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Saudi security forces have no margin for error

Saudis beating terror on the ground, working on hearts and minds

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.

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A still frame from surveillance video of an attempted attack on a National Guard barracks last year.

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- The car burst through the checkpoint and rounded the corner. Two SUVs carrying Saudi Special Forces were in hot pursuit as the vehicle pulled into a Riyadh neighborhood.

Several bursts of semiautomatic fire later, the would-be terrorists were dead, wounded or cuffed and being hustled away.

This was a training exercise, put on by the Ministry of Interior's counterterrorism force for our benefit at the Prince Nayef Arab Academy for Security Sciences facility on the edge of the Saudi capital.

The soldiers were put through their paces, storming a mock-up of a jumbo jet; fending off an attack on a VIP motorcade; taking down a group of terrorists holding hostages in a house.

Then they proudly showed us their equipment, the latest in bomb-detection gear and a series of vehicles suited for knocking down walls and setting up mobile command posts.

Little expense seems to have been spared on training or equipment.

There's good reason for that -- most of the men putting on the demonstration for us this morning have seen their share of live fire during the last two years, some as recently as the past few weeks.

Bluetoothing terror

A paradox of Saudi society is that while movie theaters are banned as un-Islamic, Saudis love their camera phones (also on the taboo list until they proved too popular) and they are constantly sending each other short videos via Bluetooth.

I saw two videos making the rounds. The first looked remarkably like the training exercise, but it is the real thing. A pickup truck this time, not a car, speeds toward a barrier. As it swerves to get around the roadblock, a man pops up from the bed of the truck and begins firing rounds at the armed guards at the checkpoint.

Another gunman leans out the rear window. The policemen return fire as the truck goes past.

You can tell that the driver, at least, is hit. The truck comes to a halt several yards down the road, the horn trailing off as his body slumps forward.

It is an extraordinary piece of footage, brief and breathtaking in its reality, apparently caught by a surveillance camera, according to a security source. It was an attack on a National Guard barracks north of Riyadh last year.

It didn't succeed.

Nor did the one on the Abqaiq oil processing plant on February 24. But the Abqaiq attack -- which may have signaled a change in targets by the terrorists away from people and toward resources -- managed to send a new set of fears in motion among Saudis.

"Just imagine, the lights would have gone out around the world!" said a senior government official, clearly forgetting to stick to the message that the failed assault on Saudi oil riches was a sign of success for a country that has spent billions upgrading security to protect its most precious economic resource.

He wasn't alone.

Every Saudi I asked responded with horror at what might have been if the oil stopped flowing.

No margin of error

"The Saudi government and security forces do not have room for error. The margin of error is zero," said Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi national security consultant. He emphasized the positive, that the money for protecting the oil facilities had been well spent and well used.

He pointed to the news that greeted me when I arrived the previous week - 40 arrests of suspected terrorists, some of them linked to the Abqaiq attack - and said that all the men who were on the first two lists of most-wanted terrorists put out by the government had been captured or killed in the last three years.

The second video making the rounds, which dated from last spring, showed an anti-terrorist operation by the same Special Forces unit that I had seen training.

They had surrounded a house in the town of al Ras, where one of those on the most-wanted list, a Moroccan man named Karim Mejjati, was barricaded with at least two others

The video shows a withering assault on the house - gunfire, then explosive charges to blow out the windows.

It cuts to nighttime pictures of three dead men, including Mejjati, laid out on the ground. Then, more daytime footage, showing the house as little more than a burned-out shell, while bullet holes have defaced the outside of a neighboring house.

Again, this was no exercise, but a display of why the Saudi government seems to be winning the war on the ground against al Qaeda terrorists.

But is overwhelming firepower enough?

Hearts and minds and eyes

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who has been running the anti-terrorism campaign at the Interior Ministry (and for whom the training ground we visited was named) is on record as saying that firepower is not enough; the government must win the rhetorical war as well as the military one.

In Jeddah, I revisited a Saudi advertising executive who told me how much of a challenge that is.

Eissa Bougary runs Three Points Advertising in Jeddah and has been active in making programs and public service announcements that try to spread an anti-terrorism message.

Bin Laden and his followers have produced sophisticated propaganda, Bougary says, especially on the Internet. The war in Iraq, he adds, has angered most Saudis, young men in particular.

But the government's effort to win hearts and minds, which includes everything from billboards to videos, seems to be gaining some ground.

It is a long-term challenge, says Bougary, that requires help from everyone -- the government, parents and Islamic clerics.

Back at the training ground, a Special Forces captain tells me that the public has responded by becoming the eyes and ears of the counterterrorism effort.

The attacks haven't stopped. Nor have the al Qaeda propaganda videos.

The Special Forces don't expect them to. So they continue to train. And to respond.

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