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al-Qaeda's Political Warfare: Isolating America

There can be no doubt that al-Qaeda intends to reach the voters in Western democracies in order to bring about elected governments that will ease the pressure put on the terrorist organization. With the American midterm elections just one week away, the Jamestown Foundation's Michael Scheuer offers a brief, effective overview of this strategy and its successes to date in Al-Qaeda Doctrine for International Political Warfare.

Bin Laden has tied this quasi-foreign policy closely to Islamist military activities and has laid it out as a doctrine to be followed by al-Qaeda and its associates. This foreign policy—or political warfare strategy—is to be delivered over the heads of U.S. and Western leaders to voters in non-Muslim countries and is meant to do two things: change the policies of countries allied with the United States by eroding popular support for assisting the United States in fighting the war on terrorism, and, second, slowly strip allies away from the United States and leave it increasingly isolated.

Scheuer goes on to cite bin Laden messages that were timed and delivered for precisely this purpose. Just how successful has this strategy been? Consider the concise list of major political shifts.

- The conservative, pro-U.S. government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar was defeated in an election soon after the March 2003 Madrid attack. The victorious socialist regime of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is less pro-American and has withdrawn Spanish troops from Iraq.

- In the summer of 2006, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's conservative, pro-U.S. government was defeated by a narrow margin, much of which appears to have consisted of those voters opposed to Rome's support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The new Italian government is planning to reduce the number of Italian troops in Iraq.

- After facing a near revolt this summer in his Labor Party, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was compelled to appease the dissenters by announcing that he would step down from the premiership before he had intended to do so. The Labor Party's anger—backed by many public opinion polls—stemmed from Blair's hardy support for Washington's war on terrorism.

- In October 2006, a group of Thai military officers staged a coup that removed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office. Allegations of corruption have since been made against Thaksin, but the generals appear to have acted in large part to stop Thaksin's harsh military and law-enforcement operations against Islamist separatists in the country's three Muslim-dominated southern provinces. The coup leaders named a Muslim Thai general as the new prime minister, and he immediately announced his willingness to slow military operations and consider increased autonomy for the southern provinces—actions that Thaksin had refused to do.

- In mid-October 2006, sources "close to the [French] military" leaked information showing that President Jacques Chirac's government—in the face of rising violence in Afghanistan and public condemnation of the Iraq war—was formulating plans to withdraw its Special Forces from Afghanistan in 2007.

- In the fall of 2006, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Afghan President Hamid Karzai repeatedly tried to distance themselves from "excessive" military operations conducted by the United States in their countries.

While not all of these are direct al-Qaeda cause and effect scenarios, such as the Madrid attacks that brought about the major shift in the Spanish government, at minimum they all parallel al-Qaeda's desired effect – the incremental isolation of its American pursuers - and display an erosion of will.