I’ve been asked all day about the timing of what President Obama has now confirmed was an attempt by terrorists in Yemen to attack the United States. It’s natural to question whether the attempt is somehow connected to next week’s elections, but I very much doubt it. Two things to bear in mind here.
1. Our elections are imminent and of great significance to us, and therefore it’s very difficult to resist viewing events through their prism. But they are of no moment to al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. Al Qaeda doesn’t care about partisan politics in America — even in this era, which to us features an extraordinary contrast between the two parties vying to control our government, al Qaeda looks at all of us as Americans that they’d like to kill. They plotted to murder President Clinton, their hope was to plow one of the 9/11 planes into either the White House or the Capitol (indiscriminately murdering Republicans and Democrats), and they don’t feel any differently about President Obama.
The same is not true of such stealth jihadists as the Muslim Brotherhood. Because using our political and legal systems against us is part of their strategy, because working with sympathizers in government has long been part of their game-plan, and because they favor socialist economic policies, they care deeply about our elections. By contast, though al Qaeda operatives will try to exploit our court system when they find themselves in it post-capture, they despise our government the same way they despise us. They see interacting with non-sharia governments as legitimizing those governments. That is unacceptable to them (and the Brotherhood’s contrary approach is a source of great tension between two organizations). Since al Qaeda and its affiliates see our government as offensive and without any redeeming features, they don’t care about elections to determine who will run it.
We have to be careful to analyze our enemies in terms of their circumstances, not ours. An analogous mistake is made by those who claim Guantanamo Bay “causes” terrorism or materially contributes to terrorist recruitment; the jihadists themselves care only about the fact that we are detaining Muslims — they don’t care where, and they don’t have a clue or a care about the differences between military and civilian processes under U.S. law. Good intelligence requires taking the enemy on his own terms, not as we would think or act under the enemy’s circumstances.
2. We are a target at all times, every day, throughout the year. These guys are looking for opportunities, not dates. When they see one, they’ll jump on it. It’s important not to get too tied up in our calendar because if we do we could let our guard down during times that don’t seem specially meaningful.