WASHINGTON -- Even before the Madrid bombings, US intelligence officials say they were picking up "chatter" among suspected Al Qaeda members and their affiliates about the timing of this year's US presidential election, reinforcing suspicions that terrorist groups are factoring domestic politics into their calculations of how best to undermine the United States and its allies.
As Spain ushered in a new governing party after the deadly bombings upended the elections there, US intelligence analysts and political strategists said they have been forced to consider anew the possibility of an attack here sometime in the next seven months -- one of several incalculable elements looming over the general campaign.
"Al Qaeda would love to do something close to the election, an `October surprise,' " said former CIA terrorism chief Vince Cannistraro. "Al Qaeda thinks strategically. Are they considering what effect this would have on our political system? Yes."
US counterterrorism officials cite a steady flow of intelligence pointing to Al Qaeda's desire to mount attacks that will have the most political impact possible. They declined to provide specifics, citing security concerns, but said recent intelligence suggests that the terrorist group hopes to exploit the election cycles of the United States and other countries in an effort to peel away popular support for the war on terrorism.
"We mustn't underestimate them," said one US official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They are a very sophisticated group. Their coordination is very sophisticated."
The issue of homeland security is already inextricably linked to the presidential race, and the Madrid bombings added fresh material to the debate. Yesterday, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Vice President Dick Cheney incorporated the events in Madrid into their political speeches. Kerry cited the recent events in Spain as evidence that "real action is what we need" in the United States, rather than the Bush administration approach, which has been "big on bluster and short on action." Cheney, meanwhile, said the train bombings "once again reveals the brutality of our enemy and once again shows that the fight against terrorism is the responsibility of all free nations."
"The terrorists are testing the unity and the resolve of the civilized world, and we must rise to that task," Cheney said.
But the political fallout from an actual attack on US soil between now and election day is one of the greatest unknowns in the race; depending on the timing and scale of an attack, the nation could either embrace the incumbent out of defiance or pick a new leader out of rage that the country had not been better protected.
The upcoming national elections in the United States do not present the same kind of political target as Spain, experts said. They noted that an overwhelming majority of Spaniards opposed the government's unflinching support to the Bush administration in the war in Iraq.
Al Qaeda followers and sympathizers, aware of the popular opposition, warned last October that Spain would be punished for its role in Iraq, where 1,300 soldiers are deployed.
In the United States, predicting the potential impact of a terrorist attack before the November election is more complicated, according to analysts, depending on how Bush and Kerry are perceived by the electorate at the time.
While most experts agreed that the chances of a sizable attack here are reduced somewhat by the extensive protections erected since Sept. 11 -- and also presumed the US electorate would not necessarily respond to an attack at the polls -- members of both parties said the national mood could easily shift in either direction if another major attack occurred.
"On the one hand, if the American public is persuaded that the party in power is the best protector of its security, an attack in October could enhance their prospects," said Dr. Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University. "To the degree they see what the Democrats view as Bush's unilateral policy and the need to have a strong coalition worldwide, that could play to the Democrats."
"The working assumption usually is that in times of crisis or times of national pain that publics tend to rally round the government in power," said former State Department spokesman James P. Rubin. "That . . . didn't apply in Spain, and it didn't apply because that government lost the natural advantage by trying to exploit the tragedy for their own purposes" by attributing it to the Basque separatist group ETA rather than acknowledging it could have been an Al Qaeda plot, Rubin said.
"If there's crossover between the events in Spain and any parallels in the United States, I would say it is that politicians politicize national tragedies at their peril," he said.