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A blog on terrorism, democracy and international politics

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

A Year of Elections and Terror Threats 

In under a year, we have witnessed arguably the most important elections of the post-911 era. These elections will be studied by students of history decades from now. The international events that form the backdrop for these critical elections culminate in the election that will take place in Iraq this Sunday.

One common element that will no doubt be noted by astute historians is that all of these important elections were subject to attempted distortion by Islamic terrorists.

First, the Spanish election of March 2004. Days before the election, a series of train bombs exploded simultaneously across the capital, Madrid, exactly 911 days/two and a half years after the September 11 attacks. These bombings shocked Spain and the world. In the wake of the bombings, Spaniards concluded that they were being targeted by a Muslim world aggrieved by Spain's assault on Iraq. Spain voted out the Aznar government, replacing it with the opposition Socialists led by Zapatero. The opposition platform of withdrawal from Iraq thus became government policy and Spain, along with several hispanic allies, withdrew from the Coalition of the Willing.

An Islamist strategy document found by a Norwegian military research/intelligence institute revealed that the terrorists had identified Spain as the Coalition member most likely to withdraw from Iraq in response to attacks on its national interests. It was argued in the document that America could be forced to withdraw from Iraq if its allies could be removed one after another, producing a sort of 'domino effect' that would leave Iraq defenceless. Rather than being a reflexive action by the global Muslim community, the Madrid attacks were part of a deliberate, calculated geopolitical plan by revolutionaries who are alienated from mainstream Muslim society.

In other words, Aznar's policy of supporting the liberation of Iraq alone would not have placed Spain at the top of the terrorists' target list. Zapatero's contrary policy meant that a terrorist attack could achieve a political result by attacking Spanish interests.

In April 2004, as Spain and its allies withdrew from the sector of Iraq for which they had responsibility, America was forced to reallocate troops and abandon the attempt to retake Fallujah. Terrorist groups such as at-Tawhid w'al-Jihad (Monotheism and Holy Struggle, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), were able to establish the sort of haven (or 'destination for hijra and preparation) that had given birth to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan during the 1980s during the war against the Soviets. (Zarqawi formally merged his organisation with Usama bin Laden's al-Qaeda in October last year).

In other words, the attack in Madrid achieved its intended short-term objective.

Another two important elections took place on 9th October 2004. One of these was in Afghanistan. Although it was of enormous historical importance and also took place against a background of terrorist threats and attacks, I would like to focus on the election in my own country, Australia.

As previously reported on this blog, Australian Opposition leader Mark Latham changed his policy on Iraq in response to the Madrid attacks, declaring that Australian troops would be withdrawn either immediately or 'by Christmas'. To be generous to Mr Latham, one must assume that he saw the attacks in Madrid as some sort of reflex action by the Muslim world. By demonstrating that Australia didn't really support the war in Iraq, he hoped to discourage Muslim terrorists from targeting Australia. A less charitable interpretation is that this was a misguided attempt to appeal to populist sentiment and cause the Howard government to suffer Aznar's fate.

However, in terms of the Islamist strategy outlined above, making the withdrawal of troops from Iraq an election issue was a red rag to al-Qaeda sympathetic terrorist cells in our region. Although the responsibility for a terrorist attack always lies with the perpetrator, it must be said that Latham's new policy made it worth terrorists' while to attack Australian interests. For this reason, the attack against the Australian Embassy in Jakarta during the election period was regretably predictable. This did not stop the Opposition candidate for Fairfax and self-professed terrorism expert, Ivan Molloy, from blaming John Howard for the Jakarta bombings.

However, the Jakarta attack did not have the same impact on the Australian electorate as the Madrid attacks had on the Spanish electorate. For one thing, the Spanish swing was also connected to the impression that Aznar had known Islamists were responsible for the attacks but instead accused ETA for political reasons. For another thing, the Australian and Spanish public attitude to concepts such as war and appeasement are fundamentally different due to the two countries' very different respective histories.

John Howard was returned by a landslide in Australia, and the Latham Opposition was reduced to a stammering mess. Latham has recently resigned from both the Opposition leadership and his seat of Werriwa due to his ailing physical and political health. During Australia's response to the 26th December 2004 tsunami, there were signs of a healing of the perceived rift between the Howard government and Muslim communities both within Australia and across the region.

Aside from the enormous domestic significance of the Howard election victory, the Australian election bucked the 'domino effect' trend the Islamists were trying to establish. As stated in a recent Center for Defense Information report on the changing composition of the Coalition, "Australia is a traditional American military ally and had supported every U.S. military effort since 1917. The withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq, therefore, would have represented a serious diplomatic dilemma for Washington."

The importance of the elections in Afghanistan and Australia on 9th October 2004 cannot be underestimated. Different results in Australia and/or Afghanistan could even have impacted on the November American election.

Once again in the US election, terrorists attempted to influence the result. On 29th October 2004, Usama bin Laden issued a tape warning Americans not to re-elect George W Bush. Endorsing Kerry, who had prevaricated on the issue of continued US commitment to Iraqi stabilisation and based his career on a refusal to support South Vietnam in a roughly analogous situation, the al-Qaeda leader failed to replicate the Madrid effect, and Bush romped home to a second term.


The Election in Iraq this Sunday

This article has looked at a number of cases in which Islamic terrorists attempted to undermine the American-led post-war reconstruction effort in Iraq. However, as Michael Ledeen recently pointed out in a public lecture hosted by the Australian Institute of International Affairs and the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, the countries of the coalition and most people in Iraq are also united in wanting foreign troops to leave Iraq. The difference is that the coalition and most Iraqis want the troops to remain until Iraqi society is capable of standing on its own two feet. The most important landmark in the establishment of a sovereign, self-sufficient Iraq is the election of a representative government this Sunday.

Much has been made of the public announcements by Sunni groups that intend to boycott the election. However, indications are that the majority of Iraqis, Sunni and otherwise, will vote in the election. What's more, most party lists are multi-ethnic. Community leaders, particularly leaders of the Kurdish and Shiite communities, which have borne the brunt of sectarian persecution in the past, refuse to allow Iraqi politics to be defined by ethnic categories.

This is what many of the protesters, the human shields and the media didn't, and still don't, understand. The Iraqi people supported the removal of Saddam Hussein by the American-led coalition as an opportunity to rebuild their society and live a life of genuine freedom, such as we in the West take for granted.

This does not mean that terrorism will stop in Iraq after this Sunday, or that all foreign troops will be able to withdraw immediately. Indeed, terrorist attacks could increase if the troops were withdrawn prematurely, in much the same way that terrorist attacks increased in Saudi Arabia when the withdrawal of the US troop presence was annouced. The point is that without these elections, Iraq has no chance of a decent future.

The world should hold its breath on Sunday, and hope that despite the depredations of the terrorists and the Ba'athists, another brick will be lain in the foundation of Iraqi democracy.

Postscript

Lance in Iraq has an interesting suggestion. Those 'human shields' who professed their willingness to lay down their lives for the safety of the Iraqi people, placing themselves between the coalition military might and the infrastructure on which the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein depended, Lance suggests, might be appreciated all the more by the Iraqi people if they volunteered to place themselves between the terrorists and the Iraqi voters they are likely to target this Sunday.

But then, defending ordinary Iraqis and their fledgeling democracy against terrorists just isn't as romantic as defending a repressive regime against a liberating western army, is it?

(Postscript link via Athena in Jordan aka Terrorism Unveiled)
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