It appears that al Qaeda is playing politics in Europe once again, this time targeting Italy. Last April Italian voters ousted Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch supporter of U.S. efforts in the war on terror who sent a contingent of 1,600 troops to Afghanistan and 2,700 to Iraq. Italians voted to replace Berlusconi with Romano Prodi, who heads a coalition government whose main components have repeatedly called for the withdrawal of all Italian troops. Since Prodi’s election Italian troops have been hit with repeated attacks in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The attacks came as surprises, since Italian troops are involved mostly in peace-keeping missions and have been attacked only sporadically in the three years they have been operating on the ground in the two countries. Hence the suspicion, revealed by Italian military intelligence, that the attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan have been coordinated in order to put “pressure on the new Italian government to withdraw its military contingents.” Knowing that the new government is already inclined to withdraw troops, but has not taken the decisive step in order not to open its mandate with a faux pas with Washington, al Qaeda might be trying to put additional pressure and to, once again, influence the democratic process of a European country.We've known for quite some time that bin Laden and pals have correctly identified the countries of Western Europe - England excluded, for now - as their least enthusiastic enemies in the Global War on Terror. Vidino notes that they even underestimated what it would take to get Spain to withdraw troops from Iraq: an al Qaeda document entitled “Jihadi Iraq, Hopes and Dangers,” said that “We think that the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after which it will have to withdraw as a result of popular pressure.” As you no doubt remember, and as Vidino points out:
It was wrong: one blow strategically executed a few days before the elections made Spaniards oust the pro-war Aznar government. The newly elected Socialist government, as promised during the campaign, immediately withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq, signaling al Qaeda’s first success in manipulating the political life of a European democracy.So will Italy become the new Spain? Regardless of one's original views regarding the justification for, or necessity of, the War in Iraq, it is now the height of foolishness to not understand beyond any doubt that (along with Afghanistan) al Qaeda considers it the frontline of the GWOT, and views any crack in the already fragile Coalition forces as a victory in that war. For this reason, the withdrawal of Italian forces from Iraq would be a blow far greater than the loss of a mere 2700 troops would indicate.
The video "outtakes" of Zarqawi made public by the Defense Department last Thursday may have shown that he's not the ideal foot soldier, but do nothing to diminish his tactical abilities. In the same vein, we underestimate or downplay bin Laden and Zawahiri's strategic brilliance at our own risk. They have shown an unfortunately uncanny ability to identify the correct targets, take careful aim, and strike at the best possible time. (Best for them, obviously.) It is not unduly pessimistic to fear that they have scored another direct hit with their politically-motivated attacks on Italian forces. As Vidino says:
We’ll see in the next weeks if they have scored another victory.