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Guest Column: Will Bin Laden Strike Again?

Rany Jazayerli, my colleague at Baseball Prospectus who wrote for us in August about the resignation of Barack Obama’s national coordinator for Muslim American affairs, has a guest feature today contemplating Osama bin Laden’s potential to influence the 2008 elections. I hope you’ll take the time to jump below the fold and read his piece.

by Rany Jazayerli

If it’s October, that means it’s the month of surprises, and I’m not talking about the Tampa Bay Rays making the playoffs. (Besides, that wouldn’t be much of a surprise if you trusted Nate’s baseball projections in the spring.)

No, this is the month where dramatic late-breaking news can tip an election. In fact, given the sizable lead that Barack Obama has now opened up – roughly six points in the national polls, with a favorable electoral map – and the crystallizing of opinions among the electorate, it may be that only dramatic late-breaking news can tip this election.

Historically, a six-point lead with four weeks to go is almost impregnable barring unforeseen circumstances. Given that, it’s possible that John McCain is just waiting for the perfect time to drop a bomb on the election process. (Maybe Tucker Bounds is hiding the “kill whitey” tape in a secure vault somewhere.) But realistically, if McCain had any bullets left in his gun, he would have shot them by now. He’s already emptied his nominate-a-woman-for-VP clip and his suspend-the-campaign-for-the-sake-of-the-economy clip, not to mention an entire stockade’s worth of POW ammo. (And now he’s passed on his emergency stash of Reverend Wright and William Ayres cartridges to Lieutenant Palin.) In all of these instances, McCain’s approach to his presidential rival has been of the “ready, fire, aim” variety. Holding on to some incriminating evidence until the final weeks of the campaign requires a level of discipline that McCain doesn’t seem to have.

If there is to be a true October Surprise – a pre-meditated attempt to use unexpected news to alter the course of the election in the 11th hour – it’s unlikely to come from the McCain campaign. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has its prevent defense on the field right now. The only surprise they’d welcome at this point would be a sudden change in the laws that moved up the election to tomorrow.

That leaves just one obvious person unaccounted for who has both the motivation to alter the course of the election and the means to do so at the last moment: Osama bin Laden.

We know bin Laden would like to influence the election, because he’s done it before. On October 29, 2004 – four days before America went to the polls – Al-Jazeera broadcast excerpts of a video of bin Laden in which he attacked and openly mocked the Bush administration, and vowed to strike again.

Bin Laden did not overtly support John Kerry, at one point saying, “Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al-Qaida. Your security is in your own hands and each state which does not harm our security will remain safe.” But most of his comments were directed at the sitting president, such as, “It never occurred to us that the Commander-in-Chief of the country would leave 50,000 citizens in the two towers to face those horrors alone because he thought listening to a child discussing her goats was more important.”

The predominant reaction, then, was to assume that bin Laden was rooting for a Kerry victory. Not surprisingly, following the release of his video, the needle moved a point or two – towards Bush. Voters certainly had every reason to give bin Laden the ink-stained finger, and bin Laden’s re-appearance on their TV screens was a not-so-subtle reminder of Bush’s most reassuring trait as president: his uncompromising stance towards terrorism (notwithstanding his ineptitude at implementing a strategy to combat it).

Bush won the popular vote by 2.5%, and won Ohio – whose electoral votes would have given Kerry the presidency – by only 2.1%. Correlation is not causation, but it is at least arguable that the release of the bin Laden video altered the outcome of the election. Presented with a video in which the embodiment of evil and our sworn enemy openly mocked our leader, Americans did what we did after 9/11: we closed ranks around that leader, and voted him to a second term.

Which is exactly what bin Laden wanted.

The immediate reaction of most Americans was predictable, and bin Laden used that predictability to his advantage. There is no doubt that he timed the release of the video in order to influence the election, and any appearance by bin Laden, by placing the issue of terrorism and national security in the front of voters’ minds, was likely to give a boost to the incumbent. If bin Laden truly wanted Kerry to win the election, his best move would have been no move at all. (There are two constituencies who can best help their preferred candidate by publicly supporting his opponent: terrorists and Hollywood celebrities.)

While bin Laden is many things, he is not hopelessly unintelligent. He knew that his video would help Bush’s bid for re-election, even if – or precisely because – the immediate reaction from voters (and far too many pundits) was that his intentions were the exact opposite. Somehow, we as a nation took the statements of the world’s most heinous and duplicitous man at face value.

