Ballots in the Bullseye

At roughly 0630 GMT, the 11th of March, Al
Qaeda operatives coordinated the sophisticated bombings of four trains
in Madrid packed with commuters, most of whom were on their way to
work. With detached emotion, the terrorists dialed the numbers of ten
cell phones attached to ten bombs. The ringing of those phones were the
detonators. The carnage that ensued left nearly 200 dead and more than
1,000 injured, some seriously. One of the arrested bombers has since
been charged with complicity in the 9/11 attacks in the US.

The horrendous attack was a carefully
calculated act of terrorism engineered to influence the outcome of the
democratic process in one of Europe’s largest nations—and it succeeded.
The bombs ripped through the fabric of an electorate that was expected
in three days to overwhelmingly re-elect incumbent Prime Minister José
Maria Aznar, a staunch supporter of the Bush administration’s war in

With Al Qaeda undoubtedly flush with victory,
American counterterrorist operatives, intelligence analysts, and other
officials are worried that the terror group has trained its crosshairs
on the United States between now and the presidential election in
November. On May 26, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director
Robert Mueller, held a press conference in which they warned of
possible attacks, told Americans to be vigilant, and released the names
and photographs of seven suspected terrorists.

"Credible intelligence, from multiple
sources, indicates that Al Qaeda plans to attempt an attack on the
United States in the next few months," said Ashcroft. "This disturbing
intelligence indicates Al Qaeda’s specific intention to hit the United
States hard." He added that an Al Qaeda spokesman had stated that
preparations for the strike “are 90 percent complete.”

“We are very vigilant and concerned about the
potential for Al Qaeda to try to carry out an attack on the homeland
here before the end of the year, possibly to coincide with the 2004
presidential election,” said John Brennan, director of the CIA-run
Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC).

An audio tape made by a senior Saudi Al Qaeda
leader warned that the group would indeed “fiercely” attack US
interests this year. Muslims were warned to avoid American civilian and
military sites.

Keeping mum

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is
certainly bracing for a catastrophic attack like the one narrowly
averted in Jordan in April. There, security forces disrupted an Al
Qaeda plot to attack the government’s intelligence headquarters and the
US embassy with chemical weapons that “would have decapitated the
government,” according to Jordan’s King Abdullah. Jordanian government
sources said Al Qaeda intended to detonate “highly-destructive”
chemical bombs that could have killed as many as 80,000, and injured
another 160,000. “It was a major, major operation,” King Abdullah said.

Classified intercepts of Al Qaeda communications described to HSToday
are rife with “chatter” indicating the group is eager to demonstrate it
can cause widespread chaos in presidential election year America.

Especially fearful of an attack in New York
City during the Republican National Convention (RNC) this summer at
Madison Square Garden—where officials estimate 50,000 people will be in
attendance—local, state and federal authorities have begun to prepare
for a nuclear, biological and chemical assault.

The New York City Police Department is even
training under a citywide plan to rush antibiotics and vaccines to
every resident following an attack with a biological or chemical
weapon. As grisly as it sounds, New York City police are jointly
training with the medical examiner’s office to deal with thousands of
contaminated bodies clogging the streets.

“Al Qaeda certainly has an interest in
targeting the Bush administration” for many reasons, “and the election
is a very good and symbolic time to do so,” Mark Shaheen told HSToday.
Shaheen is vice president of the Civitas Group, a Washington-based
consulting company, and former senior Middle East advisor in the State
Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism.

No official with either political convention
would discuss the threat of terrorism during this year’s election
cycle. DNC Convention CEO Rod O’Connor said in a prepared statement
only that the Annapolis Group, a bipartisan group of public policy and
national security experts originally formed in 1989 to deal with
nuclear proliferation, “will provide valuable insight to the entire
security team on the unique security considerations surrounding a
national party convention.” A spokesman for the Annapolis Group told HSToday its members are not discussing their work with any news organization.

Attempts to elicit comments from the Federal Election Commission were also unsuccessful. The official HSToday
was referred to, DeForest Soaries, chairman of the Election Assistance
Commission, twice failed to make himself available for a promised

The FBI role

The FBI, on the other hand, has been quite
vocal. In addition to the May 26 press conference, Mueller told
reporters April 21, the day after DHS Secretary Tom Ridge announced a
task force to coordinate enhanced security at the national conventions,
that “we in the FBI … are putting together plans to increase the
protection and the security of the United States all the way through to
the fall.” The task force brings together DHS and nine other federal
agencies with hundreds of state and local law enforcement departments
to coordinate security. Both party conventions have been designated
“National Special Security” events.

