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?

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Osama Bin Laden in a video released days before the 2004 presidential election 

According to the "prediction market" of Rasmussen polls, Barack Obama has an 87 percent chance of winning the presidential election. That's a pretty high number, but if there were a prediction market in which people who've worked in counterterrorism would bet on the likelihood that we'll soon be hearing from Osama Bin Laden, the number would almost certainly be even higher.

A surprise could be of the proverbial October variety, or it could come sometime after the election—perhaps within the six months that Joe Biden said would produce a major test of a President Obama. The record clearly shows that jihadists see the run-up to an election and the months just afterward as an opportune time to act.

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Everyone remembers the Bin Laden video that was released days before the 2004 presidential election and the Madrid train-station bombings that occurred 72 hours before Spain's national elections in March of that year. When the conservative government of José María Aznar mistakenly attributed the attacks to Basque separatists, the public punished his party, which was felt to be pretending that its unpopular support for the war in Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks. The socialists, led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, had been trailing in the polls, but after the government's blunder, they thumped the conservatives by a five-point margin.

Those are only the best-known jihadist interventions. Alongside them should be added the first bombing of the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993, a little more than a month after Bill Clinton took office, and the attack on the USS Cole on Oct. 12, 2000, three weeks before that year's Bush-Gore matchup. Last year, radicals attempted multiple car bombings in London and Glasgow, Scotland, three days after Gordon Brown's June 27 installation as Britain's prime minister. And let's not forget the murder of Benazir Bhutto while she was campaigning in Pakistan or the September 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, which preceded the Australian elections by a month.

What makes elections and transitions so attractive to terrorists? After the October 2004 Bin Laden video was released, I wrote here about jihadists' need to leave their fingerprints on big events. These are the seam moments, the points of inflection in history, and the terrorists want to demonstrate that they are central players in determining outcomes. They especially want to show their Muslim audience that they are having a powerful impact on the world stage and are the global actors they claim to be. Do they try to tilt events to help preferred candidates or parties? There isn't much evidence to support that—and the terrorists seem to have some regard for the law of unintended consequences, so I don't think they believe they can act with sufficient precision to ensure, for example, a victory for McCain or Obama. (The outcome of the 2004 Spanish election was a freak event; no one could have predicted that Aznar's government would have botched its reaction to the bombings.)

That said, jihadist ideology does suggest that even though they despise all U.S. leaders, they know which leader would be better for their cause. There is a thick vein of Leninist thinking running through radical Islamism—Sayyid Qutb explicitly advocated the creation of a revolutionary vanguard of true believers. Another inheritance from Lenin was the notion that a hard-line enemy was better for mobilizing supporters than one who played down animus.

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