How did we get through the election without an al-Qaida attack?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Nov. 5 2008 7:00 AM

The Surprising Absence of an October Surprise

How did we get through the election without an al-Qaida attack?

Osama Bin Laden. Click image to expand.
Osama Bin Laden

Terrorism watchers repeatedly warned that al-Qaida might strike in the days leading up to the election, but—thankfully—Nov. 4 has come and gone without incident. Al-Qaida's logic for striking at election time seems straightforward: An attack would dominate media coverage at a time when the entire world is focused on the United States. In a tight race, a terrorist attack might even tip the balance, enabling Osama Bin Laden to claim that American politics dances to his tune.

Democratic strategists in particular feared that an al-Qaida attack might play to Sen. John McCain's perceived national-security advantage and that Bin Laden would want to bolster McCain in the belief that he was more likely to entangle the United States militarily in the Muslim world. Spain's March 2004 general election was the precedent Democrats feared. The bloody attacks on commuter trains (and the Spanish government's bungled response) led to a surprise opposition victory, which in turn led to a Socialist government that withdrew troops from Iraq, as al-Qaida had sought.

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But with the clarity of hindsight, we know that al-Qaida did not strike the U.S. homeland, nor did we hear of a serious attempt to do so during the months before the vote. (Before we relax too much, I should note that several experts warned that the post-election transition period is also a time of higher risk.) This is not because Osama Bin Laden lacks interest in an attack. As he knows, attacks on U.S. soil would be popular among his key constituents and would help him recruit and raise money. In addition, he genuinely believes that the United States is evil and deserves punishment.

So why didn't he strike? Here are several plausible explanations:

Bin Laden has other fish to fry. Although Americans understandably focus on the threat al-Qaida poses to the United States, from Bin Laden's point of view, we are only one concern among many—even if we are still a favorite target of his rhetoric. Al-Qaida's primary day-to-day focus is currently on events in Pakistan, where the organization is based, and Afghanistan, where it is helping to support the massive insurgency that is battling the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai. As if this were not enough, al-Qaida has ambitions in Iraq, the Levant, the Maghreb, and Central Asia, as well as against Israel. These theaters are important to al-Qaida leaders, and many in the organization would prioritize them over attacks in the United States. Even if the United States remains the primary focus of al-Qaida's core leaders, expanding operations in several of these theaters provides the organization with opportunities to strike at America outside the U.S. homeland. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan allow it to showcase one of its preferred methods: support for insurgents.

Al-Qaida's operational capacity is limited. Al-Qaida has re-established a base in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and its operational capacity is growing when compared with the organization's dark days in 2002. Al-Qaida can still plot attacks from Pakistan, and its propaganda is prodigious. But in many respects, Pakistan is a tougher haven than the Taliban's Afghanistan. Unlike Afghanistan in the pre-9/11 era, al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan spend much of their time battling and intimidating government forces, hiding from U.S. Predator strikes, or otherwise focusing on their daily survival.

U.S. government efforts at home are paying off. The Department of Homeland Security is much-maligned, but at least it is trying to stop jihadists from entering the United States. And trying counts. The FBI has made numerous arrests on terrorism charges (often, we find out later, on quite thin grounds), suggesting that it is aggressive in going after potential jihadist threats at home.

Aggressive intelligence efforts abroad keep us safer at home. More important than strictly domestic efforts, U.S. intelligence is working with its counterparts around the world to disrupt al-Qaida, making it harder for the organization to plan and mount sustained operations. Remember, preparations for the 9/11 attack occurred not only in the United States and Afghanistan but also in Germany, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and other countries. Such a global plot would be far more difficult to orchestrate today. Senior leaders would be more likely to be killed, and junior operatives would be more likely to be arrested.

Al-Qaida wants to outdo 9/11. Bin Laden does not think small, and he consistently seeks terrorism "spectaculars" against the United States (for example, the plot to bomb multiple trans-Atlantic flights from the United Kingdom, which was foiled in August 2006). A spectacular attack might inflict mass casualties like 9/11, or it might involve fewer casualties but more publicity, such as an operation involving chemical weapons. This ambition may have dissuaded Bin Laden from making a low-level strike before the election. He may care more about a successful spectacular than he does about striking on or by a particular date.

There is no "al-Qaida of the United States." Even if the U.S. government were not more aggressive at home and abroad, al-Qaida's ability to operate in the United States is limited. In contrast to Britain, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and many other countries, the United States does not have a significant jihadist network within its borders. Many of those arrested in the United States on terrorism charges were incompetent dreamers who had little or no ties to the al-Qaida core, in contrast to their counterparts in Europe and the Arab world. Infiltrators that Bin Laden sends to the United States would find it hard to obtain local assistance as they prepare for an attack. The few radicalized American Muslims might still attack in al-Qaida's name, but the likelihood is far lower than in many other countries, and the skill level of the attackers would probably be limited, making a 9/11-scale operation particularly unlikely.

Although these explanations suggest we can relax a little in the lead-up to future elections, New Year's Day, the Super Bowl, and other events that attract concentrated media attention, it also means that much of our success depends on aggressive U.S. efforts at home and abroad. Most troubling, one explanation—operational capacity—is turning in al-Qaida's favor as the organization develops a haven in Pakistan, and another—Bin Laden's preference for spectaculars—suggests the next attack may be even bloodier or scarier. So, as we congratulate ourselves on making it past another milestone, we should also recognize the need for continued vigilance.

Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the research director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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