Monday, June 28, 2004

Al Qaida May Try To Influence US, Italian Elections

By Marcus Kabel

VIENNA, June 24 (Reuters) - Al Qaeda may time future attacks to try to influence elections in the United States and elsewhere after using that tactic in the Madrid train bombings, a top U.S. security official said on Thursday.

"When Al Qaeda takes credit for the Madrid bombing, and the notion there is that one can realize political ends by atrocious terrorist behaviour, that can't be left on the table," said James Loy, deputy head of the Department of Homeland Security.

"One only has to extrapolate to wonder what's going to happen in the Italian elections, the Polish elections, the Philippine elections, the U.S. elections," he told Reuters in an interview in Vienna.

Militants linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda are suspected of carrying out the Madrid bombings of four commuter trains on March 11 which killed 191 people.

Many Spaniards saw the attacks as retribution for their country's support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the deployment of Spanish troops there. In elections three days later, they voted out the ruling conservatives and installed a Socialist government which has now withdrawn the troops.

Loy said that since Madrid, U.S. security officials had turned even greater attention to the risk of al Qaeda attacks around the time of the U.S. presidential election in November, or the Democratic and Republican Party conventions in Boston and New York in late summer.

U.S. officials have also mentioned the July 4 Independence Day celebrations as a potential target.

Loy said the threat level had not changed -- "no more, no less" -- since May 26, when Attorney General John Ashcroft said there was credible intelligence that al Qaeda planned to attack the United States in the next few months.

Some analysts have criticised Ashcroft's statement as "back-covering" by the Bush administration. The reported threat did not lead to any change in the the national terror alert level, which remains at yellow or "elevated".

Loy said the warning was justified by a combination of intelligence on al Qaeda and the number of major events in the U.S. calendar which presented it with opportunities.

"Between now and the (presidential) inauguration of next year, there was this window which suggested a menu of opportunity for terrorists to try something," he said.

"I think we have the same degree of concern, with that combination of a much more seemingly constant stream of intelligence going by, suggesting that there could be means to take advantage of these events that are on the calendar."

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