Jehadis could target Obama with psychological warfare

By Mayank Chhaya, IANS,

President-elect Barack Obama’s reputedly conciliatory approach towards international flashpoints can potentially open the door for psychological warfare against the United States by Islamic jehadi groups.

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Obama’s predisposition in favour of dialogue over confrontation has been a subject of some intense criticism by conservatives and rightwing ideologues who see him as weakening America’s bargaining power derived from its military-industrial muscle. The most important instance that his detractors cite in support of their argument is Obama’s preference for a dialogue without conditions with Iran, a country which has become the focal point of America’s coercive rhetoric because of its nuclear ambitions.

From going soft on a rogue nation out of naiveté to harbouring thinly disguised Islamic loyalties because he is a closet Muslim, Obama has had to face a range of absurd charges for his philosophical preference for dialogue. While he has stuck to his position, there are some intriguing signs that at least some Islamic groups may see an opportunity in this divided opinion to launch a psychological war.

Much to the delight of those who accused Obama of accommodating Iran’s much reviled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the latter was quick to congratulate the new president on his victory.

“I would like to offer my congratulations on your election by the majority of the American electorate…The people across the world expect that policies and practices based on justice and respect for the rights of peoples and nations, coupled with friendship and non-interference in the affairs of others, replace policies founded on war, occupation, coercion, deception, intimidation of nations, discriminatory bilateral and global relations; policies and practices that have enraged all nations and many governments against the US administration and tainted the image of American
people,” Ahmadinejad reportedly said in the letter.

At the very least the letter put Obama in an awkward position with those hawkish opponents who see in his rise the rise of a soft America. They could well turn around and argue that Obama’s ascension is already emboldening a leader they consider as terrorist. While Ahmadinejad’s letter is unlikely to have been prompted by the consideration of psychological warfare it could be construed as such.

However, in what appears to be a clear case of sowing the seeds of suspicion about Obama, Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the jehadi group Islamic State of Iraq claiming ties with Al Qaeda, released an audio tape that said his election represented a victory for radical Islamic groups. It is not clear how important Abu Omar is in terms of his standing among jehadi groups, but his statement is fraught with possibilities that other jehadi groups might exploit.

A subtext or loaded innuendo of the campaign against Obama was that he may be secretly sympathetic to the Islamic cause because of his Kenyan father’s Muslim background. The statement by Abu Omar and, in some sense, even by Ahmadinejad could end up reinforcing this paranoia. Quite inevitably, Obama was asked about the Iranian president’s gesture at his first news conference here on Friday. His response was measured and circumspect, almost as if he had already calibrated how the letter could become a weapon in the hands of his cavalier critics. “I am aware that the letter was sent,” Obama said after a pause. He said so soon after election he had no time to “review the letter and respond as appropriate”.

He made it clear that a nuclear- armed Iran was “unacceptable” to him. He also said that Iran’s support of terror groups “must cease” and that the US must mount “an international effort to keep (Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons) from happening”.

It remains to be seen whether other more consequential jehadi groups could seize upon this perceived opportunity to create confusion or doubt in the minds of the American people what it means to have Obama as their president.

(Mayank Chhaya is a Chicago-based commentator. He can be reached at [email protected])