Does Al-Qaeda plan to influence elections?

Following its success in Spain, does Iraq have a policy of influencing elections?

Does Al-Qaeda plan to influence elections?

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 19 September 2004

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has already warned his electorate that Indonesian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiah could strike at Australian targets again, perhaps before the October 9th federal election. On balance – though there are dissenting views – it is thought that the focus on national security issues in the campaign will help Howard – a key ally of the US over Afghanistan and Iraq – prevail over his Labour challengers.

Following Al-Qaeda’s successful breaking of the anti-terror alliance in Spain, the targeting of Australian interests in Indonesia opens the question, does the organisation have a general strategy of seeking to influence democratic elections. If so, upcoming elections in Iraq (January) and the UK (expected next spring or summer) will be obvious targets, but the ultimate prize would be the US elections in November.

First, the easy part of the question. Iraqi supporters of Al-Qaeda and of the deposed Baathist regime are sure to try to disrupt the upcoming elections. They may or may not regard the neo-conservative “benign domino” theory as realistic, but it seems certain that they regard it as a threat. Neither Islamists nor Baathists wish to see a functioning democracy in Iraq, and will do what they can to prevent it. Whether they can do enough to severely depress turnout remains to be seen.

The standards which observers will expect of an Iraqi election are going to be different to the elections in western countries. Nobody really knows what sort of turnout to expect in an election in an Arab state. Opinion polling is not developed to the point where it is possible to say – as it was in Spain – that opinion shifted in the last few days.

Any turnout over 50%, especially if it produces a clear result, will be a very clear improvement on the status quo ante. Almost any election will be a step forward from the unanimous “votes” for Saddam.

The US elections would seem, at first glance, to be particularly vulnerable to outside interference. Firstly, Al-Qaeda tends to plan its large-scale operations years in advance. Unlike the UK, Australia and Spain, the US operates fixed terms, and its election dates are known years in advance. Secondly, many commentators are expecting the upcoming Presidential election to be as close – or almost as close – as the last one. A few votes tipped in a couple of carefully selected states could change the result.

And what bigger scalp could Al-Qaeda hope for than that of George W Bush? To topple the US President would be the ultimate coup – in every sense of the word.

But what of those who claim that the policies of John Howard and George Bush are counter-productive? Those who believe that the war in Iraq is in some way a distraction from the war on terror? It would be easy to riposte that closing down terrorist training camps in Iraq, cutting the lifelines to Hamas, and ending the operational alliance between Saddam’s Iraq and the Al-Qaeda in undermining the democratic proto-states in Kurdistan are hardly setbacks for the war on terror. Or that the arrest of senior Al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan has continued, with one of the most senior being captured in the very week military operations began in Iraq. But the ultimate response is that, whatever western liberals may think, Al-Qaeda does not regard the two fronts as being in any way separate. The Madrid bombings targeted Spain, not France, because Al-Qaeda recognises it is made vulnerable by the war in Iraq. The latest communication from the group on Al Jazeera boasted of defeating the US in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is an essential part of the mindset of Al-Qaeda to believe that western civilisation can be defeated. They are not under the illusion that they have better weapons than the USA, their belief centres on the view that America lacks the moral will to fight.

To understand Al-Qaeda’s view that electing Kerry would deliver them victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not necessary to share it. It is actually improbable that Kerry would, at least in the short-term, walk away from either country. True, Kerry’s record and rhetoric are difficult to read, but this is probably because his party is so evenly divided. Almost exactly half of Democrats in Congress – including Senators Kerry and Edwards – voted for the Iraq resolution. The other half, including the party’s (now) leader in the House voted against. As a candidate for President Kerry cannot afford to alienate either half of his coalition.

Sadly, there are some with links to the Kerry campaign – such as the campaign group MoveOn – who seem determined to reinforce Al-Qaeda’s view that a vote for Kerry would deliver terrorism its victory. The latest anti-Bush advert unveiled by the group tells American voters that it will take a new President to get America out of Iraq. Following the bombings in Madrid and Jakarta, did they not even stop to ask the implications of running such an advert?

But herein lies the problem. It would not be enough for terrorists to claim that a few hundred thousand people had been frightened out of voting if tens of millions had succeeded in casting votes, unless it was clear that the outcome had been affected. And it would only suit their purposes if it led, as in Spain, to the defeat of their enemy. A terrorist attack that produced a backlash in Bush’s favour would be seen as the most massive setback for the terrorist cause.

There are two reasons why a major terrorist attack on election day would, probably deliver the election to President Bush – precisely the opposite result to the one that Al-Qaeda would presumably prefer.

A terrorist outrage would probably lead to an upsurge in support for the President, just as it did in 2001. Al-Qaeda succeeded in its objectives in Spain, because the country had been so overwhelmingly opposed to their government’s Iraq policy not, as in the US and Australia, fairly evenly divided. The government had been expected to win election for its domestic successes and shifting the debate to foreign affairs hurt the government. In the US, precisely the opposite situation applies, with the majority supporting the President’s national security policies. It is on the domestic front that he is vulnerable.

Worse – from Al-Qaeda’s point of view – any attempt to frighten people out of voting would disproportionately affect turnout in urban areas.

Take the obvious example of an attack on the New York City subways – a direct parallel to the Madrid bombings. This would lead to large numbers of Kerry voters in NYC staying at home; the effect on turnout in the Republican upstate would be minimal. Admittedly, it would take a spectacular shift in the vote to deliver New York for Bush, but Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Michigan stand out as obvious examples of large, evenly divided, states where the urban areas vote Democrat and the rural areas vote Republican.

Any analysis of US political trends and demography would lead Al-Qaeda to conclude that an attack on American targets between now and November 2nd would be counter-productive. Even an attack on Australia in the run up to October 9th could help Bush almost as much as Howard.

By contrast, conspiracy theorists who claim the CIA has been holding Osama bin Laden for years, planning to unveil him on November 1st, are probably equally misguided. The President knows from the example of both his father and his hero – Winston Churchill – that voters rarely say thank you for foreign policy success. The question “now what?” always seems to spring to mind. The war on terror is a subject on which Bush easily outpolls his challenger. A shift of attention to domestic issues would undermine the President’s strongest advantage.

This leaves Al-Qaeda with only one option. If they really want to defeat Bush there is one thing they could do that might just work: they could surrender.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 19 September 2004

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