After two major terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Yemen — along with a new U.S. push at insurgent strongholds along the Afghan border — U.S. intelligence is worried about a massive "October surprise" attack geared to sway the U.S. elections.
America's military and intelligence agencies intercepted a series of messages from al-Qaida's leadership last month that seemed designed to warn local cells to prepare for imminent attacks. One such operation may have been the attack that brought down a Marriott Hotel in Islamabad where the newly inaugurated president of Pakistan was scheduled to dine.
The attacks would likely be at American bases or allies abroad, since most experts think the group’s ability to penetrate the U.S. homeland has deteriorated since 9-11. Still, al-Qaida is aggressively recruiting both North African and European operatives who may have a greater ability to enter the United States and blend in before launching an attack, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
“We are not aware of any specific, credible al-Qaida plot to attack the U.S. homeland, but we do receive a steady stream of threat reporting from sources of varying creditability,” said Ted Gistaro, U.S. national intelligence officer (NIO) for transnational threats. “As the election nears, we expect to see an uptick in such threat reporting — of varying credibility — regarding possible attacks.“
Other intelligence experts agreed, adding that a pre-election attack would probably occur overseas.
“There is an expectation that al-Qaida will try to influence the November elections by attempting attacks globally," said Roger Cressey, a former Bush and Clinton White House counterterrorism official.
An official familiar with the new intelligence told the The New York Sun that the intercepted messages amounted to “Be on notice. We may call upon you soon.” It was sent out through many channels, ranging from couriers to encrypted electronic communications to other means. There were no specifics as to where or when.
Though some might scoff at the quadrennial worry of the October surprise in U.S. elections, al-Qaida has attacked other nations on the eve of major elections. On March 11, 2004, the group carried out a series of bombings on Madrid commuter trains. Three days later, the party aligned with the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq was defeated.
But al-Qaida’s ultimate goal is to launch another major attack on the U.S. homeland — preferably with nuclear or biological weapons. Whether that hurts the Republican or Democrats seems beside the point, according to one expert.
Last year, Osama bin Laden labeled the entire American system a failure, Gistaro told a panel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in August. He called on Americans to convert to Islam, and not cast a vote one way or the other in elections.
“He [bin Laden] claimed that there is no difference between Democratic or Republican candidates winning presidential or congressional elections so long as ‘big corporations’ support candidates,” Gistaro said.
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