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What is Al Qaeda up to? An alternative view

In the wake of the massacre in Madrid, and the subsequent election result, it has become the conventional wisdom that the election went according to al-Qaeda’s design. Robert Clayton Dean expressed this view concisely here at Samizdata a few days ago:

Spanish voters reacted to the election eve bombings by doing exactly what the bombers undoubtedly wanted: elect a Socialist who will take a soft line in the war on terror.

However, there is in fact little direct evidence that such was the goal of al-Qaeda. It does sound rather logical, of course, but there may well be other factors at work. And it is not clear that logic is a useful tool in analysing the methods and aims of this enemy.

What follows is a purely speculative guess to make the case that the political goal of al-Qaeda was in fact the direct opposite- their goal may well have been to ensure the re-election of the Popular Party.

al-Qaeda as an organisation has been going through a rough couple of years, and it has not achieved much in terms of murder and mayhem in the West. If we consider al-Qaeda as a company, it would aim to market itself as the organisation of choice to the Islamic Fundamentalist section of the Islamic marketplace. However to gather revenue and recruits, it needs to demonstrate that it is still alive and kicking after having its Afghan strongholds destroyed by the US and it’s allies in the wake of the September 11 attack. No Saudi princeling is going to waste his oil money on a spent force. And no disaffected Muslim intellectual with a personality disorder is going to join an outfit that doesn’t actually create murder and mayhem.

Joining al-Qaeda requires a willingness to risk facing very hostile treatment from enraged law enforcement operatives and prison warders; and indeed, other prisoners.

Of course, al-Qaeda has been creating murder and mayhem, but over the last couple of years, that has taken place in the less developed and Muslim parts of the world. This does not really impress people in its target market very much – to get noticed, al-Qaeda needs to be seen to be active in the West.

One other point to take note of was that no terrorist blew himself up in the Madrid attack. This could indicate that the Moroccan suspected of doing this deed lacked the zeal of the September 11 maniacs, but it could also reflect an instruction from al-Qaeda bosses to avoid martyrdom operations, due to a shortage of operatives.

It takes more then that though for al-Qaeda to thrive as an organization. It’s goal in life is to take the battle up to the West and bring about some Muslim utopia. However, it needs the West to give battle, as it were. al-Qaeda wants the West to fight back, so it can present the West as a ‘threat’ to the Islamic world. This allows it to play on the paranoia evident in many Muslim societies, again with the aim of gaining funding and recruits.

To get the West to fight back, it needs to stir things up. The massacre in Madrid was expected to cause support to rally to the government – that was the view of bloggers in the West, as evidenced by the surprise at the victory of the Socialist Party. The enormous rally that Spanish people flocked to in their millions, surely, pointed that way; to the anger of the people, and a desire to strike back. However they voted for the Socialists.

Let us not give too much credit to the enemy; they scorn democracy, so let us not assume that they understand it. If bloggers who study politics all the time didn’t see this coming (and I certainly did not) then why should we credit al-Qaeda with such skills. No, I think that they calculated that the bombing would help the Popular Party win the election, and intensify the war on Terror.

Why would they do this? By presenting forceful countermeasures against terrorism as a ‘threat’ to Islam, they can gather for themselves more funding and recruits. If this doesn’t make sense to you, then consider this-

al-Qaeda think they can win the war on Terror.

That is not to say that al-Qaeda will not make gains from the Spanish elections. I think the election results will generate more election time terror (and some key players have elections in 2004, Australia, the US, India, Indonesia, all of which will have repercussions on the war.)

But I do not think al-Qaeda foresaw this.

I think their goal in the Madrid Massacre was, first, to kill as many people as possible, second, to promote the al-Qaeda organisation to Saudi fundraisers, and to assist in recruiting, and then only to influence the Spanish elections. And I think they wanted to see the Popular Party re-elected.

By electing the Socialists, the Spanish people have chosen a government that will take a soft line on terrorists. We ca not assume that is what the enemy wanted. They might have wanted to intensify the war; the political aim of the Madrid Massacre might have been to provoke the Spanish government into direct military action.

34 comments to What is Al Qaeda up to? An alternative view

  • yoy

    Aznar would have (in all probability) won anyway.

