CAIRO, Egypt — A Moroccan Islamic militant who was reported Tuesday to have been killed in fierce fighting in Saudi Arabia was one of the original founders of al Qaeda’s branch in the kingdom, sent there by terror chief Usama bin Laden to build the network, former militants said.

Kareem Altohami al-Mojati was No. 4 on Saudi Arabia’s list of 26 most wanted al Qaeda-linked terror suspects, issued in December 2003.

Al-Mojati was also wanted in his home country, where he is suspected of helping plan the May 16, 2003 homicide bombings in Casablanca that killed 33 bystanders and 12 homicide bombers.

Saudi security officials said al-Mojati was killed along with 13 other militants in a three-day gunbattle with special forces that ended Tuesday night in the central Saudi town of Rass. Six other militants were captured.

Another of the militants slain in the fight, Saud Homood Obaid al-Otaibi, was a Saudi believed to be one of the top figures in al Qaeda’s branch in Saudi Arabia. Last year, he purportedly posted an Internet statement rejecting an amnesty offered by Saudi ruler King Fahd who promised militants that their lives would be spared if they surrendered

Al-Mojati, believed to be in his early 30s, is a battle-hardened fighter who had fought in Afghanistan and is described as a devoted supporter of bin Laden.

Former Islamic militants who were in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the same time as al-Mojati, said the Moroccan had excellent military training and was one of al Qaeda best explosives experts.

The former militants, Egyptians and Saudis speaking on condition to anonymity, said al-Mojati was sent by bin Laden on several missions in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and visited the United States several times between 1997 and 1999. He has a French passport and his mother is believed to be French, the militants said.

He was sent to Saudi Arabia soon after the fall of Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers in early 2002 to help build the al Qaeda network in the homeland of bin Laden. After Saudi security forces killed Abdulaziz al-Moqrin, the former leader of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, last June, many Middle East terror experts speculated the group will chose Al-Mojati as the new leader due to his long experience.

Instead, however, the group named Saleh al-Aoofi, a former Saudi prison guard in his late 30’s.

Mshari al-Thaydi, a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic radical movements, said al-Mojati’s killing "will deal a severe blow to al Qaeda."

"They have lost a very effective leader who is too hard to replace," he told the AP.