So, I’ve been hearing occasional murmurs from the press about what Al-Qaeda may do now that the election is over. There seems to be a narrative trying to form that terrorists like to strike in the first year of a presidency (the World Trade Center bombings in 1993 and 2001) but I have to admit I don’t think that argument is particularly strong. Bin Laden is not some Islamic Punxsutawney Phil who’s only allowed to come out one day a year (or eight years). For some reason news organizations (and the terrorism ‘experts’ that populate them) love to claim that terrorists are obsessed with the significance of dates.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about where this puts Al-Qaeda (and by that I mean the organization directly controled by bin Laden, not groups or individuals that are inspired by him and have no contact with him) in terms of their intentions.
Assuming (and this may be a big assumption) that Al-Qaeda retains the capability to launch a ‘spectacular’ attack within the U.S. or a prolonged series of smaller attacks, would they consider it in their best interest to go ahead with the attacks or hang back?
Now, I make those assumptions because really those are the only ones that (I think) have the potential to really make a mark upon the American psyche and be a ‘game changer’ (yeech..I’ve got to use a better cliche). Let’s face it, al-Qaeda can blow up all the embassies they want in Africa or Whereizitistan and people aren’t going to care too much. The world, after all, is a dangerous place filled with all sorts of crazies and as long as they’re blowing stuff up our there they aren’t doing it here. Of course a nuclear device would be a big deal but I’m going to assume they don’t have the capability to create large scale destruction via CBRN means.
So, let’s look at how the world may look from their point of view:
- The U.S. is still engaged in two costly wars. It will be attempting to disentangle itself from one of those in the next couple of years and has committed itself to the other at least for the next four.
- The U.S. economy is in dire peril (remember, the AQ conventional wisdom is that their actions in Afghanistan directly led to the fall of the USSR via economic disruption)
- They have a relatively secure position in Pakistan
- The U.S. was deeply divided politically.
Thrown into that mix were the recent elections. Now, I believe that one reason that AQ hasn’t been particularly gung ho to attack the U.S. has been that it would reunify the country (people tend to stick together when attacked by an outside force). If it looks like a new administration is making headway in healing some of those political wounds and reducing rancor to ‘normal’ levels then AQ may see it as advantageous to up the fear level by launching an attack.
If, we can extricate ourselves from Iraq without the country falling apart we’ll be on the road to having a system which will enable us to stay engaged in Afghanistan and elsewhere on a long term basis. That clearly isn’t in the interests of AQ who would want to return to the days of 2006 when virtually all of the news around the world was bad.
My best guess then would be that there’s no particular rush on the part of AQ. Better to wait a bit to see how things work themselves out. If things fall apart (the economy continues in its death spiral, Iran-U.S. tensions continue to mount, Obama is unable to consolidate his authority, etc.) than AQ need not risk any of its precious resources other than making sure they stay on the radar screen enough to attract new recruits.
If things start to look better though (the economy stabilizes, Iraq begins to look like a real country and we get our political house in order) then it will become imperitive for AQ to show it isn’t irrelevent. Of course, that may also be a ‘make or break’ attempt for AQ. If they hold out to only do major attacks (as they seem to) then a spectacular failure might just crush the movement. If so, hopefully, we’ll be ready.