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Al-Qaeda Leaders Root for McCain

Guest Robert Parry

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Guest Robert Parry

Gloating over the U.S. economic crisis, al-Qaeda strategists are telling each other that a John McCain victory is crucial if the slide of their American enemies is to continue and possibly accelerate.


With McCain struggling in the polls, some al-Qaeda operatives even are discussing the possibility of a new terrorist attack timed before the Nov. 4 election to rally the American people to McCain’s candidacy.


“Al-Qaeda will have to support McCain in the coming election,” declared one commentary on a password-protected site, al-Hesbah, which has been linked to the terrorist organization.


The commentary argued that a last-minute terrorist strike could galvanize American voters behind McCain’s hard-line positions and bring about a McCain administration that would follow the “failing march” of George W. Bush. [Washington Post, Oct. 22, 2008]


This al-Qaeda logic is something that U.S. intelligence agencies have long understood, that Bush’s tough-guy strategies often have played into al-Qaeda’s bloody hands by exacerbating anti-Americanism in the Islamic world.


For instance, CIA analysts recognized that al-Qaeda’s “October Surprise” for Campaign 2004 – a videotape of Osama bin Laden denouncing Bush that was released on Oct. 29, the Friday before the election – had the predictable effect of driving American voters to Bush.


“Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President,” said deputy CIA director John McLaughlin in opening a meeting to review secret “strategic analysis” after the videotape had dominated the day’s news, according to Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, which draws heavily from CIA insiders.


Suskind wrote that CIA analysts had spent years “parsing each expressed word of the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, Zawahiri. What they’d learned over nearly a decade is that bin Laden speaks only for strategic reasons. … Today’s conclusion: bin Laden’s message was clearly designed to assist the President’s reelection.”


Jami Miscik, CIA deputy associate director for intelligence, expressed the consensus view that bin Laden recognized how Bush’s heavy-handed policies – such as the Guantanamo prison camp, the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal and the war in Iraq – were serving al-Qaeda’s strategic goals for recruiting a new generation of jihadists.


“Certainly,” Miscik said, “he would want Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years.”


As their internal assessment sank in, the CIA analysts were troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. “An ocean of hard truths before them – such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected – remained untouched,” Suskind wrote.


Spinning bin Laden


However, in the outside world, Bush’s supporters accepted bin Laden’s videotape at face value, calling it proof the terrorist leader feared Bush and favored John Kerry.


In a pro-Bush book entitled Strategery: How George W. Bush Is Defeating Terrorists, Outwitting Democrats and Confounding the Mainstream Media, right-wing journalist Bill Sammon devoted several pages to bin Laden’s videotape, portraying it as an attempt by the terrorist leader to persuade Americans to vote for Kerry.


“Bin Laden stopped short of overtly endorsing Kerry,” Sammon wrote, “but the terrorist offered a polemic against reelecting Bush.”


Sammon and other right-wing pundits didn’t weigh the obvious possibility that the crafty bin Laden might have understood that his “endorsement” of Kerry would achieve the opposite effect with the American people.


Bush himself recognized that political impact. “I thought it was going to help,” Bush said in a post-election interview with Sammon about bin Laden’s videotape. “I thought it would help remind people that if bin Laden doesn’t want Bush to be the President, something must be right with Bush.”


In Strategery, Sammon also quotes Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman as agreeing that bin Laden’s videotape helped Bush. “It reminded people of the stakes,” Mehlman said. “It reinforced an issue on which Bush had a big lead over Kerry.”


But bin Laden, a student of American politics, surely understood that, too.


There always has been this logical flaw in Bush’s insistence that the American people must “listen” to what al-Qaeda says in its public pronouncements, like taking note that al-Qaeda supposedly has called “Iraq the central front in the war on terror.”


While it may make sense to give some credence to internal communications between al-Qaeda operatives – if one judges that the words reflect the organization’s real strategies – it can be a huge mistake to believe al-Qaeda’s public declarations.


Steeped in clandestine activities, bin Laden and his followers understand the value of disinformation, something that CIA analysts also appreciate.


That’s why in 2004, the CIA analysts concluded that bin Laden’s denunciation of Bush was something of a Brer Rabbit ploy, telling your adversary to do the opposite of what you really want done. “Don’t throw me in the briar patch,” Brer Rabbit said, when that was exactly where he wanted to go.


So, just days before Election 2004, bin Laden acted as if he feared a Bush second term when that appears to have been what he privately desired.


‘Prolonging the War’


Similarly, Bush’s insistence that the United States must stay in Iraq – because al-Qaeda says it wants to drive American troops out – falls victim to the same Brer Rabbit question: What if bin Laden really wants to keep the United States bogged down in Iraq, so al-Qaeda can rebuild its operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan?


Indeed, the possibility of such deception is why U.S. intelligence analysts give greater weight to al-Qaeda’s internal communications, such as a December 2005 captured letter from one of bin Laden’s deputies, “Atiyah,” to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.


In the letter, Atiyah counseled Zarqawi to tamp down his indiscriminate violence so as to avoid alienating Sunni tribal chieftains. Atiyah also said a drawn-out war in Iraq that keeps U.S. forces tied down would advance al-Qaeda’s strategic goals.


“Prolonging the war is in our interest,” Atiyah wrote. [To view this excerpt in a translation published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, click here. To read the entire letter, click here. ]


The logic of Atiyah’s advice is now apparent. Not only did Sunni chieftains – offended by Zarqawi’s brutality – agree to take U.S. payments in turning against al-Qaeda in 2006, but the continued concentration of U.S. military resources in Iraq has bought time for al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies to rebuild operations inside Pakistan.


(Zarqawi, however, largely ignored Atiyah's advice and was killed by U.S. forces in June 2006 after an Iraqi informant tipped them off on his whereabouts.)


Meanwhile, with two open-ended wars and other draining costs from the “war on terror,” the Bush administration has driven the federal budget deep into the red, weakening the nation’s ability to invest in domestic needs, from repairing the infrastructure to investing in a modern, energy-efficient economy.


In messages to each other on radical Islamic Web sites, al-Qaeda and other extremists boast about their success in luring the United States into this strategic trap that has “exhausted its resources and bankrupted its economy,” according to the Washington Post’s review of these communications.


The commentaries argue that McCain – as a stalwart supporter of Bush’s war policies – is al-Qaeda’s preferred candidate who deserves a boost that could come from a last-minute terrorist strike inside the United States.


“It will push the Americans deliberately to vote for McCain so that he takes revenge for them against al-Qaeda,” according to a posting attributed to longtime contributor Muhammad Haafid. “Al-Qaeda then will succeed in exhausting America.”


Though these Web postings appear intended for internal discussions – and thus may reflect al-Qaeda’s true opinions – the publicly expressed views of these extremists must always be taken with a grain of salt.


However, in this case, the logic of al-Qaeda wanting a new U.S. President who will continue the occupation of Iraq indefinitely makes sense. It fits with other private al-Qaeda communications, like the Atiyah letter, and with the judgment of CIA analysts who recognize the counterproductive nature of Bush’s “war on terror.”


The more immediate question, however, may be whether al-Qaeda has the capacity to mount some terrorist attack that would transform the U.S. presidential race in its waning days – and give John McCain enough fresh momentum to win.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com.

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