    Any military response would be led by the US at a time of their choosing.
    Spain would have little or no influence.

    However having said that…
    the date they chose seems to be very important and symbolic.

  • Brock

    Very interesting. Good analysis.

    It’s a good reminder to many that al’Quaeda cannot survive without continued donations from petro-States. The Madrid mission probably did have a “recruting & fundraising” tilt to it.

    I don’t think that al’Quaeda is very happy with the outcome of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan went though. I think they would prefer a Spanish (and American, of cource) gov’t that plays “defense.” As crazy as the al’Quaeda are, I think they’d prefer to bomb us in our homes, not fight it out in the hills of Kabul. That way lies failure; even they know that.

    I will grant that it’s possible that they had idea what effect the bomb would have on the elections. I doubt they have the cultural and mental tools to even make an educated guess. I think they just liked the bang and the thought of dead Westerners. I imagine that their reaction to the election’s result, if they had one at all, was one of slightly confused ambivualnce. “Does not compute.”

  • Brock

    I forgot the word “no” in the last paragraph.

    “I will grant that they had NO idea what effect the bomb ….”

    Should have previewed, damn it.

  • Amelia

    If this is true than AQ has deviated significantly from Osama’s prior thinking as reflected in his speeches where he claimed the West was weak and would not react. “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” Remember that bit of bull?

  • lucklucky

    Your thinking fails because polls constantly pointed towards a PP victory and most probably with a majority in last 6 months (most probably around when attack planning started) . So why the need to attack?

    They needed a victory in a coallition country, not only in Turkey, Casablanca or Bali. because they have been without big victories.

  • Aral Simbon

    Scott –

    Excellent post. I have been banging on here that there is a danger in crediting al-Qaeda with a victory in Spain, especially when it wasn’t. You have now given a number of other reasons why the bombings were not a victory. As you say, the bombers may well be scratching their heads over the Socialist victory. They may go “Yeah, whatever man…” and claim it as a victory but we must forcefully explain to the world why it was not. Of course, if your analysis is correct then we may expect bombings on America soil prior to the US election. This should not, however, stop us responding in the strongest possible military terms. We must give back to them more than they expect.

  • Nate

    Woe be to the terrorists that attempt bombing on polling days in the US. Despite the handwringing over the WoT, so far it has been handled with much restraint. Attempting to intimidate the American population by election-day violence would only enrage them more. Not a good idea.

    Some of my acquaintances are quite disturbed by the course of the WoT. I have to keep reminding them that the last event of this signifigance ended with the near total destruction of two great nations and the use of two nuclear weapons. Again…IMHO, so far, the WoT has been rather tempered in execution.

    My 2 cents (US currency).

  • R C Dean

    al-Qaeda wants the West to fight back, so it can present the West as a ‘threat’ to the Islamic world.

    I disagree. The West fighting back has been catastrophic for AQ. AQ did much better when the West was more supine, more inclined to toothless multilateralism, as in the days before 9/11.

    he paranoids that are AQ’s audience don’t need to see anything much from the West in terms of activity to be paranoid about the West (otherwise they wouldn’t be paranoid, would they?).

    No, what AQ’s fundraising and recruiting pitch lacked these past few years was a victory, and it can now claim one in the Spanish election results. Whether it tipped the election or not (and I tend to think it did, by motivating the Socialist anti-American base to come out and vote), it can plausibly claim to have done so. People are much more likely to fund and join an organization that can claim some impact on events, and the Spanish election is the only effective AQ op since 9/11. If Aznar’s successor had won, the bombing wouldn’t be of any use to AQ. This result, though, is very useful to AQ on a number of fronts.

    AQ is quite pleased with the election in Spain, make no mistake. Nothing would serve AQ’s ends better than to replicate this election in England and elsewhere.

  • It seems Scott wasn’t the only one thinking along these lines. From a UPI article posted to a mailing list:

    “No massive attacks will be launched against the U.S. until the next presidential elections which we hope will be won by (President George)
    Bush,” said the statement signed by Abu Fahs al-Masri Brigades.

    “Our (Islamic) nation needs the idiocy and religious fanaticism of an enemy like that (Bush) to wake up,” said the statement, dated March 15.

