Is al-Qaeda preparing to disrupt American elections in November, or to influence them through attacks in October?  Eli Lake reports on an uptick in communication seen by some in the intel community during the conventions, instructing cells to prepare for operational instructions.  Rather than specific plans, though, the messages intended to alert members to watch for further instructions:

In the aftermath of two major terrorist attacks on Western targets, America’s counterterrorism community is warning that Al Qaeda may launch more overseas operations to influence the presidential elections in November.

Call it Osama bin Laden’s “October surprise.” In late August, during the weekend between the Democratic and Republican conventions, America’s military and intelligence agencies intercepted a series of messages from Al Qaeda’s leadership to intermediate members of the organization asking local cells to be prepared for imminent instructions.

An official familiar with the new intelligence said the message was picked up in multiple settings, from couriers to encrypted electronic communications to other means. “These are generic orders,” the source said — a distinction from the more specific intelligence about the location, time, and method of an attack. “It was, ‘Be on notice. We may call upon you soon.’ It was sent out on many channels.”

This would fit the AQ pattern.  They recently conducted a successful attack in Pakistan that destroyed the Marriott Hotel, which may have targeted the newly-elected President Zardari.  AQ likes to attack around elections, either before the actual vote as in the Madrid attack or afterwards, as when Gordon Brown first took office.  They succeeded in killing Benazir Bhutto last year when she was widely expected to win a new term as Prime Minister.

They’ve tried to influence US elections in the past as well.  The Kerry campaign believed that an Osama bin Laden videotape released in the final days of the 2004 election may have given George Bush enough of a boost to win re-election, but that seems hard to credit, especially since Kerry had spent most of the campaign blaming Bush for not capturing Osama.  Analysts debate what effect an attack during the last days of this election would have, but it likely would prove a wash.  Those inclined to think that Bush let bin Laden off the hook would already be voting for Barack Obama, and those who think Obama doesn’t know how to keep the country safe would already be voting for John McCain.

What could they do?  Lake reports that counterterrorism experts don’t believe AQ has the strength to conduct a major attack inside the United States now, but they could attack American assets elsewhere in the world.  They could try another attack on an American embassy after their failure in Yemen earlier this month.  American military targets abound throughout the Middle East, but they have had enough trouble hitting those in war zones.  Softer targets may be more attractive to them now — such as Marriott hotels or commercial ventures.

Previous concerns in 2004 and 2006 wound up being non-events, thanks to diligence in our counterterrorism forces and weakness in AQ.  Hopefully, in 2008 the most we’ll see is another videotape of bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri giving the radical Islamist slant on American elections.