How does al-Qaeda really view the upcoming elections? Nobody really knows, and jihadis themselves likely disagree. But since it's a topic of much discussion these days, often based on pure speculation rather than any evidence, I thought it worthwhile writing about a remarkable posting on the Tajdeed forum on October 28 under the title "Al-Qaeda's Scenario During the Coming Weeks" (URL available on request - the long analysis was originally posted an Iraqi forum, and is easily found). This is a posting in Arabic on an internet forum, whose
author has little reason to believe that it will be picked up by the
English language media - and so should not be dismissed as an attempt to
manipulate American public opinion. On the other hand, it only reflects the views of one anonymous author ("Nowami", who for the sake of convenience will be assigned a male gender), and should not be considered an official al-Qaeda document - a disclaimer which should be made about most of the items quoted off of these internet forums, but which I think bears repeating.
"Al-Qaeda's Scenario During the Coming Weeks" argues that the coming two weeks represent a pivotal moment in al-Qaeda's long-term jihad strategy. Since 9/11 and the Afghan war, al-Qaeda has been pursuing a stage in its long-term strategy which the author calles 'direct combat'. Keeping American in Iraq has been the key to its strategy. America has suffered great losses through this stage, both economic and its people, and many of its allies have already abandoned the fight. The next two weeks (giving a clue as to when it was written) will reveal whether al-Qaeda's leadership believes that this stage of direct combat has served its purpose of weakening America sufficiently. If it does, according to the author, al-Qaeda will remain silent, allowing the Democrats to win the Congressional elections and initiating a new phase of the conflict. If it does not (as the author hopes), it will intervene through a bin Laden tape or an attack on an American ally in order to ensure a Republican victory which will keep the Americans trapped in Iraq longer in order to weaken it more before moving to the next stage.
The author's premise is that al-Qaeda has consistently intervened in American domestic politics where necessary in order to ensure that America stays in Iraq. Whenever America seems like it might withdraw, he writes, Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri pops up to remind Americans that if they do then al-Qaeda will triumph in their wake - thus goading them to remain. This predictably silences those reasonable voices calling for withdrawal, who are even accused of national treason, and strengthens the voices of stupidity. The author offers several detailed examples, including the 2004 election in which bin Laden ensured that Bush would win and continue his policies in Iraq, and a Zawahiri video last year calling on Bush to flee Iraq and admit defeat which Bush used to silence his critics. Each time al-Qaeda's leaders speak, he argues, Bush and his party are strengthened, and commit even more firmly to remaining in Iraq... while the mujahideen laugh from the depth of their souls.
But now al-Qaeda has a problem. Anyone who follows the American press or the statements of US officials can sense the spirit of defeat. Even Bush admitted that Iraq has become like Vietnam. America is searching for any way to flee from Iraq, from secret negotiations with the insurgency to attempts to change the Iraqi government to the Mecca conference to the Baker commission. In the upcoming American elections, polls show the Democratic party poised to win and Iraq to be a major issue for voters. If the Democrats win, they will have to live up to their campaign promises and increase the pressure to withdraw. Even if the Republicans win, the pressure from the American street towards withdrawal is strong on them as well.
This poses a problem for al-Qaeda, since keeping America in Iraq has been so central to its strategy. If al-Qaeda believes that this stage has accomplished its goals, then the author thinks that it will permit the withdrawal and then reap its gains. But the author says that in his personal opinion, the time for the next stage has not yet arrived, and it would be better to keep the stage of America's being stuck in Iraq extended as long as possible. Even if America has suffered many losses, he argues, it remains very powerful and would only take a couple of years to recover from Iraq and return to the field of play. The author fears that al-Qaeda's leaders will fall prey to the temptation to move on to the next stage too early, and not intervene to keep the Republicans in power and the Americans in Iraq.
Therefore, while the author does not know what al-Qaeda wil do, he thinks that al-Qaeda should seek to delay the American withdrawal as long as possible by working to ensure that Bush and the Republican Party win the coming elections. How? A televised al-Qaeda video should do the trick, whether from Zahawiri or (more likely) Bin Laden - perhaps announcing the creation of an al-Qaeda state in Afghanistan or Iraq, perhaps issuing a direct threat against America. A strike against important oil facilities in the Gulf might also do it, or against an important US ally like Britain. Either should ensure a Republican victory, he writes, and secure al-Qaeda's main strategic objective of keeping America implanted in the combat zone in Iraq.
The author doesn't know which way al-Qaeda will go, and having delivered his analysis is left sitting back and waiting to see. Total silence from al-Qaeda prior to the election should be read as a signal that its leadership believes that the time has come to move to the next phase. A tape or attack by al-Qaeda prior to the election means that its leaders are not yet satisfied with the American blood and treasure lost in Iraq and want more time before moving to the next stage. And that's where "Al-Qaeda's Scenario" leaves it.
To be totally clear, I am not saying that Americans should vote for Democrats because an anonymous poster on a jihadi forum says that al-Qaeda wants the Republicans to win. That would be as stupid as saying that Americans should vote for Republicans because al-Qaeda wants Democrats to win. I don't actually think that al-Qaeda should get a vote at all, either in our elections or in what we do about Iraq, and don't want partisans on either side to leap on this as either "proof that al-Qaeda votes Republican" or "proof that al-Qaeda recites liberal talking points". But how al-Qaeda thinks about American politics and about Iraq is an important question, which analysts need to be able to understand on its own terms. "Al-Qaeda's Scenario" offers one very partial but fascinating insight into how al-Qaeda's internet cadres are actually talking among themselves about Iraq and the elections which hopefully can advance that understanding.