“Disturbing” intelligence piling up on
counterterrorist analysts’ desks is being funneled into a special
intelligence initiative inside the TTIC to deal with election-related
threats, according to intelligence sources who spoke to HSToday.
They said the TTIC has been designated by the Director of Central
Intelligence to lead an integrated intelligence community analytic
effort focused specifically on terrorist threats between now and the

TTIC Director John Brennan said “if in fact
some folks believe that they can affect elections with terrorism, this
is something that we need to be very vigilant about … The timing of an
attack is usually a result of their ability to identify security
weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and opportunities.”

Mueller told reporters “in the wake of what
happened in Madrid, we have to be concerned about the possibility of
terrorists attempting to influence elections in the United States by
committing a terrorist act. Quite clearly, there will be substantial
preparations for each of the conventions.”

Bruce Hoffman, a Rand Corp. terrorism expert,
has said Al Qaeda’s goal would not necessarily be to influence the US
election, but rather to express its power by disrupting it, including
attacking polling sites. “In recent months, Al Qaeda has become more
opportunistic than ever, choreographing operations to symbolic events,”
he observed.

“We soon enter a season that is rich with
symbolic opportunities for the terrorists to try to shake our will,”
Ridge said in announcing the task force. “With so many symbolic
gatherings in the next few months, we must be aggressive … We will
increase our vigilance, accelerate the reduction of our vulnerabilities
and enhance our response capabilities so that we are poised and ready.”

Three days earlier, National Security Advisor
Condoleezza Rice said on “FOX News Sunday” that the opportunity for
terrorists to strike during the run-up to the US presidential election
may be an opportunity that’s just “too good to pass up for them. …

“I think we have to take seriously that they
might try during the cycle leading up to the election to do something,”
Rice cautioned, noting “we are actively looking at that possibility,
actively trying to see—to make certain that we are responding

Ridge confirmed that intelligence is causing
officials to believe a terror attack is possible. “We know we’re the
number one target; we know we’ve got quite a few high-visibility,
high-profile events which are potentially targets of opportunity for
terrorists,” he said.

In early April, US intelligence services
became aware of known and suspected Al Qaeda members discussing a major
attack—possibly in the US—and that operatives were “in place” to carry
it out. Theintelligence was shared with certain local law enforcement
agencies in a rare secure conference call between them, the FBI and DHS.

Less than a month earlier, the FBI’s
Houston-based office of the Joint Terrorism Task Force sent an advisory
to Texas oil companies warning them intelligence indicated that Al
Qaeda may be planning to attack pipelines and refineries near the time
of the presidential election.

Tipping the balance

It’s not just in-the-know government
officials though who believe a spectacular terrorist strike is looming.
As early as Nov. 23, 2003, David Rothkopf, founder and chairman of the
research company Intellibridge, former deputy undersecretary of
commerce for international trade policy and managing director of
Kissinger Associates, pointed out that more than 200 senior business
and government executives—many of whom are specialists in security and
terrorism related issues—who attended a CNBC-sponsored meeting he
moderated, said “it was likely the United States would see a major
terrorist strike before the end of 2004.” His essay, “Terrorist Logic:
Disrupt the 2004 Election” in The Washington Post,
added that “A similar number predicted that the assault would be
greater than those of 9/11 and might well involve weapons of mass

US counterterrorism officials told HSToday
that intelligence indicates an intent on the part of Al Qaeda—which
undoubtedly has been buoyed by its unseating of Spain’s pro-US prime
minister—to launch attacks that will have a political impact. The
intelligence suggests Al Qaeda may actually try to exploit the US
election in an effort to erode support for the war in Iraq, the
officials said.

“Al Qaeda would love to do something close to
the election,” former CIA terrorism chief Vince Cannistraro has said.
“Al Qaeda thinks strategically. Are they considering what effect this
would have on our political system? Yes.”

Clearly, Al Qaeda had a unique opportunity to
use terrorism to influence voters in Spain; the electorate was already
bloated with disapproval of Prime Minister Aznar’s support of the
United States. The bombings blew open the floodgates holding back this
simmering discontent, and for the first time in contemporary European
history, terrorists succeeded in influencing a major democratic

Terrorism experts believe Al Qaeda
strategically timed the attack to pull at the strings of the unraveling
public opinion over Spain’s involvement in the war in Iraq. Al Qaeda
had warned in October that Spain would be punished for supporting the
US-led invasion, which included 1,300 Spanish soldiers. And in
December, a 50-page book, Iraq al-Jihad, appeared on militant Islamic
Web sites that specifically advocated attacking Spanish targets to
increase public hostility against the war as a means to topple Aznar.
The book explicitly suggested terrorists “exploit the coming elections
in Spain.” “We think the Spanish government could not afford more than
two or three attacks … after which it would have to withdraw as a
result of popular pressures,” the book said. That is exactly what

