The U.S. Elections Are Coming. Is Al-Qaeda?

Four years ago, while working as a senior adviser in NATO’s Brussels headquarters, I got an up-close look at the way al-Qaeda’s best minds see Western elections. On March 11, 2004, Spain was rocked by perhaps the bloodiest terrorist attack in Europe since World War II, as bombs ripped apart commuter trains in Madrid, leaving nearly 2,000 Spaniards dead or injured — three days before the country went to the polls.

The incumbent party was promptly hurled out of office, and in Brussels, my colleagues and I watched as the Spanish mission began receiving drastically different instructions from Madrid. Overnight, a U.S. ally that had been an enthusiastic cheerleader for President Bush’s Iraq policies became one of Bush’s sharpest critics in the NATO alliance. A grieving Spanish electorate roundly rejected the war in Iraq, which it concluded had hurt Spain’s security, not enhanced it.

As someone who worked on terrorism issues for decades at the CIA and elsewhere, I found the most striking thing about the Madrid bombings to be the sophistication of the jihadists’ grasp of electoral timing. The bombers seemed to have been encouraged by al-Qaeda’s terrorist infrastructure in Iraq, which scoped out Spanish vulnerability weeks before the election, analyzed the fault line in the NATO alliance and concluded that a bloody blow could drive hawkish Spain out of the Iraq war coalition. That al-Qaeda in Iraq analysis was distributed on jihadist Web sites in December 2003, and their cohorts in Madrid took careful note.

If it happened in Spain, it can happen here. The Madrid bombings reveal the close attention al-Qaeda pays to the electoral cycles in Western democracies. Osama bin Laden, the perpetrator of one of the greatest mass murders in U.S. history, is certain to want to have his say in our elections this fall. (Full disclosure: I’m an adviser to Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.) The record is clear: Al-Qaeda has developed a predictable pattern of behavior over the decade since it declared war on the United States that provides important insights into what we can expect in the next six months. Brace yourselves.

In 2004, bin Laden issued an audiotape on the eve of the presidential election, just to remind Americans that he was still alive and active despite a $25 million bounty on his head. That tape ended months of silence from the al-Qaeda leader, and some bitter advisers to Sen. John F. Kerry still say that the message helped rattle swing voters and reelect President Bush.

Since then, al-Qaeda has built a far more secure safe haven in the lawless badlands of Pakistan, including a much more active and agile propaganda apparatus, an in-house media studio known as as-Sahab (“the clouds” in Arabic, a reference to its being hidden somewhere in the Hindu Kush). As-Sahab’s pace has grown dramatically; it put out just a dozen messages for al-Qaeda in 2004, but last year, it churned out almost 100. The tempo has been even faster in 2008, and its production values have grown increasingly slick, complete with maps and videos to amp up the messages from bin Laden and his henchmen. The studio even produces its own coffee mugs now, complete with as-Sahab logo.

We can expect as-Sahab to be busy this September, producing a major message to mark both the seventh anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, and to prepare the way for the November ballot. Al-Qaeda has put out increasingly detailed diatribes each September since 2001 to mark the anniversary of what bin Laden’s goons call “the Manhattan Raid.” These now include lengthy analyses of the progress of al-Qaeda’s war against the United States and often a “martyrdom video” from one of the 19 hijackers.

These despicable testimonies, in which the dead murderers speak from beyond the grave, have been carefully saved by al-Qaeda to parcel out for maximum effect years later. The most chilling such message would come from the hijackers’ leader, Mohamed Atta. We know that Atta filmed one before 9/11 — and have seen video of him with bin Laden, albeit without audio. We may not have heard the last from him.

Another al-Qaeda audio or video message is likely to arrive in late October, just before the election, to remind Americans that the group is still out there and to try to convince al-Qaeda’s supporters around the world that the network is keeping up its holy war against the “Crusaders and Zionists.” A third major propaganda message will probably come during the final days of the Bush administration in January 2009. Bin Laden will want to mark the exit of the president who promised to get him dead or alive and has thus far done neither. He will also probably want to gibe at the new president and make it clear that al-Qaeda’s demands — especially that the United States withdraw all military forces from the Muslim world, abandon Israel and stop supporting pro-U.S. Muslim regimes, such as those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia — have not ended with the Bush administration. This message could do double duty as the lengthy year-end wrap-up that al-Qaeda now regularly offers, a sort of state of the jihad address.

Of course, we should also be on guard for a more violent message from al-Qaeda. Bin Laden and his partners in crime would be glad to stage spectacular attacks at any time against a U.S. target, at home or abroad, as long as the assets are ready. An election could further goad them on. The Palestinian terrorist group Hamas was a pathbreaker here, deliberately launching a major suicide-bombing offensive in 1996 to tilt a round of upcoming Israeli elections toward the hard-line Likud Party, thereby undermining the Oslo peace process that could have ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, over the long haul, put Hamas out of business.

Had it not been for the counterterrorist skills of Britain’s MI5, al-Qaeda might have pulled off a plot to simultaneously blow up 10 jumbo jets over the North Atlantic in August 2006 — which could have killed thousands of people just weeks before the U.S. congressional elections that November. This was a very narrow miss: The flights had been selected, the terrorists had been picked, the martyrdom videos had been filmed, and the bombs had been built. The plot could have been even more deadly than 9/11, since all the forensic evidence would have fallen to the bottom of the ocean; the designs of the bombs used in the attacks could have been used again and again.

Charlie Black, a senior adviser to John McCain, recently had his knuckles rapped for saying that an al-Qaeda attack before November would help his candidate. In fact, we don’t really know whether al-Qaeda’s core leadership has a preference in the presidential election. Some on the right say that bin Laden is rooting for Obama, dismissing him as untested; some on the left say that al-Qaeda would prefer McCain, assuming that he’d sink deeper into the Iraq quagmire and further drive angry Muslims to bin Laden’s banner. For now, the group has kept mum. But we should expect to hear more from al-Qaeda, violently or otherwise, before November.