  • Marcus Lindroos

    > It’s a good reminder to many that al’Quaeda cannot
    > survive without continued donations from
    > petro-States. The Madrid mission probably did have
    > a “recruting & fundraising” tilt to it.

    What information do you base this claim on? There are several loosely affiliated regional groups under the Islamist umbrella, and they receive money from various sources and have local objectives. For example, it seems (according to THE ECONOMIST) the Istanbul bombing was mainly carried out by domestic terrorists.

    These groups earn some money through organized crime and they also raise money from their own ethnic group; some organizations (e.g. Hamas in Palestine) actually perform charity work at home besides killing infidels. And how much money do you need to carry out a Madrid or Oklahoma City-type attrocity anyway?

    I am also mystified by naive claims that these groups necessarily must be “demoralized” because of Afghanistan & Iraq. I would assume bin Laden actually was extremely happy to see the United States divert 150,000 soldiers and hundreds of billions of dollars from fighting terrorism, instead choosing to remove a rival Arab socialist dictator from power:-) Of course, the idea of infidels in Iraq is anathema to him but it is a good P.R. tool for anti-Americans everywhere. And anyway, losing political and military battles has never deterred terrorism, on the contrary it is the primary root case. How many times has Israel whipped the Arabs’ sorry asses since 1949? When was the last time an Arab nation conquered a Western country? Has Ariel Sharon’s “toughness” against Palestinian terrorism brought peace to the occupied territories? For that matter, has the advent of Basque economic & cultural autonomy stopped ETA from killing people?

    You are in for a rude surprise if you think Islamic terrorism will disappear within the next two or three decades … Whether we choose to nuke Baghdad & Teheran, try to impose “democratic imperialism” or instead focus on “appeasement” may in fact have a surprisingly small impact on things. As long as terrorism can be sustained by small groups of determined people, it will continue to be factor even when their former supporters have rejected the ideology.


  • lucklucky

    It seems Scott wasn’t the only one thinking along these lines. From a UPI article posted to a mailing list:

    Ken thats just nonsense.

    I saw that in a Reuters piece signed by some strange journalist called Opheera McDoom …

    Why to attack a Bush ally if Bush is so good for them ?

    If that was true they must have attacked the “smart” governements of France and Germany.

  • Frank P


    Thought provoking … but nobody that I’ve read and heard seems to have factored in to the guesswork, about the motivation of the terrorists who perpetrated the Madrid bombings, the following paragraph from the CIA World Factbook (last updated in December 2003).

    “Morocco protests Spain’s control over the coastal enclaves of Ceuta, Melilla, and Penon de Velez de la Gomera, the islands of Penon de Alhucemas and Islas Chafarinas, and surrounding waters; Morocco also rejected Spain’s unilateral designation of a median line from the Canary Islands in 2002 to set limits to undersea resource exploration and refugee interdiction;”

    Can anyone with knowledge of the domestic Spanish-Morocco domestic squabbles elucidate? The leftist anti-war/anti-Bush & Friends British media from day one of the Madrid massacre had a vested interest in it being AQ inspired. Even the normally objective media (who he? – ed) immediately plumped for AQ. The intelligence pundits also went for AQ because that’s what they are currently buffed up on. Why have the Moroccan disputes been ignored, when in fact it was mainly Moroccans involved? Another possibility that seems to have remained unmooted, is that the Moroccans may have been stitched up by the Basques. It does seem very convenient that the cell phone found in the satchell that failed to explode had all but the photos, fingerprints and birth certificates details available on it. I’m surprised there wasn’t a signed confession on the text messages archive. I think a bit of brainstorming is still valid before anybody finally tethers their chariot to the AQ bandwagon. There is oooiiillll in them thar CIA words – ‘undersea resource exploration.’

  • Frank P

    Sorry, in the above post I used the word ‘Basques’ when I should have used the acronym ETA – obviously only a few basques are terrorists. Musn’t put all my basques in one exit!

  • David E

    But what kind of direct military action could Spain have possibly undertaken. Did the attackers really think Spain (or maybe the EU?) has enough of a military to sustain an attack in Pakistan or one of the Gulf States? That doesn’t seem real likely to me, and if they really belived that, then they have no grasp on reality, and we should stop trying to find logic in their actions.

