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Bracing for a 'surprise'

world Updated: Oct 23, 2008 17:22 IST

Some weeks ago I was talking about the US before a gathering of Indian army officers. What seemed to please them the most, was the almost daily reports of US soldier and helicopters trading fire with Pakistani border guards. They didn’t realize these are likely to tail off when the US presidential election is over.

In late August, US intelligence intercepted a series of messages indicating Al Qaeda central was putting its foot soldiers to be prepared to “receive further orders.”

The fear in the US has been that the terror network is trying to put together an “October surprise” – in other words, carry out a terrorist attack against the US in the runup to voting day on November 4.

Part of the strategy against this is to carry out incessant airstrikes and worse against Al Qaeda targets along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Nothing terror attack has happened so far. And one is unlikely to happen given how few election days are left and given how Al Qaeda has failed to mount a serious attack on the US mainland since 9/11.

But the surprise (and a very mild one at that) could be an Osama Bin Laden tape to the US people, like the one he issued just before the 2004 election, one that blew away John Kerry’s poll lead just a week before voting day.

That tape may yet happen, but I doubt it will have as much fallout. Bin Laden’s past messages had impact because of the implicit threat that lay behind them. For American voters, it’s been seven years now without any bang behind the blab. Also, Al Qaeda now issues a steady stream of statements and speeches, not dissimilar to a political party and with about as much credibility.

Experts say Al Qaeda influences elections three ways: tapes as in 2004, direct attacks like the Madrid train blast or the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and attacks just after an election like the 7/7 London blasts.

But they would have no interest in pushing the election one way or the other – democracy is an anathema and all US candidates are the enemy for them. However, disrupting an election enhances Al Qaeda’s status as an organization that can influence major world events. That matters to them.

In hindsight, the history books will say this election was determined by the sudden detonation of the subprime crisis – and that was a September surprise.