Saudi al-Qaeda chief killed
AL-QAEDA’S commander in Saudi Arabia was among more than a dozen terrorists killed in a three-day gun battle with security forces in the north of the kingdom, according to an exiled Saudi opposition leader.
In a major coup for the authorities, Saleh al-Aufi’s body was said to have been found burned beyond recognition in a wheelchair in the wreckage of a complex where the militants were besieged.
Aufi lost a leg last July when he escaped a police raid on his apartment where the severed head of a US hostage, Paul Johnson, was found in the freezer of his fridge alongside food.
"They have to do a DNA test [to identify him] because there’s nothing left of his features," Dr Saad al-Fagih, the leader of the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, said.
The authorities did not want to declare Aufi’s death - a major blow to al-Qaeda in Osama bin Laden’s homeland - publicly until the DNA test results had confirmed his identity, Dr Fagih told The Scotsman, but they were "99 per cent certain".
Aufi had been reported dead last November but surfaced again last month with calls issued on Islamist websites for terror attacks in neighbouring Gulf Arab states.
Other reports from within the kingdom suggested Aufi - a former used-car dealer and disgraced former prison guard - may have been seriously wounded and captured rather than killed.
The ferocious battle that ended late on Tuesday was the biggest blow to al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia since bin Laden’s followers launched a terrorist campaign there two years ago.
Saudi officials said the dead also included Abdulkarim al-Mejjati, a Moroccan described by the Saudi media as the mastermind of the May 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca in which 33 bystanders and 12 bombers were killed. He was also linked to the Madrid train bombings last year.
"We even have suspicions that he had a connection with the Qatar incident," said Jamal Khashoggi, an adviser to the Saudi ambassador in London.
A British teacher was killed in Qatar last month in a car-bomb attack on a theatre during a performance of Twelfth Night.
"The Moroccan is one of the five most important [al-Qaeda] activists worldwide," added Mr Khashoggi.
Saudi papers described Mejjati as one of the thinkers of the organisation and an expert bomb-maker with extensive combat experience. His mother was said to be French and his wife American.
Another terrorist killed in the shoot-out in the northern town of al-Ras was named as Saud Hamoud al-Otaibi, al-Qaeda’s chief propagandist in the kingdom, who had been urging militants to join the fight against US forces in Iraq.
Yesterday, another of Saudi Arabia’s most-wanted militants, Abdul-Rahman Mohammad Jubran al-Yazji, was shot dead by security forces in a separate incident in the capital, Riyadh.
If Aufi’s death or capture is confirmed, it means that four of the 26 most-wanted militants on a list issued by the authorities in December 2003 have been removed as a threat in the past four days. Most of the rest have been captured or killed, with just two or three at large.
Otaibi’s loss to al-Qaeda was particularly significant. He was its leading spokesman in Saudi Arabia "who was adept at misleading young men who lack experience and religious background".
The authorities were caught by surprise two years ago when the terrorists launched devastating attacks, with suicide bombers targeting residential compounds housing foreigners. Since then, police have killed more than 90 suspected terrorists in shoot-outs and arrested hundreds more.
Saudi officials have long claimed al-Qaeda’s back has been broken. Terror attacks have become far less frequent since the killing last June of Aufi’s predecessor, Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin. He was a particularly brutal and reckless al-Qaeda leader who boasted on film of beheading Mr Johnson, the American hostage.
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