  • lucklucky

    Frank i already posted about it but not here.Also
    about 1-2 years ago Marocco troops occupied a “no men Island” called Peregil under Spanish sovereignty. Spanish answered with the Navy and Marines and take the island back without a shot. Under USA diplomatic effort it was agreed to go back to the innitial situation: Spanish Island without any soul there…but a cold peace started…

  • Scott, good to see you over here, mate.

    I think I buy your explanation that the fallout – i.e. the noisy withdrawal of Spain from the coalition of the Willing – may have been unforeseen to Al Qaida.

    AQ may have been seeking to punish Spain for the Tragedy of Andalusia; and also for standing by America in Iraq; and generally in law enforcement and intel pursuit of terrorists. They likely didn’t think that they could influence the election – maybe they thought it would increase the intensity of Western involvement in the Middle East (that said, the “al Masri Brigades” letter writers are incorrigible attention grabbers, but there is no evidence that they are credible affiliates of Al Qaida — fans is more like it). Hell, we’re all just evil kufrs to them, as Germany and France will find out soon enough. Sure, maybe they did it for fundraising, just to show continued viability to their state sponsors by pulling off a big attack in the west on something like an anniversary date. It certainly gives the illusion of freedom of action, even if they are running short on willing human fuzes.

    Regardless of what they expected, by any objective measure they pulled off a huge victory in splitting Spain from the U.S. in the Coalition of the Willing, and helping to elect a man who is a raving anti-American. Well, he doesn’t hate all of us; John Kerry and Bill Clinton are okay in his book – just the rest of us a-holes are scum. Judging from press coverage over here, Zapatero and Blanco are going to campaign consistently up to November, mimicking Howard Dean’s moonbat attacks on Bush whilst urging Americans to vote for Kerry. Hell, the Deaniacs are now saying that any muslim terrorist attacks are actually Bush’s fault, a remarkable disavowal of concepts of personal responsibility and free will that goes a long way toward explaining their stance on managed markets and welfare… but I digress.

    Also from an objective measure, the Spanish have blown it on the Iraq/Al Qaida front. It’s been made known that Ansar-al-Islam was involved in the attacks. This Al Qaida affiliate had a couple of bases in Iraq, including a whopping great one with mocked up plane fuselages and the like. So right at the moment Spain is getting hammered by a group of terrorists with substantial ties to Iraq, it has taken the incoherent and inconsistent position that Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism. I mean, come on – we know Saddam was funding Palestinian suicide bombers and the intifada — the Palestinian situation being item #2 or #1 on Al Qaida’s bill of grievances…

    So, in sum, while I think you have a point, you don’t have your eye on the ball here. The nuances don’t matter -what matters is Al Qaida has objectively scored a big victory that will hurt the U.S. led war to clean out the middle east, and which will be subjectively viewed by Al Qaida as a huge morale booster.

  • LT

    Interesting, but why did all nearly political analysis immediately after the attacks and before the election conclude that an Al`Qaeda attack would be bad for Aznar?

    Americans would elect the person who would most likely aggressively pursue terror, so would the Brits and Australians, but the media types, even as the embers cooled, concluded that an al`Qaeda attack would lead to the downfall of the conservative government in Spain.

  • Scott,

    interesting thinking. I did wonder if one goal could have been to provoke Spain into closing the border with Morocco, thus plunging the Moroccan economy into chaos and so fomenting an islamist uprising there.

  • Interesting thoughts, Scott. I wonderred if one possible AQ goal could have been to provoke Spain into closing the border with Morocco – thus plunging Morocco into economic collapse, chaos and subsequent islamist uprising.

  • Verity

    Frank P – “Musn’t put all my basques in one exit!”

    Very clever!!

  • oops, sorry for the double comment

  • Mark Ellott

    Nothing would serve AQ’s ends better than to replicate this election in England and elsewhere.

    Except, of course, the opposition in the UK if elected, would continue to support the US – the Lib Dems wouldn’t be elected to power as the swing required is too great.

  • Who really knows what al Qaeda thought they were doing? Those of us who are able to observe and respond rationally to cause and effect, must conclude that the Madrid bombing was, in the end, stupid, in the same way that crashing planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was stupid:
    Afghanistan and Iraq are now in the hands of the United States. European terrorists are now in the hands of European police and security.

