Bush and Kerry see election hijacked by their old enemy

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The Independent US

Finally, the October Surprise has come. But it is not the one Republicans had dreamed of - the capture or killing of America's mortal enemy, Osama bin Laden. Instead, with an aplomb verging on impertinence, the al-Qa'ida leader has delivered his own election message to the American people, just four days before they choose their next president.

Finally, the October Surprise has come. But it is not the one Republicans had dreamed of - the capture or killing of America's mortal enemy, Osama bin Laden. Instead, with an aplomb verging on impertinence, the al-Qa'ida leader has delivered his own election message to the American people, just four days before they choose their next president.

US intelligence officials claimed last night they had been expecting such a move - or something like it - as the 2004 campaign moved towards its climax. Even they, however, must have been taken aback by the bravado of the performance.

Of late, Bin Laden's voice had been heard only in crackly audiotapes. Not for two years had he appeared in a video.

The new tape, showing the terrorist leader very much alive and in apparent good health, appears to have been made within the past seven weeks, and might have been recorded even more recently.

The political impact is as hard to gauge as Bin Laden's motives for making it. His warning that the best way of avoiding another disaster (like 11 September 2001) was to avoid provoking Arab anger, might be taken as an oblique endorsement of the Democratic candidate, John Kerry.

That raises the question of whether Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri want President George Bush to win or lose next week.

Republicans claim that the al-Qa'ida leaders are on the run, and would far prefer to have a "weak and indecisive" Democrat President in the White House.

Other analysts say that assumption may be mistaken. They believe that a second Bush term, and a continuation of this administration's unqualified support for Israel, will ensure that the United States will remain deeply unpopular in the Arab world, thus playing into Bin Laden's hands.

Mr Bush's hardline policies, according to this school of thought, have turned Iraq into a hotbed of terrorists.

It has thus become easier for al-Qa'ida and affiliated terrorist groups to recruit new members from an ever-widening pool of radicals, convinced that violence is the only means of securing change.

If this theory is correct, then Bin Laden would do nothing to indicate support for Mr Kerry. Nor, by the same token, is he likely to launch an attack to disrupt the election - for the simple reason that at this late stage, it would merely see Americans rallying around their President, as happened after the 11 September attacks.

In fact, Bin Laden's appeal to the American people was ambiguous. Their security was, he said, in the hands of neither Bush nor Kerry, nor even al-Qa'ida. It was up to them.

The question now is what will be the effect on the campaign. Some experts say it will play to the belief of Americans that Mr Bush is more likely to keep them safe - and tip a desperately close election his way.

But the opposite may happen. Voters may be reminded that the man who has for the first time explicitly admitted he was behind the 11 September terror attacks is still at large, strengthening the feeling that the war against Iraq was a mistake, a distraction from the real war against Bin Laden and international terrorism.

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