The 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Kerry still say that the message helped rattle swing voters and re-elect President Bush.