    Regarding this latter: It will be natural for European politicians to take the cheap and easy route of beating their lips together about American unilateralism in Iraq. But the cops and the security services over there no longer can doubt what needs to be done. And I suspect they will do it in a far less kid-gloved style than the Americans.

  • Joe

    All that matters is that they get a disinsentive to do it again. You realize all of this pokey Euro-bickering is being overheard in the slums of Cairo, and that we look like moral pygmies by not retaliating in any way at all.

    These moronic lefty “peace militants” are running a risk of making the social climate in europe one where protecting one’s population from harm will be called neo-colonal racism.

    In the mean time there is an enormous chance that bouyed with some sort of imagined success against the Israelis, the jihadis will engage in a Pogrom of the Arab Christians. And a puzzled and programmed european public will spend the first few days trying to find the racist.

  • A_t

    Joe, “all this pokey euro-bickering” is what most of the world other than the US in indulging in; “hmm… how did invading Iraq help us fight terrorism?”… & I’ve still not been presented with many good answers.

    If you’d prefer to see a West with no dissent, no discussion, everyone just agreeing that the US’s chosen solutions, in order to look good to a few medieaval-minded outsider idiots, good luck achieving that. Tbh, i don’t give a fuck what they think, & if you think that those who debate the utility of the Iraq war don’t have the stomach for killing a few terrorists, for the most part, you’re well wrong. We just question how many terrorists have died or been inconvenienced by the Iraq invasion so far. You can offer me “evidence” of Iraq/al-q connections, but most that i’ve seen so far has been pretty shaky, & there have been so many dubious claims (15 minutes? tons of wmd?) and fabricated bits of “evidence” turning up (George Galloway documents, anyone?), that I hope you’ll forgive me if i’m a tad sceptical about “evidence” that’s little-reported & supports the UK/US government line.

    If you’re talking about the “arab street” rather than nutter extremists who’ll probably bomb us whether we look “weak” or “strong”, then I suspect all our Euro-chatter is probably helping our case; making them realise we’re not all sold on this culture war bullshit.

    there ya go.

  • Shawn

    A_T trots out the standard “What has Iraq achieved” line, and repeats the strange notion that because there were no direct links between Saddam and AQ then their was no relevance to the WoT in invading Iraq.

    These shallow arguments have been disposed of many times before, on this forum and others, but for the sake of those who may not have been awake for the last 18 months:

    Iraq WAS a sponser of international terrorism. It does not matter one bit if it sponsered AQ or not because we are fighting a war against TERROR not just AQ. If you have a whole garden of weeds, it makes no sense just to pull up one weed only, you have to clear the whole garden, and if anyone thinks that Saddam, with his constant attacks on coalition aircraft in violation of the cease fire agreement, his funding of Palestinian suicide bombers, his ongong attempts to gain WMD’s (as David Kay’s reports said), his role in popular Arab belief as the Great Man who had stood up to the U.S. and survived, was not a major weed post 911, then they are living on a different planet. A planet where the standard practice in response to reality is to keep your head in the sand.

    Fighting the terrorists in Iraq makes perfect sense. First, we have to fight them somewhere, why not in the heart of the ancient Islamic empire? Second, 911 proved that the status quo in the ME was no longer acceptable, and that we have to spark a long term democratic revolution in the ME. The easiest country to start this in was Iraq, for reasons that should be obvious to any intelligent and informed person.

    Securing a constitutional democratic republic in Iraq would do more than anything else to undermine AQ and like minded groups. Democracy, especially one where Sunni’s, Shia’s, Christians and Kurds can find a way to live together, would be a living rebuke to the Wahabi fundamentalist ideology that AQ repesents. It would inspire and provide a model for reformists in Iran, as well as provide justification for their cause. It would inspire reformists in Saudi Arabia and Syria.

    If we treat 911 and other terrorist atrocities as just individual crimes, and pursure them in isolation, we will loose this war. Winning it requires seeing the ME as a totality, seeing terrorism as part of this totality, and having a grand vision for remaking the whole area.

    Thankfully, President Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, Condaleeza Rice, and Rummy understand this. Sadly, the Euro/American left, and their paleo-isolationist allies on the right, do not.

  • I’m an spaniard living in Spain, and I don’t thing it was all Al Qaeda. I think ETA is envolved.

