin's people posted a 3,000-word account of the operation on the internet. Graphic details were given of the attack, describing how the killers hunted down their victims, then slept and prayed after decapitating Westerners.

Muqrin's influence spread much further than Saudi Arabia. In April he ordered the killing of Muslim leaders co-operating with intelligence services and the police to thwart terrorist attacks - a concern to those within the Muslim community in Britain who have embraced the call by the Muslim Council of Britain to help the police fight al-Qa'ida.

In an interview this month with Jane's Intelligence Review Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence and now the country's ambassador to the UK, expressed confidence Muqrin's group would be rounded up soon.

"Only one al-Qa'ida cell remains operational in Saudi Arabia," the Prince said. "Even now, it's in the process of being dismantled." He was right. But it is unlikely to be long before new cells emerge to wreak more gruesome violence on foreigners and Saudis alike.