The battle for Saudi hearts and minds
Anti-terrorism ads targets kingdom's youth
By Henry Schuster
Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit, has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on the people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those. He is the author of the newly published book, "Hunting Eric Rudolph." On assignment the week of March 14, Schuster's column will return the week of March 21.
(CNN) -- Just say no to terrorism.
That's the theme of a new ad campaign by the Saudi government.
But will the advertising blitz reach the likes of Ahmed Said Ahmed al-Ghamdi -- a 20-year-old Saudi who reportedly carried out a December suicide attack on a U.S. Army mess hall in Mosul, Iraq?
The campaign of public service TV ads and programs comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is beset by terrorism within its borders and, as a new study suggests, Saudis are playing a role in the Iraqi insurgency.
Adel al-Jubeir, foreign policy adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and a familiar face to many Americans, showcased the new ads at a Washington news conference on Monday.
One TV spot depicts a father who has lost his son in a terrorist attack. Other pieces explore the roots of terrorism.
"This national multimedia public service campaign is similar to, but more intense than, the 'Just Say No [to drugs]' or 'Friends Don't Let Friends Drink and Drive' campaigns in the United States," al-Jubeir said.
"We are using different forms of communication to send a clear and powerful message, and we are taking serious actions to undermine the strength of those who try to misguide our young people."
Ad exec behind campaign
The public service campaign was the brainchild of Eissa Bougary, a Saudi ad executive. (The "CNN Presents" program "Kingdom on the Brink" profiles Bougary at 8 p.m. ET Saturday.)
A University of Miami alumnus, Bougary runs Three Points Advertising, one of the most successful advertising firms in the kingdom. His focus is on reaching the youth market.
Having done ads and TV programs stressing religious tolerance among Saudis, Three Points produced materials for the Saudi government's anti-terrorism campaign.
Most of Bougary's programs as well as the new ads run on satellite TV, which originates outside Saudi Arabia. The reason, he says, is because no one under 30 -- the population the campaign is targeting -- watches state-run TV.
Bougary says he realizes he's battling al Qaeda for the hearts and minds of Saudi youth. The ad campaign and a recent conference on counterterrorism suggest the Saudi government has absorbed the same message.
The impact in Iraq
But will anyone pay attention to the ad blitz?
The question takes on special urgency for Americans. Besides al Qaeda attacks on Westerners in Saudi Arabia, volunteers for the Iraqi insurgency may be coming from Saudi Arabia.
The anti-U.S. sentiment is stoked by the conflict in neighboring Iraq, said Bougary and other Saudis interviewed.
Consider al-Ghamdi, who was a Saudi medical student in Sudan.
Sometime in December, he called his father and told him he had joined the fight in Iraq, according to the Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.
Less than a week later, al-Ghamdi allegedly blew himself up in the mess tent in Mosul, the paper reported. Fourteen U.S. troops and eight others died in the attack.
A new study from the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements, an Israeli-based organization, found that other Saudis may be targeting Americans in Iraq as well.
Reuven Paz, the organization's director who did the analysis, went through death announcements of these self-styled martyrs on Islamist Web sites. One hundred fifty-four names were listed, and 94, or about 61 percent, were Saudis, the study found.
By contrast, 10 percent were Syrians, according to the analysis, even as the U.S. government presses Damascus over the issue of foreign fighters. Even fewer are Iraqis, the study found.
Paz notes some caveats. For one, these are self-reported names, mostly from Saudi groups -- so there could be many others, and the percentages could change. Also, not all were suicide bombers.
Bougary calls the study's results "very sad." He says he believes the way to reach Saudi youth and keep them from turning into terrorists -- in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United States and elsewhere -- is through a better understanding of Islam.
"They [the jihadists] are misguided by some religious leaders who tell them it is legitimate to fight against an occupying force," Bougary said.
Such a viewpoint is based on ignorance, he said.
"We must combat that."