updated 8/17/2004 10:29:07 AM ET 2004-08-17T14:29:07

Stung by criticism about its role in fighting terrorism, Saudi Arabia has launched a radio advertising campaign in 19 U.S. cities citing the Sept. 11 commission report as proof that it has been a loyal ally in the fight against al-Qaida.

The two advertisements quote the commission’s conclusion that the Saudi government did not fund al-Qaida. One ad cites the report’s finding that Saudi Arabia stopped a 1998 plot to attack U.S. troops; the other cites a finding that Saudis were not flown out of the United States right after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The ads don’t address commission criticism of Saudi Arabia, which the report called “a problematic ally in combating Islamic extremism.” It said Saudi-funded Islamic schools have been exploited by extremists and, while Saudi cooperation against terrorism improved after the Sept. 11 attacks, “significant problems remained.”

Saudi Arabia came under scrutiny almost immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. It is the birthplace of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers. A congressional inquiry into the attacks triggered questions about whether the Saudi royal family had provided money to the hijackers.

Presidential campaign issue
More recently, Saudi Arabia has become a campaign issue. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has repeatedly questioned Saudi Arabia’s commitment to fighting terrorism and accused President Bush of not pressing the issue.

In the hit documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore claims the Bush administration helped Saudi princes and members of bin Laden’s family flee the United States while American airspace was closed to commercial traffic in the aftermath of the attacks.

The Darkest DayThe commission found there was no evidence of Saudi flights before national airspace reopened on Sept. 13, 2001 and no evidence of political intervention.

It also found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al-Qaida. It also reported that in 1998, the Saudis quietly disrupted a bin Laden plot to attack U.S. forces with shoulder-fired missiles, arresting “scores of individuals, with no publicity.”

A Saudi embassy spokesman, Nail al-Jubeir, said the commission report “contradicted a lot of these accusations and we just want to make sure that people are aware of this.” He said, though, the ads were not a response to the film or to Kerry’s campaign.

Al-Jubeir said the ads tell Americans “these are the facts that your own independent commission has said about Saudi Arabia. You make up your mind.”

But David Sirota of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that has criticized Bush’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, said the ads try “to take the focus out of a more broad and historic look at their policies with regard to terror.”

“It’s sort of a distraction tactic,” he said.

'Expensive p.r. campaign'
Amy Hawthorne, a Middle East specialist for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the ad campaign isn’t surprising for Saudi Arabia. The wealthy kingdom doesn’t want a reputation linking it to terrorism and has run ads before to influence American public opinion, she said.

Moment by moment“The thing about Saudi Arabia is they have the resources to be able to do a campaign like this. A lot of Arab governments don’t have the millions and millions of extra dollars to launch an expensive p.r. campaign,” she said.

Al-Jubeir declined to say how much the campaign will cost, though the figure will eventually have to be reported publicly. The ads started running Friday and will continue until Sept. 6. He said the kingdom doesn’t plan to run the spots during the Republican National Convention so they don’t appear political.

He said radio was seen as the best medium for reaching Americans in August, when many people are traveling. The 19 cities were chosen in an attempt to reach the most people within the advertising campaign’s budget.

The cities are Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Cleveland; Dallas; Detroit; Houston; Kansas City, Mo.; Memphis, Tenn.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Oklahoma City; Phoenix; Portland, Maine; St. Louis; Seattle; Tampa, Fla.; and Washington.

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