Agence France-Presse reports on Tuesday that Pakistani intelligence officials say they have uncovered evidence which shows Al Qaeda was plotting a series of attacks in order to influence the 2004 US presidential elections.
‘The network was looking to strike a major blow ahead of the elections. Al-Qaeda was looking to strike in the United States or its chief allies Great Britain and Pakistan,’ said the official, asking to remain anonymous. ‘The period before the US presidential elections was very critical,’ said the official, who has played a key role in a crackdown against Al-Qaeda in Pakistan over the past month which has netted over 20 suspected operatives.
And Time magazine on Monday quoted a top Homeland Security official as saying that intelligence agencies have "… a number of times picked up information that Al Qaeda wants to attack us before the election, and some of the communications attribute that desire to Osama Bin Laden.
But security experts and political commentators have been split over whom Al Qaeda wants to win the 2004 US presidential elections: US President George Bush or his Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry.
In June CIA officer Michael Scheuer, who writes under the pseudonym "Anonymous," told the British newspaper the Guardian that Al Qaeda couldn’t have a better administration in place in terms of achieving its goals. Mr. Scheuer believes that the president is "taking the US in exactly the direction Bin Laden wants, towards all-out confrontation with Islam under the banner of spreading democracy."
‘I’m very sure they can’t have a better administration for them than the one they have now,’ he said. ‘One way to keep the Republicans in power is to mount an attack that would rally the country around the president.’
Asia Times reporter and commentator Pepe Escobar argued earlier this year that Al Qaeda wants President Bush to remain in office because he has become such a lightning rod for many Muslims that his reelection would help the terror group continue to raise funds and new recruits.
Al Qaeda wants the Iraq occupation to be prolonged, with or without a puppet government: there could not be a better advertisement for rallying Muslims against the arrogance of the West. Al Qaeda’s and the Bush administration’s future are interlocked anyway.
National Public Radio’s All Things Considered (audio) also looks at Al Qaeda’s election threat, and reports it’s not clear which candidate the group wants to see in the White House. Reporter Mary Louise Kelly interviews National Review columnist Michael Ledeen, who believes that Al Qaeda wants a Kerry presidency. Daniel Byman, columnist for Slate and a senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, tells Ms. Kelly he thinks Al Qaeda favors a renewed Bush presidency, for similar reasons to those mentioned above.
But Mr. Byman says he isn’t convinced a pre-election attack is in the works at all. In fact, he wrote last week in Slate, the US is much safer these days than at any time. National Security, he writes, is in fact better than we might think it is.
Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, who is also a senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, wrote in late July that the idea that Al Qaeda wants to influence the elections is probably not true because it works against Al Qaeda’s best interests. He argues that Al Qaeda is more interested in affecting US foreign policy, which is unlikely to change dramatically if Mr. Kerry is elected, because "US policy is thus essential in affecting the extent to which Muslims resent the United States more than they hate Al Qaeda."
Meanwhile The New York Times reports Tuesday that while the capture of computer expert Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan has resulted in a treasure trove of information about Al Qaeda, it also shows that the organization is much stronger and more resilient than many believed.
For the past several months, the president has claimed that much of Al Qaeda’s leadership has been killed or captured; the new evidence suggests that the organization is regenerating and bringing in new blood.
The Sunday Independent of South Africa reported Sunday on how for all the attention paid to the border region of Pakistan by US and local troops, and despite the recent captures of Al Qaeda members, it seems that "Osama bin Laden has pulled off one of the greatest disappearing acts in history." The paper also quotes members of the Pakistani opposition parties who allege that Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf doesn’t really want to capture the Al Qaeda leader.
"There is a view among some that they don’t really want to pick OBL [Osama bin Laden] up, because if they do, then Musharraf would lose his utility to the US," says Sherry Rehman, an opposition member of parliament.
Pakistan government officials say the are not even focusing on Bin Laden, who they claim is not able to operate effectively. AFP reports that they are more interested in two other Al Qaeda members that they believe are still in their country.
"Now we are more focussed in eliminating the group and using all our resources to track down the two real masterminds, Libyan Abu Fajr and the Egyptian called Hamza. The information that we have gathered now does not point to OBL’s involvement in current attack planning of the group."
The Daily Times of Pakistan also reports on how smaller terror groups that have grown from a common belief in Al Qaeda’s militant ideology are acting like "terror franchises" and making the war on terror much harder to fight.
"It’s like McDonald’s giving out franchises," said Dia’a Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on militant groups. "All they have to do is follow the company’s manual. They don’t consult with headquarters every time they want to produce a meal."
Finally, retired US Army Colonel Robert Killebrew writes in the Washington Post that as serious a threat as Al Qaeda poses in 2004, that threat could grow even more dangerous if Al Qaeda follow the trajectory of similar terrorist groups in the past and becomes a political movement in the Middle East.
To carry out short-term plans for regional terrorism, Al-Qaeda has an almost limitless pool of manpower. But its emerging leaders will soon realize – if they have not already – that their higher objectives cannot be achieved by hit-and-run attacks, no matter how devastating. For ambitions this vast, they need to transmute terror into political legitimacy in the same way that Fatah transformed itself into the quasigovernment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), leading to the sight of a gun-toting Yasser Arafat at the podium of the United Nations. Hezbollah is acquiring political legitimacy in Syrian-dominated Lebanon, as is Hamas in Palestine and Gaza. "Legitimacy" doesn’t matter to Al-Qaeda today, but it must have it tomorrow if it wants to stay in the game.