In Ron Suskind’s book “The One Percent Doctrine”, published in 2006, he noted that the CIA concluded that “bin Laden’s message was clearly designed to assist the President’s reelection.” The fact that so many people initially thought otherwise reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what it was that bin Laden was trying to accomplish on 9/11.

I make no claims that I can comprehend the mind of a terrorist, but as a Muslim I think I have a handle on bin Laden’s twisted view of Islamic eschatology. Bin Laden wasn’t simply trying to hurt America on 9/11: he was trying to start World War III. He neither expected nor hoped that after ramming planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and maybe the Capitol, that Al-Qaeda could slink off into some caves along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border until Americans forgot all about 9/11, and then they could strike again.

When bin Laden declared war on the United States, it was in the hope that the United States would declare war in return – not just on him, but on the entire Muslim world. He wanted war, the bigger and more protracted the better. He wanted the Clash of Civilizations. He wanted, in a very literal sense, The End of Days. He didn’t have the firepower or resources to trigger the apocalypse himself, so he baited someone who did – the United States of America.

I can’t stress this point enough: bin Laden and his followers don’t fear war because they don’t fear death – they welcome it. They believe, without reservation, that death brings martyrdom and eternal salvation. Until the very moment that the planes hit the towers, the hijackers on 9/11 were certain they had a one-way ticket to paradise. (The moment after the planes hit the towers is a different story.)

That he might get killed after 9/11 was a far lesser concern to bin Laden than the possibility that his murderous attack might not provoke a suitable response. And in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when world opinion – including Muslim world opinion – was overwhelmingly in America’s corner, and when our military forces initially targeted only Al-Qaeda and their Taliban enablers in Afghanistan, he might have thought he miscalculated.

And then came the drumbeat to war with Iraq, opening up a new front against a country that had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. I can only imagine bin Laden rubbing his hands together with glee upon the news that the United States had declared war on Iraq, telling his men, “You see? Our plan is working.”

So when it came to the 2004 election, bin Laden was neither pro-Bush nor pro-Kerry. He was pro-war. And whichever candidate was most likely to sustain, or even escalate, that war was his man. That candidate was clearly George W. Bush, which meant it was time to turn on the cameras and burn a DVD.

This time around, we have one candidate who advocates a timetable to withdraw our troops from Iraq and divert those resources to Afghanistan in order to root out the people who actually attacked us seven years ago – bin Laden and his band of terrorists. And then we have a candidate who talks about maintaining U.S. forces in Iraq for 100 years if necessary, and sings songs in public about pre-emptively bombing Iran, which would set yet another gear turning in bin Laden’s scheme to bring about global war. Once again it appears that bin Laden would prefer the Republican candidate, and once again it appears that since any appearance by bin Laden is likely to tip voters towards favoring the decorated Vietnam War veteran, bin Laden’s best move is to show up with another October Surprise.

The McCain campaign has already attempted to label Obama as the preferred choice of Muslim terrorists everywhere. Back in April, McCain seized on favorable comments about Obama by a member of Hamas, stating, “If Senator Obama is favored by Hamas I think people can make judgments accordingly.” There’s no doubt the McCain campaign will pounce if bin Laden pops up with similar remarks. (It would hardly be a surprise if Hamas truly favors Obama, given that the Muslim world – and the rest of the world, for that matter – overwhelmingly favors him.)

With McCain lagging in the polls, bin Laden might even try a Hail Mary – with Sarah Palin on the ballot, I’d imagine that he’ll throw in some misogynistic comments about how a woman’s place is inside the home and that a nation led by a woman is sure to be cursed by God. (Which would be particularly rich if he goes that route, given that he’s probably holed up somewhere in Pakistan, where they’ve already had a female chief executive.) And then there’s the worst-case scenario: while Obama’s lead is substantial enough that he probably could weather a bin Laden appearance, the real game-changer would be if – God forbid – bin Laden is able to launch another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

I hope I’m wrong, and that bin Laden stays quiet for the next month. I hope that the reason why no one can find bin Laden – not George Bush, not the US military, not even Morgan Spurlock – is because he’s dead. But if he’s not, then we can expect to see his ugly mug on TV in the next few weeks, and we can expect at least a few voters to be swayed by his appearance. Please, don’t be one of them.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.