Al Qaeda's target

Robert Novak

3/22/2004 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak

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.

After last week's stunning Spanish election, a Stratfor report said, "given the use of planted explosives in Madrid rather than suicide bombers, al Qaeda is likely planning to carry on with this tactic, particularly given the tremendous success of the operation in Spain." Britain, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary and Australia were listed as U.S.-aligned nations risking the Spanish punishment. Stratfor added: "A wave of attacks in those countries against soft targets . . . could shift the global balance."

A new al Qaeda strategy twist was hinted last Thursday when the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, which claimed responsibility for the Madrid bombings, offered a cease-fire if Spanish troops actually leave Iraq as promised by Zapatero. That first known possible al Qaeda offer to negotiate with the West pressures weak European governments who might prefer appeasement to the fate of Spain.

However, in Friedman's opinion, al Qaeda's big target will be the United States. He sees an attack earlier (in the summer) rather than later (in the autumn), when it might boost Bush's re-election chances. "The grand prize," said a Stratfor report, "would be triggering an election defeat for Bush -- something that clearly would demonstrate the group's influence over Western powers."

The reaction from the left wing of the Democratic Party was sounded by Howard Dean, clinging to his national platform weeks after his presidential campaign collapsed. Feckless as ever, Dean said Bush "was the one who dragged our troops to Iraq, which apparently has been a factor in the death of 200 Spaniards over the weekend." Kerry, clearly appalled, was succinct in his reaction to Dean: "It's not our position."

Kerry is an experienced politician who has been uncharacteristically reckless in the euphoria of his party victory. He is sailing dangerous waters, supported by rogue dictators and leftist opportunists around the world and risking rejection at home. Climaxing over three centuries of defeat and decline on the world stage, Spaniards bowed to terrorism when they voted. Americans are considerably less likely to make that choice.