IN THE NEWS
One of the most stupid questions from the last few years has to be, "Which candidate does al Qaeda want to win the presidency in 2004?" It's stupid at two levels, obvious to anyone who has any significant knowledge of terrorists in general, and al Qaeda in particular.
Like any dedicated ideologue—dedicated enough to find justification for the killing of innocents to make a political point—al Qaeda doesn't really care who wins. In their worldview, both candidates are the products of a corrupt, materialistic, imperialistic system, so the particulars of their views on medical insurance or farm subsidies don't matter. Echoing Marxist-Leninists of a bygone era, the candidates and their positions are mere ephiphenomena. Therefore, al Qaeda hated Clinton and Bush with equal venom, as they will Kerry if he wins election.
That's the first reason why the often-repeated question about al Qaeda's preferences is pretty moronic. The other reason is a bit more subtle, but it's also a lot worse, since it shows exactly how lazy, incompetent, or manipulative the person asking the question must be. The American press—and to an equal degree, most of the American public, and many American political leaders—act as though al Qaeda's intentions are an enigma. The terrorists operate in a shadowy world; therefore, their political program must be a mystery.
Except, of course, when al Qaeda tells us what it wants to do—which it does all the time, through web sites, e-mails, pamphlets, training manuals, and other, highly public statements. Its recorded statements get air time on major networks throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and anywhere else there may be an audience of interested Islamists. The one place they do not get played, however, is here in the United States, because of a misplaced fear of coded messages to sleeper cells in them. If an al Qaeda agent wants to hear the latest faux fatwa from Osama bin Laden's cave, he can get it from any of these sources, plus newspaper and Internet transcriptions. (Therefore, you can stop worrying about al Jazeera being the mouthpiece of al Qaeda. Even if the producers of al Jazeera, who so far have been very cooperative with the US government in sharing the content immediately upon receiving it, were to suppress the bin Laden tapes, the message would appear in dozens of other locations the very same day.) In addition, many of the statements that al Qaeda hoped to keep secret are also available to the public, since the intelligence agencies who intercepted them have routinely declassified them.
Terrorists of all breeds, from the Marxist Red Brigades to the Islamists like al Qaeda, not only want to be heard, but need to be understood. They carefully construct their rationales for the most abhorrent violence possible, because they know that it's abhorrent. Violence is their way of elbowing onto the stage of world politics; the pronouncements are the script they want heard once they have an audience.
What, then, does al Qaeda want? You can find some of the answers in Voices of Terror, one of many collections of primary source documents from terrorists. Here's part of what Ayman al Zawahiri, one of al Qaeda's top leaders, had to say on this topic:
Armies achieve victory only when the infantry take hold of land. Likewise, the mujahid Islamic movement will not triumph against the world coalition unless it possesses a fundamentalist base in the heart of the Islamic world. All the means and plans that we have reviewed for mobilizing the nation will remain up in the air without a tangible gain or benefit unless they lead to the establishment of the state of the caliphate in the heart of the Islamic world…
If the successful operations against Islam's enemies and the severe damage inflicted on them do not serve the ultimate goal of establishing the Muslim nation in the heart of the Islamic world, they will be nothing more than disturbing acts, regardless of their magnitude, that could be absorbed and endured, even if after some time and with some losses.
The establishment of a Muslim state in the heart of the Islamic world is not an easy goal or an objective that is close at hand. But it constitutes the hope of a Muslim nation to reinstate its fallen caliphate and regain its lost glory.
In other words, the name al Qaeda, "the base" in Arabic, has a double meaning. Not only does al Qaeda consider itself to be a kind of mobile caliphate-in-exile, but it is actively seeking a more permanent base of operations under the protection of a friendly Islamist state. Afghanistan was that fixed base for a short time—and, to a limited extent, still is. The Taliban, its original patron in Afghanistan, is still strong in southeastern Afghanistan. The collapse into warlordism helps the Taliban, since it can fall back on its Pashtun base as a predominantly Pashtun movement. It also still survives in northwestern Pakistan, whose border might as well not exist for the Taliban. That's not as secure a base as Kabul was before the US and allied invasion in 2001, but it's something.
More significantly, al Qaeda and its co-religionists and co-terrorists have benefited enormously from the US invasion of Iraq. Not only did the invasion slow down the pursuit of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, giving them a far better chance to survive than if the United States had stayed focused on Afghanistan, but it opened the door to an entire country where al Qaeda could not recruit, organize, and operate before. The Baathists and al Qaeda were enemies, not allies; the existence of any feelers between the two is a fact of life in Middle East politics, but not evidence of any serious relationship. (In case anyone has forgotten, the Saudi royal family was publicly denouncing the Iraq invasion, but there was no love between Riyadh and Baghdad either.) Al Qaeda had no hope, prior to March 19, 2003, of establishing "the base" in Iraq; now it has a real chance of doing so (particularly given how the symbolic significance of Baghdad in Muslim history is likely to motivate al Qaeda and similar groups).
As Iraq continues to fragment, with major regions now too dangerous for the forces of the American and Iraqi governments to operate, Iraqi Islamists are setting up their own miniature versions of the Taliban regime in Iraqi towns and cities. The Iraqi Islamists and al Qaeda enjoy the freedom from interference that the overstretched, under-resourced American effort provides, and American targets of outrage and bullets are conveniently nearby. The sieges of Najaf and Fallujah gave Muqtada al-Sadr and other insurgents the opportunity to illustrate how fallible and vulnerable the Americans can be. For al Qaeda, as a foreign presence waiting to win another ally like the Taliban, this situation is extremely promising, particularly as they play on the long-term anxieties of Iraqis. No matter who wins the US presidential election, every Iraqi knows that the Americans will not be there forever. The same principle applies to Afghanistan, where the locals have fresh memories of the last time the Americans lost interest, pulled out, and left Afghanistan to its fate.
By the time you've reached this paragraph, you can see how meaningless the US presidential election is to al Qaeda. Anyone who asks the question, "Do they like Bush or Kerry in this race?" is betraying an unforgiveable, almost criminal ignorance of the dangerous reality which we face.