By Joby Warrick and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Al-Qaeda is watching the U.S. stock market's downward slide with something akin to jubilation, with its leaders hailing the financial crisis as a vindication of its strategy of crippling America's economy through endless, costly foreign wars against Islamist insurgents.
And at least some of its supporters think Sen. John McCain is the presidential candidate best suited to continue that trend.
"Al-Qaeda will have to support McCain in the coming election," said a commentary posted Monday on the extremist Web site al-Hesbah, which is closely linked to the terrorist group. It said the Arizona Republican would continue the "failing march of his predecessor," President Bush.
The Web commentary was one of several posted by Taliban or al-Qaeda-allied groups in recent days that trumpeted the global financial crisis and predicted further decline for the United States and other Western powers. In language that was by turns mocking and ominous, the newest posting credited al-Qaeda with having lured Washington into a trap that had "exhausted its resources and bankrupted its economy." It further suggested that a terrorist strike might swing the election to McCain and guarantee an expansion of U.S. military commitments in the Islamic world.
"It will push the Americans deliberately to vote for McCain so that he takes revenge for them against al-Qaeda," said the posting, attributed to Muhammad Haafid, a longtime contributor to the password-protected site. "Al-Qaeda then will succeed in exhausting America."
It was unclear how closely the commentary reflected the views of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who has not issued a public statement since the spring. Some terrorism experts said the support for McCain could be mere bluster by a group that may have more to fear from a McCain presidency. In any event, the comments summarized what has emerged as a consensus view on extremist sites, said Adam Raisman, a senior analyst for the Site Intelligence Group, which monitors Islamist Web pages. Site provided translations of the comments to The Washington Post.
"The idea in the jihadist forums is that McCain would be a faithful 'son of Bush' -- someone they see as a jingoist and a war hawk," Raisman said. "They think that, to succeed in a war of attrition, they need a leader in Washington like McCain."
Islamist militants have generally had less to say about Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Leaders of the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah expressed a favorable view of Obama during the primary campaign but later rejected the Democrat after he delivered speeches expressing support for Israel.
In an e-mail response, senior McCain foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann noted that al-Qaeda leaders have repeatedly said that America "did not have the stomach to fight them over the long haul," which the Arizona senator has pledged to do. "Whatever musings and bravado on radical websites the Washington Post chooses to quote, the fact remains that only John McCain has the experience, judgment and fortitude to lead a country at war," he said. The Obama campaign declined to comment on the Web postings.
Both the Bush administration and the two major presidential campaigns have rejected any suggestion that the economic downturn will undermine the country's fight against al-Qaeda. Obama and McCain have stepped gingerly around the issue of how they would adjust their priorities in a recession and have spoken of the importance of maintaining a strong defense. Both have advocated expanding the size of the U.S. military overall, but neither has explained in detail how to pay for it.
From shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks to last year, U.S. defense spending rose from 3 to 4 percent of gross domestic product, but it remains far below the 45-year average of 5.5 percent. The Pentagon's budget for fiscal 2009 is $527 billion, a figure that does not include Iraq and Afghanistan war costs, which have totaled more than $800 billion since 2001.
"History shows us that nations that are strong militarily over time have to have a strong economy," McCain said this month. He has said the United States must send more troops to Afghanistan while avoiding a withdrawal timetable from Iraq.
Obama has tied an Iraq withdrawal to increased forces in Afghanistan and the ability to fund domestic programs. The continued fight in Iraq "means we can't provide health care to people who need it," Obama said in his first debate with McCain.
"Nobody is talking about losing this war," Obama said of Iraq. "What we are talking about is recognizing that the next president has to have broader strategic vision."
It is not the first time al-Qaeda and its allies have weighed in on a Western election. Bin Laden released a video message Oct. 29, 2004, days before the U.S. presidential election, warning of plans for further attacks on U.S. targets. Some strategists for Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic nominee, have said the timing of the message tipped the balance toward Bush, who defined himself as the anti-terrorism candidate.
The deadly train bombings in Spain that year were seen as an attempt by al-Qaeda to bring down then-Prime Minister José María Aznar, who had sent troops to Iraq. Aznar lost his reelection bid three days after the bombing.
Recent polls suggest that Iraq and terrorism are less important to most Americans than the economy. Still, terrorism experts have warned that al-Qaeda may indeed launch a major strike before the U.S. election or shortly afterward.
"The idea of testing a new president or hitting us when we're off-balance is enormously attractive to them," said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University terrorism expert.
Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Julie Tate contributed to this report.