Tue, Jun 22, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Al-Qaeda replaces Saudi Arabia chief

NEW TERROR The death of Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin after a US hostage's beheading has prompted a more dangerous man to take up local leadership of the terror organization

AFP , RIYADH

A former Saudi police officer has taken over as leader of al-Qaeda on the Arabian peninsula after the last three incumbents died in the brutal jihad raging in Saudi Arabia, media reported yesterday.

Saleh Mohammad al-Oufi, 38, who is No. 4 on the kingdom's list of most wanted militants, "has been designated al-Qaeda chief in Saudi Arabia, succeeding Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin," the London-based Asharq al-Awsat daily said.

The Saudi-owned daily sourced the news to al-Qaeda itself without further detail after Al-Muqrin was gunned down in the capital Riyadh on Friday night along with three of his lieutenants.

The Saudi Institute, which bills itself as an independent news outfit based in Washington, quoted "intelligence" to confirm al-Oufi's appointment.

It said the one-time police officer, born in Medina, joined "terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Bosnia where he was injured and returned to Saudi Arabia in 1995.

"Al-Oufi was in the shadows while al-Muqrin was in charge, because he was busy running the secret al-Qaeda camps in Saudi Arabia. He was essentially res-ponsible for training, recruitment and logistics," the institute said in an e-mail received on Sunday.

"Al-Oufi might be more dangerous than Al-Muqrin because he comes from the security ranks and the fact he is a Hijazi from the holy city of Medina where he can recruit from the most economically depressed areas of Saudi Arabia.

"Al-Oufi might also be a more effective al-Qaeda leader because he is older, spent more time in the country than Muqrin, and is more familiar with [the] al-Qaeda network in Saudi Arabia as he was one of those who built it."

"Saleh al-Oufi is the most dangerous" of al-Qaeda's lieutenants left alive in Saudi Arabia, said Al-Hayat, another Saudi-owned publication in London.

Islamist Web sites used as information channels by al-Qaeda have either not posted the succession news or remained inaccessible since Sunday, when a statement in the name of the network announced that the succession to Muqrin was assured.

Muqrin had died "after having prepared sincere men from among the combatants to succeed him and carry on the jihad, equipped by God with everything needed to bring harm to America and its agents among the tyrants," the statement said.

Oufi left school as a teenager and enrolled in the police but left in 1988 to spend four years in the prison service before being sacked, according to biographical details quoted by several Arab media outlets.

Al-Hayat said Oufi met al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar in Afghanistan shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US.

Muqrin became the al-Qaeda leader in the kingdom after Yemeni Khaled Ali Haj was killed in March this year as Saudi Arabia hunted down extremists.

Asharq al-Awsat said the previous chief of the network on the Arabian peninsula, Yussef al-Ayri, was also shot dead in June last year, a month after a series of suicide bombings started in the kingdom.

The Saudi Institute also revealed it had an exclusive recording of Oufi "singing to his mother about his decision to join the holy war."

He urged her to "stay patient if he dies and put her trust in God." He also called on his uncle's family to join the "path of their forefathers, the supporters of the Prophet Mohammed."

"Death in the path of faith is the greatest honor," he reportedly said.

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