What makes elections so attractive to terrorists?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Oct. 22 2008 2:25 PM

Why Do Terrorists Love To Strike Around Elections?

And what can we expect in the coming weeks?

(Continued from Page 1)

An appreciation for that kind of thinking underlies the argument Joseph Nye made in the Financial Times recently about why al-Qaida would prefer a belligerent McCain to an Obama who has spoken of improving America's standing in the Muslim world and who "would do wonders to restore the soft power that the Bush administration has squandered over the past eight years. That is why Mr Obama is such a threat to Mr bin Laden." Nye accepts the conventional wisdom that anything that turns the discussion to terrorism helps McCain, so in his view, al-Qaida has an extra incentive to act.

He may be right, though another possibility is that anything that reminds voters that Bin Laden is still out there might hurt the heir apparent to a Republican administration that hasn't caught the world's foremost fugitive. It's also worth noting that terrorism is nothing like the concern it was for voters in 2004, when, as Paul Freedman pointed out, it was probably the decisive issue in George W. Bush's victory over John Kerry. Of course, that could change. But today it would certainly take a lot more than video of the berobed Saudi to do the trick. (There remains a question about whether that tape made any difference in 2004—Kerry believed it did, but the number crunchers at Pew disputed that.) My Brookings Institution colleague and former CIA officer Bruce Riedel makes the interesting suggestion that we may be treated to one of the as-yet-unreleased martyrdom tapes of one of the Sept. 11 attackers. Ghoulish though that would be, it probably wouldn't change many votes.

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A video is the most likely piece of electioneering we will see from al-Qaida, but there are two other types of surprise that ought to be considered. The first, of course, is the reverse surprise. While McCain has objected to Obama talking about attacking Pakistani targets, that is precisely what the U.S. military has been doing for months now with helicopter gunship and Predator drone strikes on targets in the tribal areas. There is no reason to think that the United States has gotten the tip it's been awaiting for the last seven years, but we also shouldn't be surprised that so much of the firepower has been focused on the northern regions of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, such as Bajaur, where Bin Laden was thought to be hiding. No doubt Bush would like nothing better than to finally settle that score—according to intelligence sources, there was a major push four years ago as well. Something tells me that the Saudi has figured this out, too.

The last possibility is the one really worth worrying about: a genuine terrorist attack, here or abroad, now or anytime after the election. It is purely speculative to suggest that the odds of an attack are increasing. Al-Qaida and other jihadists seem to be happily occupied, principally with destabilizing Pakistan and eroding security in Afghanistan. But a big trap has opened up, and one has to imagine that the terrorists will want to spring it. In short, there would be a high premium for them to carry out a significant attack soon, because in an election season, or in the early days of a new administration, there would be irresistible political pressure to carry out an obliterating retaliation. The target for that strike would be the terrorists' safe haven in the FATA, and the result would be exactly the kind of widespread Muslim rage at the United States that the terrorists crave. Few today question that Osama Bin Laden ordered the 9/11 attacks because he wanted to draw the United States into a draining war in Afghanistan. To Bin Laden's surprise, the quagmire scenario didn't materialize there, but in Iraq.

With Pakistan already on the verge of a breakdown and anti-Americanism there sky-high, the attraction of igniting a chain of events like this must be tremendous for the jihadists. I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't strike back if a major attack occurs; great nations don't leave their dead unanswered, though it should go without saying that it's as vital as ever to be discriminate when using force. Still, if the bomber gets through this time, the consequences are likely to be devastating.

Daniel Benjamin is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served as director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff in 1998-99 and is the co-author ofThe Age of Sacred Terrorand The Next Attack.

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