Chatterbox has no quarrel with Attorney General John Ashcroft’s assertion, conveyed in a May 26 press conference, that al-Qaida would like to attack the United States sometime “this summer or fall.” Al-Qaida has demonstrated a keen interest in slaughtering Americans, and according to Ashcroft, “credible intelligence from multiple sources indicates that Al Qaida plans to attempt an attack on the United States in the next few months.” This administration may have a poor record interpreting data from its spy agencies, but it would be reckless in the extreme to ignore Ashcroft’s analysis (an ounce of prevention, etc.). Chatterbox further agrees with Ashcroft that the upcoming G-8 Summit in Sea Island, Ga. (June 8-10), Democratic convention in Boston (July 26-29), and Republican convention in New York (Aug. 30-Sept. 2) are all potential targets.
But Chatterbox does have a wee problem with Ashcroft’s not-so-subtle insinuation about what al-Qaida would hope to achieve by attacking the United States “this summer or fall,” by which Ashcroft apparently means “sometime before election day.” Here is what he said:
The Madrid railway bombings were perceived by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida to have advanced their cause. Al Qaida may perceive that a large-scale attack in the United States this summer or fall would lead to similar consequences.
It’s plausible that al-Qaida was pleased (though hardly satisfied) by its apparent influence on the Spanish election three days after the bombings. Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and his Popular Party lost; José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his Socialist Party won; and Zapatero promptly made good on his campaign promise to withdraw Spain’s 1,300 troops from Iraq. Anything that weakens, even symbolically, the coalition effort in Iraq, or smacks of appeasement by America’s allies, is obviously bad for the United States, and anything bad for the United States is clearly good for al-Qaida.
Ashcroft’s supposition is that Bin Laden would like to influence our elections in the same way he influenced Spain’s. What would “similar consequences” mean for the United States? Defeat for the hawkish incumbent at the polls and an Iraq policy gone soft. Ashcroft all but said, “Osama Bin Laden wants you to vote for John Kerry.”
Chatterbox thought Ashcroft would show a greater aptitude for imagining the thought processes of an insane religious fanatic. Back here in the real world, it’s highly doubtful that Bin Laden cares a fig about whether the American infidels elect a Democrat or a Republican as their next president. Although Kerry has been critical of Bush’s Iraq policies, it’s far from clear that Kerry would pull American troops out of Iraq any faster than Bush would. Both men can be counted on to maintain a keen interest in destroying al-Qaida; to paraphrase Ed Harris in the movie Apollo 13, appeasement is not an option. If Bin Laden has paid any attention at all to the Great Satan’s presidential race, he has surely concluded, like George Wallace in 1968, that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the major-party candidates.
But let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that Bin Laden really does want to influence the American election, if only to demonstrate that he can. (If you’re a terrorist, maybe the number of civilians you kill eventually becomes a tedious metric, and you start looking for other ways to measure success.) If Bin Laden were truly interested in American politics, then surely he would know—or someone would tell him—that the overwhelmingly likely political result of an attack against the United States in the months leading up to Election Day would be a landslide victory for Bush. Anyone who’s ever seen an American Western knows that when the Commanche attack, the settlers circle the wagons and take orders from John Wayne. Hell, even Chatterbox would have to consider giving the commander in chief four more years in office, on the theory that you shouldn’t change horses midstream. If Bin Laden wants you to vote for anyone, it’s Bush.
Ashcroft obviously didn’t mean to suggest that. The truth is that Bin Laden doesn’t want to influence Americans. If he did, he’d hire Hill & Knowlton. Bin Laden wants to kill Americans. That’s what Sept. 11 was all about. And that’s why, no matter who gets elected, we will continue to hunt Bin Laden down and, in all likelihood, kill him.
[Update, May 30: Chatterbox has since learned that the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, which claimed credit for the Madrid bombings, actually endorsed Bush for a second term:
A word for the foolish Bush. … [W]e are very keen that you do not lose in the forthcoming elections. … We cannot get anyone who is more foolish than you, who uses force instead of wisdom and diplomacy. Your stupidity and religious extremism is what we want as our people will not awaken from their deep sleep except when there is an enemy. …
Apparently, though, Abu Hafs al-Masri is not taken very seriously in the world of counterterrorism; its claims to be responsible for last year’s power outage in the Northeast, a separate power outage in London, and the Madrid bombings have all been discredited. “The only thing they haven’t claimed credit for recently is the cicada invasion of Washington,” Roger Cressey, former chief of staff of the critical infrastructure protection board at the White House, told NBC News. M.J. Gohel, a terrorism expert for the nonprofit Asia-Pacific Foundation, told NBC that the group doesn’t seem to have “any real field operational capability” and “likes to put out disinformation so that the truth is deeply buried.”
Ironically, one of the few people who places any credence in Abu Hafs al-Masri is Ashcroft, who stated in the May 26 press conference that plans for the next al-Qaida attack in the United States were 90 percent complete, according to “an Al Qaida spokesman.” The source was a statement released in March by Abu Hafs al-Masri. According to the May 30 New York Times, Ashcroft’s warning was largely based on intelligence of a type that has not previously been passed on to the public. That doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t have been passed on now; coloring most news accounts of the press conference is the extreme annoyance by staffers at the new Department of Homeland Defense, the agency that’s supposed to issue public statements on terrorist threats, that Ashcroft grabbed the spotlight. All we can really know for certain about this episode is that it supports the widespread belief that Ashcroft is a bigfoot and that he isn’t very bright.]