July 22, 2004 | The Washington Times

The Next Strike: Will Al Qaida Attack the Conventions

One of the heaviest questions in the realm of homeland security these days centers on the possibility that al Qaeda cells are targeting the American political process, starting with the upcoming political conventions. This threat is accompanied with the deployment of tens of thousands of law enforcement personnel from Boston to Manhattan.

Many within counterterrorism circles point to the Madrid attacks in the spring as a perfect example as to how al Qaeda subverted the Spanish election process. Indeed, the al Qaeda strikes derailed the Spanish commitment to Iraq, and as a ripple effect, weakened the coalition of the willing.

Does al Qaeda really think in political terms or just ideological ones? Do they study the political system inside each of their enemy states and examine the tools before they strike, or is this a stretch of the experts' imaginations?

I believe that the jihadists have a sophisticated view of their enemies; hence, they do aim at the internal political processes of the systems they fight against. Political conventions are targets, but not the only ones, not at all times, and only when the terrorists' objective is locked in their crosshairs.

Historically, jihadists draw from examples where infidels have been pit against other infidels. To bring them down is the will of Allah, they postulate. How to do it, and in what circumstances, is the job of the jihadi strategic planners. From Sudan to Afghanistan, jihadi tactics have reaked havoc among their opponents' unity. Even the “Ghazwa” (raids) of New York and Washington were aimed at provoking chaos within the United States. Al Qaeda's masters have a thorough knowledge of American political institutions and of U.S. political culture. Jihadi intellectuals have lived here, visited this country and are constantly keeping themselves abreast of our nation's state of mind.

Osama bin Laden wanted to create a deep division in the United States as a result of his mass killing of 3,000 men and women in less than 30 minutes in 2001. He may have miscalculated on the timing, but here we are three years after the attacks, and, indeed, the American political establishment is split on the war on terror and on Iraq. The Madrid attacks reaffirmed this winning formula in al Qaeda's mind. By striking well, with good timing, you've got the infidels reacting as you wish, think these jihadists.

So how will that play in an American election year? Where to strike, how to strike and what to expect. The answers are purely speculative and totally theoretical, but based on decades of analysis, here are a few scenarios:

1) Striking the Democratic convention in Boston: Jihadist expectations would be that the American public would give an overwhelming victory to the anti-Bush campaign out of compassion for the victims.

2) Attempting an assassination against Democratic candidates would, in the mind of al Qaeda produce the same result, and hence, rush the incumbent out of the Oval Office.

3) Striking the Republican Convention and attempting to eliminate the incumbent administration's leadership would create such a hole — close to election day — that it would be impossible to advance another serious Republican ticket. By jihadi imagination, fear would push voters to chose the less “adventurous” candidates.

4) Other horrific enterprises would be to strike at other sites while one or the other convention is taking place, so that the political message during the event would be affected.

These “Hollywood” scenarios can only be realistic with groups such al Qaeda and its radical Salafi allies around the world. If they can, they will do it. The question now is who will they use in this case?

As I have argued for more than a year, and per the latest FBI warning, al Qaeda was and is looking in the direction of native U.S. citizens, with little or no accent, and logically, the product of the organization's mechanism of religious conversion. The bin Laden network is looking hard for individuals who have infiltrated the very instruments of U.S. security. To acquire public targets such as conventions or politicians, or even major sites, the ideal context would be to find someone on “the inside,” or at least to profit from the information that could be provided by this person.

Is the U.S. political mechanism a target for al Qaeda? Yes it is. Will they be able to pull off such a drama? They will certainly try. The answer remains in the realm of how widespread is the collective consciousness of the public and how educated the citizens are about the threat. It is the people of this nation that remain the strategic wall that can fend off the terrorists.

Walid Phares is a professor of Mideast Studies and an Iraq/Terrorism analyst



Al Qaeda