When Mohammed Atta slammed his fleet of hijacked planes into the Manhattan skyline on September 11, his masters expected that such a wound would unravel the “façade” of American strength. Beyond three thousand Americans and others massacred horribly, Usama Bin Laden believed that the attacks would expose the soft underbelly of American power, implanting systemic paralysis on all US war efforts. Thus, the final goal of the war on the Infidels has always been to crush America’s institutions and way of life so that Americans would ultimately surrender to the marching Caliphate-to-be. From this perspective the September 2001 attacks aimed at igniting three fires.
One was to create deep fears in the hearts of Americans, so that they would revolt against their government. The Salafi strategists thought they would apply the Madrid paradigm two years earlier in New York and Washington. The essence of this attempt failed, as the US unified its ranks and declared a War against Terrorism. A second fire was expected to be a major backlash against Muslims and Arabs within the US. Despite claims of many incidents, the American ethnic structure remained intact. The third sought fire by Bin Laden was to drag the US into the battlefield of al Qaida's choosing, that is everywhere and nowhere.
But such a scenario was not to be: the Jihadi project failed to attain these objectives, and America and its allies emerged strengthened with a new resolve out of the fires of Islamist hatred, removing the Taliban, the world Jihadi fortress, and reaching the borders of Pakistan from the West. Another major blow was the removal of Saddam Hussein, the potential projected ally against the United States. But even though al Qaida's initial plan fell short, America cannot afford any complacency in the face of terror, for a second generation plan has been erected on the ashes of the first.
The Jihadists are rigid on ideology but flexible on strategy. Al Qaida's cadres are diverse and many have insight on their enemies systems. The capture of senior officers such as Ramzi bin al Sheeb and lately the computer engineer Khan is very telling. Militarily and technologically, they are significantly advanced. Their expertise and information are equivalent to those of any successful graduate from Western schools.
More frightening is their knowledge of their enemies’ political systems. Many of the known leaders of Jihadi organizations were affiliated with European and American schools. Hassan Turabi, the intelligent leader of Sudan's National Islamic Front was a graduate of London schools. Abdallah el Shallah, the present commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, was a teacher at a Tampa university. One could go on at length, but the bottom line is that the radical Islamists, especially those engaged in warfare with the United States, are not politically blind. They know our system, and have figured out its weaknesses. In short, they have sought to discover our Achilles heel, and our efforts have been to counter them first through intelligence and followed by preemption.
It's simple. Al Qaida kills US soldiers in Iraq, al Jazeera films the scene, mainstream media relays the events to the West and critics of the war bring it home to the debate. The Administration is accused of failure, and its leaders are blasted for choosing the path of war in Iraq. From this, the Jihadist learns how our system works and starts the whole process again. Al-Zarqawi captures hostages, forces them to plead for US withdrawal, beheads them, films the barbaric scene, al Jazeera airs the events, and through the chain of Western media, criticism is lashed out against the decision makers in Washington and London.
This equation has been tested for months. Al Qaida's sophistication lies in how it has drawn out the dimensions of a longer offensive, one that uses the West against itself. By watching how the political system of the US works, the Salafist international network is manipulating the domestic game in America.
The Jihadists have learned that the critics of President Bush have concentrated their political fire on one specific issue: that the war in Iraq is a diversion from the War on Terror. The President claims his actions defeated al Qaida and depleted its capabilities. His opposition says instead of fighting Bin Laden (and eventually catching him) in Afghanistan, US forces find themselves stretched thin in Iraq, facing the Terrorists in a country where they did not originally exist. These two arguments, in the minds of many Americans, can decide the fate of the sitting President on Election Day. Indeed, if it is proven that by invading Iraq, al Qaida gained additional lands and power, even after being dislodged from Afghanistan, the commander of the invasion, George W Bush would lose votes, enough to lose the White House.
It is a universally understood matter, for a variety of reasons, that al Qaida seeks a political defeat of President Bush, particularly because of his aggressive policy of preemption, which has so successfully undermined terrorism and its funding throughout the broader Middle East. The Jihadists do not necessarily prefer John Kerry or his Party. They want Bush out of the White House so that a transition would take place in the Administration, followed by the shaping of new policy (especially different policy in Iraq) with at least 18 months of strategic inaction.
This is al Qaida's plan. Where once they thought they could paralyze the U.S. mostly through direct attacks like the ones in New York and Washington, they now attempt to attain this objective with a much more insidious campaign. Al Qaida thus endeavors in this election to aid in decisively defeating President Bush and his policies or, at the very least, to help create high political and legal tensions within the American political system. The Bin Laden machine was embolden to choose this path because of what they perceived being a deep difference in the national security and strategic views of the two contending candidates for the Presidency. Remember, the Jihadists have their own political scientists too.
