As the latest messages from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri have once again confirmed, al Qaeda is a careful observer of Western political affairs, often crafting its words and actions in order to have an impact on political decisions made by Western leaders. One of al Qaeda's main short-term goals, as formulated by many of the group's strategists, has been to force countries that have contributed to U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to withdraw their troops. As a consequence, in al Qaeda's plans, the U.S. will find the financial, military, and political burden of conducting the two campaigns too burdensome.
The strategy has been outlined, among other places, in "Jihadi Iraq, Hopes and Dangers," a sophisticated political analysis of the war in Iraq that was circulating on the Internet around the fall of 2003. The document has been considered the ideological inspiration for the March 2004 Madrid train bombings, as it indicated Spain as the weak link of the chain among the European countries that had troops in Iraq. "We think that the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after which it will have to withdraw as a result of popular pressure," said the document. It was wrong: one blow strategically executed a few days before the elections made Spaniards oust the pro-war Aznar government. The newly elected Socialist government, as promised during the campaign, immediately withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq, signaling al Qaeda's first success in manipulating the political life of a European democracy.
It appears that al Qaeda is playing politics in Europe once again, this time targeting Italy. Last April Italian voters ousted Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch supporter of U.S. efforts in the war on terror who sent a contingent of 1,600 troops to Afghanistan and 2,700 to Iraq. Italians voted to replace Berlusconi with Romano Prodi, who heads a coalition government whose main components have repeatedly called for the withdrawal of all Italian troops. Since Prodi's election Italian troops have been hit with repeated attacks in both Iraq (3 soldiers killed on April 27) and Afghanistan (2 killed today). The attacks came as surprises, since Italian troops are involved mostly in peace-keeping missions and have been attacked only sporadically in the three years they have been operating on the ground in the two countries. Hence the suspicion, revealed by Italian military intelligence, that the attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan have been coordinated in order to put "pressure on the new Italian government to withdraw its military contingents." Knowing that the new government is already inclined to withdraw troops, but has not taken the decisive step in order not to open its mandate with a faux pas with Washington, al Qaeda might be trying to put additional pressure and to, once again, influence the democratic process of a European country. We'll see in the next weeks if they have scored another victory.