Al Qaeda “changed, effectively, a government,” Shaheen told HSToday.
“They learned that by murdering people they can change political
policies … they have to be delighted and encouraged—how could they not

“Where societies and regions are
fundamentally unstable, and where political outcomes are delicately
poised, terrorism will have a particular ability to affect strategic
futures,” wrote Ian O. Lesser, vice president and director of studies
of the Pacific Council and former senior political scientist
specializing in strategic studies and international policy at RAND, in
the 1999 RAND report, Countering the New Terrorism.

But Lesser has also written that “leading
terrorism analysts tend to agree on the general ineffectiveness of
terrorism as a weapon against well-established democracies.” In the
case of Spain, though, Al Qaeda did effectively use terrorism to
influence the election of a well-established democracy.

“The attacks were calculated to tip the
marginal balance—the mood of the electorate,” a senior US
counterterrorist analyst told HSToday
on background. Al Qaeda succeeded in using terrorism to achieve the
very definition of terrorism: Violence or the threat of violence
calculated to create an atmosphere of fear or alarm generally in
support of political or systemic objectives.

Gustavo de Arustegui, a Spanish Popular Party
member of parliament and foreign-policy spokesman for the government,
said “I think the terrorist attacks were politically planned. We have
transformed terrorists into political actors with this.”

“Clearly, they thought very hard about the
way in which they might achieve a massive political impact in Spain,”
said Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism
and Political Violence at Scotland’s St. Andrew’s University. “I think
what it shows is that the very sophisticated and ruthless terrorists of
the ‘new terrorism’ variety—Al Qaeda—do think carefully about having a
maximum strategic impact.”

Al Qaeda must believe it has “achieved
something absolutely extraordinary…This is the one occasion I can
remember where there is specific cause and effect: here’s an election,
and we can affect this election. And I think this will give them a lot
of succor for the future as they plan more attacks,” David Claridge,
managing director of London-based Janusian Security Risk Management,
told Reuters.

Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at City University of New York, agrees. He told USA Today
“the implications of this are fairly staggering. This is the first time
that a terrorist act has influenced a democratic election. This is a
gigantic, loud wakeup call” to the prospect of another horrific attack
on US soil. “There’s no one they’d like to have out of office more than
George W. Bush.”

Would it happen the same way here?

With Al Qaeda bolstered by its success in
Spain, intelligence officials and terrorism experts are worried the
terror group will try to replicate its success in America, although
other experts question whether US voters would react in the same way
voters did in Spain. “It’s very hard to tell how a significant attack
here would play,” Shaheen agreed.

Indeed, analysts are divided on how US voters
would react to a pre-election attack, saying it would depend on the
timing and scale of the attack and on how Bush and Sen. John Kerry
(D-Mass.) are perceived by voters at the time of an attack.
Representatives of both political parties said the national mood could
shift in either direction.

Still, “history suggests that striking during
major elections is an effective terrorist tool … Elections heighten the
stakes because a blow during an election is a blow against a society’s
political foundations,” Rothkopf wrote, pointingout that “in country
after country, elections have held an irresistible lure for terrorists.
In Israel, Colombia, Russia, Sri Lanka, Spain, Turkey and elsewhere,
recent elections have been disrupted by strikes designed to commandeer
the spotlight, to derail democracy, or to discredit or perhaps inflame
a political leader.”

“If bin Laden has the capability to launch an
attack on America this year, he will,” gloomily assessed John Arquilla,
associate professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate
School and senior consultant to RAND. “If, by the November election,
the Al Qaeda mastermind [Osama bin Laden] is able to mount another
large terrorist attack inside the United States, he will show that Iraq
has been a fatal distraction from the more pressing business of ripping
apart his network. And George Bush will lose his job.”

It has to be “an irresistible temptation to
know that, from his remote cave, [bin Laden] could possibly exert a
decisive influence on the political succession in the United States,”
Arquilla said.

Can it change the outcome?

Terrorism experts HSToday
interviewed said they have doubts whether a catastrophic attack would
sway significant numbers of people to vote against Bush. Some thought
that a pre-election attack would be counterproductive.

So, why would Al Qaeda attack? To show it is
capable of striking at an important American symbol like the election
of a President, Shaheen told HSToday.

