RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – The man most likely to take over leadership of Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia (search) reportedly trained with the Saudi military and worked as a prison guard before joining Muslim militants in Afghanistan.
While set back by the death of previous leader Abdulaziz al-Moqrin (search), mastermind of the kidnapping and beheading of American engineer Paul M. Johnson Jr. (search), Al Qaeda remains able to strike at the Saudi government because of men such as Saleh Mohammed al-Aoofi. According to Saudi newspapers and several terror analysts Monday, al-Aoofi is a logical choice to replace al-Moqrin.
Saud Musaibeeh, a public relations official at the Interior Ministry, refused to comment on the possibility Al Qaeda (search) had a new leader in the kingdom.
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 with Saudi security forces in which al-Moqrin was killed Friday, hours after his cell announced it had killed Johnson. 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 Usama 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 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.
Al-Aoofi's predecessor, al-Moqrin, is believed to have had a leading role in a campaign of bombings and gun attacks on foreigners in the kingdom in recent months.
Saudi security officials say al-Moqrin took over Al Qaeda operations in the kingdom after his predecessor was killed by security agents earlier this year. Khaled Ali Haj, a Yemeni, had succeeded Youssef al-Airi, who was killed in a clash with Saudi security forces in early 2003.
Saudi security officials say al-Moqrin trained with bin Laden in Afghanistan and later fought in Bosnia and Algeria. He also played a prominent role in videos designed to inspire fear in enemies and exhilaration among sympathizers.