Our Enemies are Watching the Presidential Election

October 12, 2008

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Most of us are well aware that we Americans are not the only ones caught up in this year’s presidential election.

The nature of the race, having an African American and a woman on the major parties’ tickets, alongside two wars and an economic crisis of historic proportions, has proven captivating to people throughout the world.

But while our friends across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia are watching the race closely, America’s enemies are also watching from the mountain villages where Osama bin Laden’s followers are hiding out. Al-Qaeda is following the race intensely because fear and destruction are the principal aims of terrorist groups. It is fear and the resulting chaos on which terrorist groups feed.

The fog following a terrorist attack is thick, and it often leads many to support decisions that may not advance America’s security interests. Worse, these decisions often play into the hands of the terrorists who attacked us by increasing their popularity.

Examples of this abound, but the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the wake of 9/11 is perhaps the most pronounced example. The war, the administration’s use of torture on captured prisoners, and its disregard for international treaties was fodder for al-Qaeda. As world opinion of the United States sank, recruiting people became easier.

It is this climate that al-Qaeda looks to create – a climate that is borne of fear and results in American actions that serve al-Qaeda’s own interests. To strike the greatest amount of fear in civilians, terrorist groups wait to act until an event or time period that will amplify their attack. The tail end of a presidential campaign is one such opportunity.

While this campaign has been the longest in American history, a significant number of Americans are only now deciding on their choice. It is these final weeks of the political campaign that find Americans closely attuned to news and the statements of the candidates.

For this reason, what happens between now until Election Day can have a greater impact on public opinion than during any other period in the campaign.

It was no coincidence that on Oct. 29, 2004 – the final days of the John Kerry and George W. Bush presidential campaign – bin Laden released a video message saying al-Qaeda was intent on attacking the United States. This period was when large numbers of Americans were watching the news.

The same tactic, with deadlier results, was used earlier that year in Spain, when terrorists attacked Madrid trains only days before that country’s elections.

Al-Qaeda may likely look to exploit this year’s election by releasing a video message from bin Laden or his deputy Ayman Zawahiri, or worse, staging an attack – something some have called an “October surprise.”

So what should be done?

The greatest threat to groups like al-Qaeda is not just vigilance at our borders, ports, and high-risk targets; it is also rational, targeted policies that undermine their recruiting capabilities.

Ending torture, closing Guantanamo Bay, actively engaging in the Middle East peace process, and reaching out to allies are ways the United States can drain the swamp from which al-Qaeda attracts its members. In short, restoring our standing in the world is a linchpin of U.S. national security.

While this sounds reasonable, and perhaps many Americans agree with it, opinions often change within a climate of fear. The candidate who responds louder, or the one who promises an abundance of military strikes can become most appealing. Some argue this happened in 2004.

Americans should make their decision about whom they want to be the president of the United States by judging which candidate can implement strong policies that address the terrorist threat – policies that not only maintain our military and counter-intelligence vigilance, but also include negotiations, diplomacy, and the end of torture.

This would end a contradiction in American values and undermine – at least partially – the ability of terrorist groups to advance their recruiting.