The Pacific Council’s Ian Lesser agreed. He
told HSToday he doesn’t see a pre-election attack on the US for the
same motives that were behind the attacks on Spain. Rather he sees an
attack against “purely symbolic” targets.

“I think there is a reason to be concerned
about terrorism as we move toward the election, or even after, but I
don’t see it in quite the same way as I see the bombings in Madrid,”
Lesser said. “In other words, I would doubt that a group would try to
influence the outcome of the elections here because I think under the
current circumstances that kind of an event here would probably only
reinforce the position of the administration in power. So, it wouldn’t
be for reasons of influencing the election, per se, in my view, it
would be more to do with simply having the attention of the world.”

Continuing, Lesser said “it’s very difficult
to interpret what they would see as a favorable outcome of an American
election; they presumably wouldn’t like any outcome here… . There’s no
administration that I can conceive of that wouldn’t take a tough line
on terrorism, so I don’t think any outcome plays to the advantage of
groups that have anti-American agendas. I think in some sense there may
be groups with a distorted sense of history that might view a Bush
administration that acts in an even more vigorous way against terrorism
somehow giving history a shove in their direction. I mean, I can
imagine that kind of logic, but it’s a perverse logic.”

Similarly, David Rothkopf wrote in his Washington Post
op-ed that terrorists might actually see a pre-election attack as a
win-win. “They can lash out against their perceived enemies and empower
the hardliners, who in turn empower them as terrorists. How? Hardliners
strike back more broadly, making it easier for terrorists to attempt to
justify their causes and methods.”

Still, most authorities HSToday
spoke to share Lesser’s thinking. “I think it’s simply a question of
attention and symbolism that makes the election period more dangerous—I
think that’s the concern … pure symbolism … And what better target is
there at this time than the US election?” Lesser mused. “Spain was a
much different situation than in America … I think any terrorist would
be smart enough to know that an election attack here would not
necessarily result in an outcome that is to their advantage. But they
would want to attack because of the symbology of the election … I can
see that happening very clearly.”

“From the terrorist perspective, attacking in
an election year makes perfect sense. The objective of terrorism is not
so much to strike a blow against a particular physical target as it is
to strike a psychological blow against a target audience. That’s why
terrorists often hit symbolic targets … Elections heighten the stakes
because a blow during an election is a blow against a society’s
political foundations,” wrote Rothkopf.

“Given what is known from the strikes that
continue to be mounted in other parts of the world, it seems likely
that Al Qaeda and its affiliates still command the resources and
manpower necessary for conducting a major attack in the United States,”
Arquilla wrote, adding, “such a strike would require lengthy planning
and preparation, but bin Laden is enough of a forward thinker to have
laid the groundwork for such a terrorist demonstration many months, or
even a few years, ago.”

Heightened alert

Because of Al Qaeda’s penchant for long-term
planning and the possibility of more sleeper cells in the United
States, counterterrorist operatives will be carefully watching the
conventions, which, because they have been designated “National
Security” events, will be overseen by the US Secret Service. All major
public events between now and November will be carefully monitored.

Local police and federal units will be
sniffing the air with unobtrusive equipment designed to detect nuclear,
biological and chemical weapons. Stand-alone detection devices will be
strategically positioned, as will similar devices in a number of
undisclosed metropolitan and urban areas across the nation. Nuclear
Emergency Search Teams (NEST) will be on standby to locate and defuse
nuclear bombs. Rapid bio-chemical response teams will be at the ready
to deal with release of biological pathogens and chemical agents.

Rarely has an election been held that had so much at stake—and so much at risk. HST

Terror, politics and precedent

Terrorists’ use of mass murder to influence
the politics and policies of target nations isn’t without precedent. In
Colombia, former President Andres Pastrana conceded to the demands of
the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and in 1998 gave the
terrorist group a safe haven the size of Switzerland as an enticement
to negotiate peace. But after years of talks, nothing has been achieved.

Elsewhere, the Irish Republican Army and
Palestinian terrorist organizations have succeeded in compelling policy
changes and gaining a seat at political tables in the UK and Israel.

American President Jimmy Carter lost his 1980
re-election bid because of the public’s frustration with his
administration’s inability to secure the release of American diplomats
taken hostage a year earlier by Islamic Iranian militants. The hostage
crisis dominated the election.

And while it wasn’t a terrorist state per se,
North Vietnam was successful in toppling President Lyndon Johnson as a
result of its deadly 1968 Tet Offensive deep into what was believed to
be securely US-held territory. It didn’t matter that the Viet Cong were
permanently crippled by US counterattacks—the offensive caused Johnson
to give up his re-election bid.