  • Frank P


    If you you are right about it being ETA, do you really think the new socialist government would allow that fact to become known? I would be very surprised if they haven’t already replaced pre-election investigators with pro-ETA ones, just to make sure that they (the new incumbents) aren’t the target of another explosion … of egg on their faces. Neither would it surprise me if they ‘discover’ that it was a CIA plot, to influence the election towards Aznar’s party, which backfired! (-:

    Not that any of this is a laughing matter, it’s just that sometimes the only way to face up to this murderous madness and the comical and craven cop-outs of some of the governments of our Western ‘Alliance’ (hah!) is to smile cynically as one chews the carpet. And one would be wise to assume that position only in private (solo private that is) in a locked room, given the ‘life styles’ that now proliferate in our ‘inclusive’ society.

  • M. Simon

    Uh, has any one factored in the detailed Al Q. analysis of Spanish politics going back to 1982?

    I think it was found in Norway and Bjorn Stark blogged it.

    Their goals may be delusional. Their methods are not.

  • M. Simon


    I’d worry more about the American street. They command a fleet. In fact they command 12 fleets.

    As an American (veteran, so don’t give me any chicken hawk shit) I’d prefer attracting Al Q. and other Islamic crazies to martyr themselves in Iraq rather than America.

    I know this is hard on Iraq but even so it is better for them than Saddam and the prize for them at the end of the day is self government. Something no other government in the ME (besides Israel) has.

    Plus the war has had a few side benefits. The Iranians feel squeezed and Libya has surrendered.

    Plus Churchills dream of a united Anglosphere is being realized for the very reason he thought it was necessary. To protect civilization.

    It is pretty obvious that old Europe has been castrated.

    In a way what is going on is quite fitting. Europe has sent all it’s trouble makers to America. Now, united at last, are we ever making trouble.

  • Frank P


    Well, the Yanks have always followed a NIMBY war policy in general; with two wake up calls: Pearl Harbour and 9/11. Even on those occasions they subsequently chose, very undertandably, to address the enemy and potential enemy in away matches, which is why you have to admire Uncle Sam – retribution is always fierce and always effective and always on someone else’s patch. Which, on the whole allows the American public to sleep in their beds safe in the knowledge that what is necessary is happening Over there! Over there! Over there!

  • A_t

    Shawn, ” It does not matter one bit if it sponsered AQ or not because we are fighting a war against TERROR”

    hahahaha…. See my comments in a more recent comment thread… Fighting war against a *tactic* is as plain dumb as fighting a war against intoxicating substances. Both of them though, provide great smokescreens behind which you can sail a whole fleet of policies, some related to the stated purpose, some pretty much unrelated. I’m not sure where the Iraq invasion falls in all that, but I’m angling towards the “pretty much unrelated”, ‘cos let’s admit it, tragic though it may be, the suicide bomber problem in Israel ain’t about to affect anyone else; we’re not stealing land from Palestinians, so they ain’t blowing us up. Simple as that. Al Quaida connections seem pretty thin on the ground, & considering they’re the guys who’re talking about killing us, not Hamas etc., I’d prefer it if my government concentrated on just getting them; let others deal with their own messes. Conflating every terrorist threat (or every terrorist threat coming from arab/muslim people) into one global menace is neither realistic nor helpful.

  • Marisa

    Hello to those of you who post in here. I am a freshman high school student doing a report on Spain and its issues of today. One person posted, by the name of Frank P, that quoted the Cia world factbook:”Morocco protests Spain’s control over the coastal enclaves of Ceuta, Melilla, and Penon de Velez de la Gomera, the islands of Penon de Alhucemas and Islas Chafarinas, and surrounding waters; Morocco also rejected Spain’s unilateral designation of a median line from the Canary Islands in 2002 to set limits to undersea resource exploration and refugee interdiction;” Sorry if I sound dumb, but I wanted to know how this affects Spain, I didn’t quite understand what Frank was saying about this conflict, so if you can describe it in a more simpler way, I would REALLY appreciate it! I just really want to understand this issue. Thanks for your time…

  • carol

    Tell Al-quaeda to show there chicken shit faces if there the men they say they are and we no there not !!!!!!!!!!!!