WASHINGTON -- George Friedman, who runs the Stratfor private intelligence service, spotted a change in al Qaeda's outlook over the past year. The Islamist terrorist organization, which previously treated George W. Bush as largely irrelevant to its global designs, now has zeroed in on the president. Combining that change with the terrorist triumph in Spain points to an ominous trend in the war on terrorism -- and in the U.S. presidential election.
Failure of the Arab "street" to rise in response to the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq has led to questions in the Arab world about al Qaeda's relevance. The coordinated attack on Madrid commuter trains showed al Qaeda still can create havoc. However, the global significance is the electoral defeat of Spain's conservative party. Headed for victory against the weak socialist opposition, the popular regime was voted out after the terrorist attack because it sent troops to Iraq.
Al Qaeda's regeneration points to the risk of suffering Spain's fate for any government joining forces with President Bush. But Friedman believes the ultimate target is Bush himself, predicting an attempted use of terror to defeat him in November. And that intent puts Sen. John Kerry in an uncomfortable posture.
Kerry's claim that unnamed foreign leaders told him they hoped for Bush's defeat is regarded in Democratic circles as the senator's first major blunder as prospective nominee. He cannot say who these leaders are, but the Bush-Cheney campaign has pointed to two overseas Kerry boosters that the senator did not have in mind: Kim Jong Il, North Korea's communist dictator, and Jose Luis Zapatero, Spain's socialist prime minister-elect.
Kim's propaganda machine lately has taken to boosting Kerry and playing the American's speeches on state radio, but that was no surprise to Japanese contacts who weeks ago were told of "Dear Leader's" preference. Zapatero stunned Spanish Foreign Ministry professionals Wednesday by noting with approval that "the Americans will do it (change governments as Spain did) if things continue as they are in Kerry's favor." The foreigner whose approbation Kerry surely disdains is Osama bin Laden, but counter-terrorism experts say the U.S. election has become an al Qaeda priority.