JIM ANGLE: A Saudi-based al Qaeda group beheaded American engineer Paul Johnson today, and threatened the same punishment for any Westerners in Saudi Arabia. That follows several other terrorist attacks there that have killed more than 40 foreigners since November. And there are reports tonight that the man behind Johnson's death has himself been killed.
For more on this new battle with al Qaeda and related groups, we turn to Jonathan Schanzer, a terrorism analyst from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Jonathan, thanks for joining us.
JONATHAN SCHANZER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: Thank you.
ANGLE: Now, this group was not exactly al Qaeda, but it was related to al Qaeda. And al Muqrin had a pretty long pedigree of working in al Qaeda causes. Tell us about him.
SCHANZER: OK. Abdulaziz al-Muqrin was about 35 years old. If he was killed today, it's excellent news. He apparently dropped out of the Saudi school system in his teens. From there, went on sort of an al Qaeda spree: fought in Afghanistan, went to Somalia, went to Bosnia, was running weapons in Algeria. Was eventually extradited back to Saudi Arabia, where he was put in jail. And ironically, he was actually let out of jail on good behavior for memorizing the Koran and behaving himself while in jail. This was just before 9/11.
A little bit after 9/11, this group began to emerge. This is a group of maybe several dozen Saudi fighters that came from Afghanistan, after Operation Enduring Freedom, came together to form this sort of splinter group, not directly from al Qaeda, not in direct contact with Usama bin Laden. But people that had been hardened and gone through the ideological process of al Qaeda over the years. So, in other words, these people, I think, were following a path of al Qaeda, but were not necessarily part of the core itself.
ANGLE: Now, how big a player was he in sort of al Qaeda-related terrorism? Was he an Usama bin Laden wannabe? Was he essentially working his way up to take bin Laden's place? He is often described as having been one of two or three top al Qaeda figures in the Middle East.
SCHANZER: Well, I wouldn't say that he was actually one of the top leaders. He went through al Qaeda training camps and was actually himself first a trainee, but was doing so well he was promoted to trainer. And then, of course, went on to fight in various al Qaeda wars and received some distinction among the al Qaeda ranks.
But was by no means a leader in the same way that Ayman al Zawahiri or Usama bin Laden are leaders. What he had emerged as within the last couple of months, I would say you could say he was perhaps one of the two or three most active terrorists in the world. Perhaps second to Usama bin Laden and Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who we're hearing quite a bit about in Iraq right now.
ANGLE: Now, we've just learned, according to U.S. officials have confirmed that al Muqrin is dead. As you say, very good news because he had been one of the most active terrorists. Why had he picked Saudi Arabia as his field of endeavor? Most of the terrorism is in other places in Iraq, Bosnia, in all sorts of places, like Spain and Morocco. Why in Saudi Arabia?
SCHANZER: Well, first of all, he was Saudi, so it would make sense as a Saudi national. Many Islamists have had a beef with the Saudi regime. The Saudi regime is about 72 years old. They've actually had encounters like this with radical Muslims in the past. They have had problems with essentially the way that the government has been working with the United States.
The last major challenge came after the First Gulf War, when U.S. soldiers were allowed on to their soil. And in fact, after that Usama bin Laden made the fact that U.S. soldiers and other people were on Saudi soil -- made that really a battle cry for radical Muslims around the world. So essentially this man was, I think, sort of jumping on to the bandwagon, so to speak, of the al Qaeda opposition to Saudi Arabia.
ANGLE: But in the sense that battle had been won. American forces were pulling out of Saudi Arabia. You still had some foreign workers, but it's not that big a factor. There are, what, some 30,000 foreign workers in a fairly large country. What was it that prompted this group to take up this cause in such a brutal fashion?
SCHANZER: Well, it's hard to say. But what you can see when you look at their communiques, which have actually been published widely on the site -- institute Web site, you know they call themselves the Fallujah Brigades. And what they seem to be doing is aping or mimicking what perhaps some of the militants are doing who are affiliate with al Qaeda. What they're doing right now inside Iraq: taking people hostage, going after the very soft targets, going after some of these people who are working for the U.S., and not necessarily part of military themselves.
ANGLE: In the same way that terrorists in Iraq are going after contractors and people standing in line to join the Civil Defense Forces and that sort of thing.
SCHANZER: That's exactly right. And what they're seeing is the effect that that is having on U.S. population here. We watch it, you know, from our televisions at home and see how this is affecting us. It clearly shakes the administration. It shakes the average citizen here in the United States. And they know by reading our media and by looking at our reactions that this is a tactic that works. And they'll do it again. And I wouldn't be surprised to see it in other places around the Middle East in the months to come.
ANGLE: Now, aside from trying to drive out the U.S. and other Western interests in Saudi Arabia, what is there goal with regard to the Saudi regime, which you mentioned a moment ago?
SCHANZER: To bring it down, in short. I would say that many radical Islamists see the Saudi regime as heretical, by bringing in Western advisers, either for oil contracts or military contracts. This is something that many people take offense to within the Saudi regime.
The way I like to look at this actually, right now, when you hear about the idea of blowback, this is something that the CIA talked about after funding the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Also, the Israelis supported Hamas in the late 1980s before the intifadah broke out. The Saudis have over the years sponsored Wahhabist, radical Islamists that go around and propagandize around the world and support radical Islam worldwide. Well, what they did was actually created an infrastructure within their own country. And that infrastructure has come back to bite them in the pants, so to speak. And I don't think they were quite ready for it.
ANGLE: They created a monster they can no longer control.
SCHANZER: That's exactly right.
ANGLE: One last quick thing for you. What is the effect of these attacks? Obviously their goal is to bring down the Saudi regime, to run all Westerners out. The effect of what they've done seems to be the opposite.
SCHANZER: Well, I think that you're going to begin to see a little bit more of an increased resolve on the part of the Saudis. You just heard Adel al Jubeir talk about wanting to crush these militants together with the U.S. I will be very interested to see if they actually pull through with this.
What they've done actually, beginning with the Saudi attacks in Riyadh of May of last year, they talked about wanting to go after the terrorist problem. But you know what they did, they actually only went after...
ANGLE: Got to go, John.
ANGLE: Thank you very much.