The Jihad planners realize that a second Bush term would allow his own foreign policy team to accomplish another more daring stage in counter-Terrorism, with long-range political recipes for the future of the region. They can read the future after Afghani and Iraqi elections. They can detect the long term effects of al Hurra TV and SAWA radio on their al Jazeera turf. They can project future US policies towards the Baathists of Syria and the drama of Darfur.
Al Qaida's war room knows this would be a disaster for their ambitions and so do their clerical and political backers in the region. They wish for a softening of American resolve and understand that any "return to before 9/11" would greatly aid their efforts. The Jihadists are not naive though. They understand that a Kerry Administration will not open its doors to the Taliban scholars for visiting positions at our Ivy League schools—even though such a strategy was increasingly successful a decade earlier during the Clinton administration.
What Islamist planners want to see is a delayed American offensive. They need at least two to three years to rebuild their infrastructures. In their analysis, a defeat of Bush (not necessarily a victory of Kerry) would be psychologically powerful enough to boost the morale of their troops, cleanse Washington from the architects of the anti-Jihad war, and give them this precious strategic asset: Time. Infidels are infidels though, and the Jihadists know that any Administration replacing the incumbent one will eventually engage them in the future. That, they know. But what they wish is a transition, a change of commanders.
What may have made them secure in this thinking is less the presidential debate itself than the academic exchange underneath. With a global world society, Salafi experts on American politics (yes they exist too) have figured out that the intellectual establishment challenging the Administration is opposed to the premise of change in the Middle East. Kerry is a politician; he would eventually join the instincts of the American people in future confrontations. But the same cannot be said of our academic rigid elites, which similarly to their Islamic Fundamentalist counterparts, are not flexible on their views of the region's future. They want to return to the pre- 9/11 mode at any price. These elites, if back in power in Washington, would postpone the War on Terror till the next national tragedy. They would provide al Qaida with enough time to strategically re-group.
The rest is easy to elaborate, if you are the central unit of analysis within al Qaida. One contribution to the change they want to provoke in the U.S. is a push from the outside into the American political process. They may strike the U.S. before November 2, and even after, depending on the outcome of the election. Because of their successes in Spain last year, many projected that al Qaida would copycat it in America or even elsewhere in Europe or beyond. This possibility looms all the time.
But the men of Holy War have also learned to play propaganda ball. Here are two examples: last October 18, Iraq Jihad-commander, the Jordanian born Zarqawi, issued a statement of allegiance to Usama Bin Laden out of the blue. Experts and media commentators rushed to explain this enigmatic move. "Why would Zarqawi issue a statement of allegiance to al Qaida?" Shepard Smith on Fox News asked me that day. My answer was drawn from speeches I had analyzed in the Ansar chat rooms. "Now the United States should understand that al Qaida is not gone away, it is in the middle of Iraq," they asserted. They were trying to demonstrate that al Qaida was spreading all over not shrinking." What made it clear was the fact that Zarqawi was an al Qaida operative for years. Why would he officialize his organic link to Bin Laden? The answer came from the cadres online: "what will Bush tell his people today before the elections? That he went to Iraq to defeat al Irhab (Terrorism)? Abu Mus'aab is there to fight, and al Qaida is there. What will Bush tell his people before elections?" The tactical objective was crystal clear. But a second more official dose came a week later, seven days before D-Day.
On October 26, Reuters reported that the Saudi Branch of al Qaida issued a release stating the following: “for they said at the start of their war (...) that a main aim was to eradicate al Qaeda in Afghanistan and now al Qaeda has spread globally." The release was signed by "al Qaida Organization in the Arabian Peninsula." The release was followed again by long analysis in the Jihad and Ansar cyber rooms which echoed this tactic. If anything, this cascade of loud releases proves that al Qaida is attempting to affect the U.S. political process. Their main point is to state that the Bush Administration said the War in Iraq will defeat al Qaida, but al Qaida is telling the world that instead, it has spread into Iraq as well as the whole region. They project that the Western media will pick up (in this case Reuter) these points and thereby feed the political battles inside the U.S. This further indicates that inside al Qaida, there is a "political analysis unit" which is working on U.S. domestic and international issues. Logical projections tell us that they will try to find more "holes" they can manipulate. They will use all they have before Tuesday, and could continue to feed this debate, especially if things get legally complicated in the election process later on.
Worse case, these terrorist networks could attempt to combine this propaganda warfare with material aggression within the country or overseas. Minimal achievement, they will hope to deepen the mutual distrust in America. And a much better goal would be to plant the seeds of an irreversible political chaos. Watching the armies of lawyers heading to the polling centers, hearing the noises of prolonged constitutional crisis, they certainly fantasize about civil unrest in “American Rome.” One has to assume that the terrorists do not have a "failure of imagination," as the 9/11 Commission stated. Americans from all parties, although increasingly sinking in an ocean of politics, must remain alert and keep their eyes on their land. The wolves are out for the kill, and only an eagle flying high can detect their leaps.
Dr Walid Phares is a Professor of Comparative Politics and a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington DC. www.walidphares.com