Islamist Sites Debate Traits of Candidates

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2008

With the U.S. presidential election nearing, Web sites closely linked to al-Qaeda have become a sparring ground, as competing Islamist commentators measure Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama against a single yardstick: which presidential candidate would bring about America's downfall the fastest.

The one area of apparent agreement is the belief that both candidates are bad men. Recent Web posts have mocked McCain as "impetuous" and "more stupid and more extreme than Bush," while others have prayed for Obama's death. One prominent commentator whose views have tracked closely with al-Qaeda's predicted that the next president, whoever it is, would be forced to withdraw from the Muslim world.

"If the enemy continues to remain in our land, it will exhaust America, and this is one of al-Qaeda's objectives," read an item posted last week by the writer known as Asad al-Jihad 2. "If [America] withdraws its forces, then al-Qaeda will have control of the land and will turn to its other enemies to eliminate them. . . . This, too, is one of al-Qaeda's objectives."

The commentaries have mostly appeared on al-Ekhlaas and al-Hesbah, two password-protected Web sites closely tied to al-Qaeda. Some of the more prominent postings were translated and analyzed by the SITE Intelligence Group, a private company that monitors Islamist Web sites for government and industry clients.

"There is no particular consensus among jihadists on which particular candidate would most benefit al-Qaeda and the group's goals," said SITE director Rita Katz, whose group released a compendium of recent postings this week. Katz also noted that none of the commentators was really endorsing either candidate.

"Al-Qaeda can no more advocate for a particular candidate than the U.S. president can support a new leader for al-Qaeda," Katz said in a statement.

Much of the recent debate about the U.S. election was spurred by an al-Hesbah commentary early last week that expressed a strong preference for McCain, arguing that the Republican would draw the United States deeper into a costly guerrilla war with al-Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Al-Qaeda will have to support McCain in the coming elections so that he continues the failing march of predecessor, Bush," wrote Muhammad Haafid on Oct. 20. Haafid's is one of the oldest and most influential voices within al-Qaeda's Internet community, with more than 600 postings since 2003, SITE officials said.

Haafid's commentary drew dozens of responses, including some arguing that an Obama presidency would hasten the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The pullout would be "strongly in favor of the Islamic State of Iraq" and would allow al-Qaeda to create a base from which to expand the conflict to other Middle Eastern countries, wrote one poster, "Al-Qalam," on Monday.

On Tuesday, a message attributed to Abu Yahya al-Libi, a top al-Qaeda official, appeared to call for a protest vote against U.S. Republicans without specifically endorsing Obama. "Oh Allah, Lord of mankind, humiliate Bush and his party," the posting stated, according to a translation provided by LauraMansfield.com, a Web-based service that also monitors Islamist sites.

The Islamists' cyber-community generally has had less to say about Obama, who, as an African American with a Muslim grandfather and pro-Israeli views, appears to be regarded as something of an enigma. Several commentators have expressed doubt that U.S. whites and "Zionists" would ever allow a black man to assume the presidency.

Yet, after a major speech in February in which Obama pledged to defend Israel, the Democrat was repeatedly reviled on the al-Hesbah site. "He follows the steps of his predecessor," one writer said, according to a transcript provided by SITE. "We will not find anything other than what the previous dog has left."

The Internet debate came amid news of another military setback for al-Qaeda: the death of senior operative Khalid Habib, who was killed in mid-October, apparently in a U.S. missile strike on a safe house in South Waziristan, a province in Pakistan's autonomous tribal region near the Afghanistan border.

A U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the death and said Habib had a long history of involvement in al-Qaeda's paramilitary planning and operations.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.


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