Changing Europe’s balance of power

The bombings in Spain unmistakably created “a
new balance of power in Europe,” with “Spain forming a club of three
with France and Germany,” Dominique Moisi, adviser to the French
Institute for International Relations, observed to the Bloomberg news
service. And this “constitutes a further strain between Europe and the
Bush administration.”

Moisi said the Socialist victory in Spain
further isolates British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime
Minister Silvio Berlusconi from the rest of the European Union due to
their support of the United States. Aznar’s successor, Jose Luis
Rodriguez Zapatero, had vowed to bring home Spanish soldiers in Iraq if
elected. Almost immediately upon being sworn in, Zapatero did just
that. He also pledged to make Spain “more European than ever” and to
improve relations with France and Germany strained by Aznar’s
pro-American position.

Within weeks of the bombings, bin Laden
revealed his face for the first time since January to not only take
credit for the new political reality in Spain, but to issue an
ultimatum to the whole of Europe where anti-American sentiment has
steadily grown since the US invasion of Iraq. His message indicates he
sees an exploitable vulnerability in much of Europe’s dissent against
the United States. But he also offered “a truce with the European
countries that do not attack Muslim countries” and that do not
“interfere in their affairs.”

Bin Laden said “the truce will begin when the
last soldier leaves our countries,” and that “whoever wants
reconciliation … stop spilling our blood so we can stop spilling your
blood.” The terror mastermind said his network would make a “commitment
to stopping operations against every country that commits itself to not
attacking Muslims or interfering in their affairs.”

Further, he told Spain its political upheaval
is “your commodity that was returned to you … Injustice is inflicted on
us and on you by your politicians, who send your sons, although you are
opposed to this, to our countries to kill and get killed.”

“Clearly, he’s monitoring the news and is
taking advantage” of the growing debate in Europe over the
US-instigated war in Iraq, said an anonymous US counterterrorism
official quoted in The Washington Post. American counterterrorism
officials believe the true target of the latest bin Laden threat is the
European public. He made specific references to demonstrations in
Europe as “positive interaction,” and that “opinion polls … indicate
that most European peoples want peace.”

Almost as if on cue, less than a day after
Spain’s newly elected prime minister announced the recall of Spanish
troops from Iraq, Shiite imam Moqtada al-Sadr called on his
followers—some of whom are suspected of being Al Qaeda adherents—to
stop attacks on Spanish troops. Sadr ordered his followers to “ensure
the security of Spanish troops until their departure as long as these
forces do not perpetrate aggressions against the Iraqi people.” He
urged … Other countries which assign troops to the coalition in Iraq to
follow the example of Spain and to withdraw their forces to save the
lives of their soldiers.”

Some terrorism analysts believe the insurgency that has boiled up in
Iraq led by al-Sadr is directly fomented by Al Qaeda as part of a
broader strategy to erode US support of Bush as the election draws
near. “If this is true, and if the insurgents manage to kill more and
more young men and women, then a major terrorist attack prior to the
election would be a very logical component of this kind of strategy,” a
senior counterterrorism analyst told HSToday.

David Kay’s view

David Kay, senior research fellow at the
Potomac Institute for PolicyStudies in Arlington, Va., and the former
head of the CIA’s Iraqi Survey Group hunting weapons of mass
destruction, told HSToday “that a major presidential election
with everything that goes around it—conventions, appearances of
candidates—are all things that … are likely attractors” for terrorists.
“But then you add to it Iraq and what’s going on there, and the
likelihood that something will happen is elevated.”

Disturbingly, Kay said he finds it “very
likely” that terrorists might once again also attempt a spectacular
attack using aircraft. “I think that an attack that used an airplane
would have almost the exact same value” as an attack with a biological,
chemical, or nuclear weapon,” because, “if they were successful in
using airlines again, they would gain tremendous credit and visibility.
And the reverse would also occur, that is the Bush administration,”
because it has focused on improving airline security, “would suffer a
huge loss because here’s one where you couldn’t say, ‘we never thought
they would use airplanes.’ So, if they were successful again [in using
airliners], it would clearly have an impact on the election.”

But, Kay also noted, “we are in a period of
growing likelihood that they’ll try to use [WMDs] because of the
attention value—they’re after mass casualties and a growing need to
show their potency, their lethality, and just general competence.”

Kay also cautioned that because “most
terrorists, but not all, are smart enough to know that you go where you
can get your target, as opposed to necessarily attacking the most
obvious place … they would likely strike at where America is most

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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