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Al-Qaida's Fading Victory: The Madrid Precedent


by Austin Bay
March 12, 2008

Al-Qaida's terror attacks on March 11, 2004 (just prior to Spain's national elections), sought to establish the "Madrid Precedent," a strategic extension of what al-Qaida's planners in their "Letters to the Africa Corps" had called the examples of Mogadishu, Somalia, and Beirut, Lebanon. Stated crudely, Beirut (U.S. Marine barracks, 1983) and Mogadishu ("Blackhawk Down," 1993) told al-Qaida that if "we kill enough, they will withdraw."

Islamists murdered 191 Spaniards and wounded 1,800 on 3-11. Unlike Beirut, the "Madrid Precedent" targeted civilians in Spanish territory -- but on al-Qaida's map of the global caliphate, Spain is "al Andalus," a Muslim domain stolen by the Reconquista.

In the post-attack wave of hysteria, "Socialist peace candidate" Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was elected Spain's prime minister. He immediately withdrew Spanish troops serving in Iraq.

Hence the "Madrid Precedent" -- attack a democracy just before an election with the aim of electing a "peace candidate" who thinks al-Qaida's killers can be appeased.

Al-Qaida needed a Madrid Precedent. The "9-11 Precedent" hadn't worked as planned. Rather than perishing like a fire-struck Sodom or becoming "quagmired" in Afghanistan like the lurching Soviet military, the United States responded aggressively and creatively, and with an unexpected agility.

Moreover, America had chosen not merely to topple al-Qaida's Taliban allies, but had made the bold decision to go to "the heart of the matter" and wage a war for the terms of modernity in the center of the politically dysfunctional Arab Muslim Middle East.

Don't think that al-Qaida's leaders didn't know that stroke -- establishing a democracy in Iraq -- represented a fatal threat to the terrorist organization.

Al-Qaida's dark genius had been to connect the Muslim world's angry, humiliated and isolated young men with a utopian fantasy preaching the virtue of violence. That utopian fantasy sought to explain and then redress roughly 800 years of Muslim decline. The rage energizing al-Qaida's ideological cadres certainly predated the post-Desert Storm presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia.

In February 2004, al-Qaida's "emir in Iraq," Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, bluntly noted he faced defeat. Islamist radicals were "failing to enlist support" and had "been unable to scare the Americans into leaving." Once the Iraqis established their own democracy, Zarqawi opined, al-Qaida was lost. Moreover, a predominantly Arab Muslim democracy offered the Muslim world an alternative to al-Qaida's liturgy of embedded grievance. Zarqawi's solution to looming failure was to murder Iraqi Shias and ignite a "sectarian war."

Politically inducing the withdrawal of coalition troops from Iraq was another route to thwarting Iraqi democracy.

Zapatero, a man steeped in the European left's liturgical anti-Americanism, came through for the bin Ladenites.

But it didn't work. Oh, Spanish troops left. Ironically, I arrived in Iraq for military duty as the Spaniards were departing. An operations sergeants told me the Spanish soldiers were crack professionals who had a high opinion of themselves -- a cocky esprit. "What about their opinion of Zapatero?" I asked. The sergeant scowled. Well, I thought, what kind of soldier likes it when his own politicians deal him a defeat?

In spring 2008, the "Iraq Precedent" -- forged by the Iraqi people with American help -- looks increasingly persuasive. Will the Iraq Precedent sway the Muslim world's disenchanted? It has had some success, and al-Qaida knows this: An increasing number of Muslims consider al-Qaida to be a criminal gang. However, cultural and political change is slow. We will have a better idea in a couple of decades.

Meanwhile, back in the United States: Democratic candidate Barack Obama promises a rapid withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. I can't call his plan the Obama Precedent because Hillary Clinton has toyed with the idea -- of course, she toys with many ideas, depending on the crowd.

But, golly gee, Obama may be spinning us -- you know, old-time campaign talk from the man promising change? Yes, his key foreign policy adviser Samantha Power has resigned (she called Hillary "a monster"), but before Power quit she suggested to the BBC's Stephen Sackur on March 6 that Obama's retreat pledge was iffy. "You can't make a commitment in March 2008 about what circumstances will be like in January of 2009," Power said. "He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he's crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. senator."

It appears Obama is pandering to left-wing voters steeped in defeatism, and if elected president, come January 2009, he may suddenly discover the Iraq Precedent is a damn sight better than any other option.

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