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What were Marriott bombers trying to achieve?

Analysis by Anne Penketh: The Madrid effect, al-Qa'ida and US strategy in Pakistan

Nigel Inkster, the former assistant director of MI6, told me last week, two days before the murderous bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, that "al-Qa'ida is keen to get some points up on the board".

Mr Inkster, who is now a senior analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, was talking about the recent setbacks for militants linked to the loose al-Qa'ida network in cases which all lead back to Pakistan. The conviction of three young men in London of conspiracy to murder last month – after their "liquid bomb plot" was intercepted by a surveillance operation – was the most recent illustration of what Mr Inkster calls "the grand trunk road from Pakistan to Walthamstow". But he points out that other arrests in Germany and Denmark also had their roots in the al-Qa'ida camps of Waziristan.

He said there has been a good deal of chatter on the jihadi websites about militant strategy. "The al-Qa'ida people must be asking themselves whether in the light of the counter-terrorism successes they should ratchet things up," he said. He added that the online debate included the possibility of organising a terror attack prior to the US presidential election to try to influence it in a replica of the "Spanish election effect" in March 2004. That is when bombings on four trains left 191 people dead and 1,800 wounded. They were credited with swinging Spain's election in favour of the Socialists.

So is the Osama bin Laden party trying to influence the US election? And on whose behalf, given that both presidential candidates favour reinforcing America's military presence in Afghanistan?

What seems more likely is that Saturday's attack was an attempt to influence the Bush administration's strategy in the Pakistani tribal regions which has kicked up a firestorm of anti-American opinion in Pakistan. No government would yield to such terror blackmail. But the bottom line is that the Taliban and its al-Qa'ida allies are resurgent, the Pakistani government is vulnerable, and there is still more than a month to the US elections on 4 November.