The Electoral-Cycles Theory

Does al-Qaida systematically attack immediately before or after a change in leaders?

This is the seventh part in a series of eight exploring why the United States suffered no follow-up terror attacks after 9/11. To read the series introduction, click here.

President Bush liked to say that al-Qaida hated America because it was a democracy. That’s true in the limited sense that Osama Bin Laden shows little interest in emulating that form of government. But if al-Qaida’s purpose in attacking the United States is to provoke a massive domestic uprising to force a United States retreat from the Muslim world, as some believe (see “The Burden-of-Success Theory“), then Bin Laden ought to love that America is a democracy. Democracies, after all, are much more sensitive to shifts in public opinion than dictatorships. Indeed, elections may provide an especially handy occasion for al-Qaida to terrorize the public into effecting a radical change in government policy. Does al-Qaida time its actions accordingly?

Daniel Benjamin, former director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council in the Clinton White House (reportedly set to take the counterterrorism portfolio in the Obama State Department); Richard Clarke, the NSC’s former national coordinator for security and counterterrorism in the Clinton and then the Bush White House; and Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, all believe that it does. Writing in Slate two weeks before the presidential election, Benjamin argued that elections are “seam moments, the points of inflection in history, and the terrorists want to demonstrate that they are central players in determining outcomes.” Consider:

  • Less than one month before the 2000 presidential election, al-Qaida carried out a suicide bombing of the USS Cole, then docked in the Yemeni port of Aden.

  • Three days before Spain’s March 2004 parliamentary elections, a local al-Qaida affiliate carried out train bombings in Madrid, creating a last-minute surge for the Socialist Party. The new government withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq.

  • Four days before 2004’s U.S. presidential election, a videotape surfaced of Bin Laden telling Americans, “[Our] motivations are still there for what happened to be repeated.” Democrat John Kerry has said he believes it cost him the election.

  • Three months before 2006’s U.S. midterm congressional elections, British authorities shut down a planned coordinated attack by al-Qaida on jumbo jets flying to the United States. This conspiracy, which prompted the “liquids and gels” ban, was in a late stage. The GOP lost control of the House and Senate.

  • At the end of 2007, Pakistani extremists believed to be working with al-Qaida assassinated Benazir Bhutto, who had recently returned from exile to seek a third term as prime minister. Her husband became president as a result.

Did al-Qaida achieve its desired results? To believe that, you’d have to believe that al-Qaida preferred more dovish government in Spain but more hawkish government in the United States (except in Congress, which it preferred to be more dovish) and that for some reason it preferred Asif Ali Zardari to his wife. That wouldn’t make much sense. It’s possible al-Qaida harbored incorrect notions about how these various events would play out. Al-Qaida is typically credited with preferring hawkish foes to dovish ones because that throws the “clash of civilizations” into greater relief, but who really knows? Does al-Qaida favor certain candidates or parties? Benjamin concedes there’s little evidence to support that notion. “If al-Qaeda attacks occur when they are most convenient for the attackers,”  argues Benjamin H. Friedman, a terrorism expert at the Cato Institute,

they will be randomly distributed throughout the year, meaning that a certain [proportion], which will head toward one-twelfth as years go by, will fall in the month before elections. Citing a few attacks that occured around election time is evidence of nothing.

Another difficulty is that the big one, 9/11, occurred nearly one year after a major U.S. election. The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which bore links to al-Qaida, occurred three months after a major U.S. election. Al-Qaida’s 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya occurred nearly two years after a presidential election and three months before a midterm congressional election in which the biggest issue was the fallout from President Clinton’s affair with a White House intern. Election-cycle theorists finesse most of this by arguing that the danger period lasts through the first year of a new presidency. That’s because a chief executive still learning the ropes is likelier to blunder either in defending against an attack or responding to it. Both proved particularly true of President Bush.

Might President Obama be similarly vulnerable? His secretary of state thought so during the primary campaign. “I don’t think it was by accident that Al-Qaeda decided to test [Britain’s] new prime minister,” candidate Hillary Clinton said in January 2008, referring to an al-Qaida-linked car bombing at Glasgow airport mere days after Gordon Brown moved into 10 Downing Street. “They watch our elections as closely as we do.” During the general campaign, Vice President Biden made a similar point. “Mark my words,” he said. “It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama.” Biden didn’t say the test would come from Osama Bin Laden, but that’s certainly possible. I give this theory the penultimate bead because if Biden is right, then we have entered a period of maximum danger. 

Next: “The Time-Space Theory,” in which we’ll examine whether al-Qaida has been biding its time in a manner predicted by rational-choice theory.