John Kerry believes that the so-called al Qaeda Halloween videotape released days before the last presidential election in the United States affected enough undecided voters that it may have made the difference in the outcome. Remember that a swing of only 60,000 voters in Ohio would have resulted in a President Kerry.
Experts still debate whether it was al Qaeda's intention to affect the Spanish political process when it attacked the Madrid commuter train network three days before that country's March 2004 election. The attack did result in an electoral defeat for the incumbent party, which had sent troops to Iraq at the request of the United States.
And, of course, there is Pakistan, where a terrorist assassination killed Benazir Bhutto, a candidate for prime minister, just 10 months ago. CIA Director Mike Hayden publicly blamed Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani radical, but said he acted with help from the broader al Qaeda network. Bhutto had promised to combat the Taliban, al Qaeda, and similar groups inside Pakistan.
Is al Qaeda really sophisticated enough to attempt to manipulate democratic elections in Europe, Asia, and America? It is difficult to judge how adept they are at achieving their desired results. We do know that Osama bin Laden reads western opinion polls, if only because on one occasion he discussed fairly obscure European opinion surveys in some detail.
Given that history, what can we expect in the next month; will al Qaeda try to influence the 2008 U.S. presidential election? Some analysts saw the opening salvos of an al Qaeda campaign in the two attacks on American targets that came within three days of each other two weeks ago. First, al Qaeda mounted a large and sophisticated assault on the American embassy in Yemen. Many analysts are surprised that the attack failed and that the local guard force fought back courageously and well. Al Qaeda's plan seemed to be to penetrate the embassy wall, gather up Americans, and then kill them in a series of terrorist suicides with explosive belts.
Second, al Qaeda attacked the Marriott hotel in Islamabad with a large truck bomb. This attack seems to have been aimed at the Pakistani president, prime minister, and cabinet who were supposed to be dining there at the time but were not because of a last-minute decision to change the venue to a more secure location. Two U.S. military personnel who were dining there died in the attack.
Those who see the two attacks as the opening round of a pre-election campaign note that they were the first two major al Qaeda-related attacks on American facilities in a very long time, the first serious al Qaeda attack on an American embassy in a decade. Others believe that the timing of the two attacks was coincidence and that they were both dictated by internal dynamics in the countries where the attacks took place and not by the U.S. election campaign. Nonetheless, U.S. intelligence and security officials are worried. They admit that there is nothing concrete that suggests another attack, but they fear that al Qaeda may try something, maybe even in the United States. The last National Intelligence Estimate on al Qaeda concluded that the group had reconstituted, was stronger than it had been in many years, was capable of staging attacks again, including probably in the United States. General Hayden has talked publicly about "European looking" al Qaeda terrorists who have been trained recently in Pakistan and sent back out into the world, presumably to stage attacks.
These "Europeans" may have European Union passports, which would mean that they could enter the United State without a visa. If they are what police call "clean skins" (people whose names do not appear in the database of suspected terrorists), they could easily enter the country. Hayden suggested that they could be standing next to you "in the line at Dulles Airport," and you would not be suspicious of them. If they do show up in the United States, it is not hard to get weapons or fertilizers that can be converted quickly into explosives. So, another attack in this country before the election is at least theoretically possible.
At the very least, expect another Halloween video from the scary man in the cave.
What would be the purpose of any attempted manipulation of the U.S. election? It could just be to use the election to magnify the media coverage of their terrorist activities, make al Qaeda look even more capable than it is, and remind everyone they are still around. Such a media-amplified attack might help them with recruitment and fundraising. Even more likely is the possibility that al Qaeda would hope the attack would benefit John McCain. Opinion polls, which, as noted above, al Qaeda reads closely, suggest that an attack would help McCain. Polls in Europe and the Middle East also suggest an overwhelming popular support there for Barack Obama. Al Qaeda would not like it if there were a popular American president again.
Richard Clarke was the National Security Council's national coordinator for security and counterterrorism.