Things had been going well for Islamic jihadist militant groups after 9/11.
Moderate and liberal Muslims worldwide - most of whom abhor the idea of terrorism - have long had legitimate grievances about the situations in Palestine, Iraq, and Kashmir. By successfully exploiting these issues while taking advantage of alienated Muslims' sentiments towards the Bush administration's foreign and domestic policies - including legislation such as the Patriot Act, which many American Muslims feel is discriminatory - terrorist groups were trying to get some of the more moderate Muslims over to their side.
And it often worked: the last eight years saw the worldwide burgeoning of homegrown terrorist cells (especially in Europe), the successful election of Hamas in Palestine, a competitive, well-funded and re-energized Hezbollah holding its own in its 2006 war with Israel, and an unshakeable (if now diluted) anti-US insurgency in Iraq that showcased nationalist Iraqis and al Qaeda fighting on the same side for the first time.
The goal that Islamists have always had is to create - and maintain - a clash of civilizations. To them, this is very much a war between Islam and the West, and this schism needs to be maintained. It's a little eerie to think that when George W. Bush told us that we could either be with him or against him, it may have been exactly what they wanted to hear.
Sure enough, as the Bush administration began its war in Iraq or broke unconditionally in favor of Israel, disillusioned Muslims - even the moderate, secular ones - found that they couldn't side with it. Amid the simplistic, black and white, this-way-or-that-way atmosphere that they were suspended in, they found that even their legitimate concerns - about legitimate issues - caused them to be lumped on the same side as the terrorists, who they couldn't side with either.
There was a reason why Osama bin Laden threw himself into 2004's US election. With John Kerry favored to win a few days before Election Day, bin Laden released a video that he knew would help play a role in re-electing George W. Bush.
Keeping Bush in power not only ensured that the alienation that moderate and liberal Muslims felt from the US government would stay intact, but - let's face it - it was one hell of a recruitment tool.
In declaring its support for John McCain this year across several websites, al Qaeda had hoped this would continue.
But it didn't.Barack Obama's message resonated with billions worldwide. Not least among them were moderate and liberal Muslims who'd been in limbo during the Bush years. Obama's middle name didn't exactly hurt him here, but it was more than that: Obama seemed to have a sound understanding of the complexity of the geopolitical mileu that the war on terrorism is being waged in. His was the exact antithesis of the Bush approach. Fareed Zakaria said it best back in July:
Obama seemed to have the perspective that much of the world outside the United States - including most of the Muslim world - related to. With his election to the presidency, Islamic militant groups started to see millions of moderate Muslims begin to view the United States in a different light, joining Barack Obama's call for change instead of theirs.
"Obama rarely speaks in the moralistic tones of the current Bush administration. He doesn't divide the world into good and evil even when speaking about terrorism. He sees countries and even extremist groups as complex, motivated by power, greed and fear as much as by pure ideology. His interest in diplomacy seems motivated by the sense that one can probe, learn and possibly divide and influence countries and movements precisely because they are not monoliths. When speaking to me about Islamic extremism, for example, he repeatedly emphasized the diversity within the Islamic world, speaking of Arabs, Persians, Africans, Southeast Asians, Shiites and Sunnis, all of whom have their own interests and agendas."
In Iraq, al Qaeda had been given a front to fight the war it wanted, thanks to the Bush administration's knee-jerk response to 9/11. Bleeding the US military had been a stated goal of bin Laden, and now it was stretched thin - in two major wars. This didn't just help the al Qaeda folks in their jihad - it also strengthened the positions of countries like Iran, which was now able to both help finance and arm Hezbollah shockingly well in its 2006 war with Israel - and abet the Iraqi insurgency - virtually unhindered.
Now, as the newly elected US administration promises to shift its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan (a war that has never been opposed by Muslims even remotely as vehemently as the war in Iraq), Islamists are facing a problem.
Recently elected Pakistani president Asif Zardari has tacitly been approving US airstrikes on Pakistani soil. As relations with India warmed steadily, Zardari made some of the most conciliatory remarks towards India of any former Pakistani head of state. Last month, he referred to Kashmiri insurgents - for the first time - as "terrorists" instead of "freedom fighters". Then, after a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he proposed a policy of nuclear non-proliferation between the two countries, ruling out first use of nuclear weapons in a potential conflict.
As much as Zardari's actions may have upset some in his own intelligence agency (the ISI) and Pakistan's military officials, they delighted the United States, for whom better India-Pakistan relations would translate into a reduction of Pakistani troops at its India border in favor of an increased presence at its border with Afghanistan.
Suddenly, there was a lot of love in the air, and that wasn't exactly helping the Islamist agenda. So they decided to throw a wrench into the whole thing last week by descending on Mumbai.
Could they be getting what they were aiming for?
At the street level, emotions are still running high in a city where moderate to liberal Hindus and Muslims have been able to coexist relatively peacefully. Now, there are signs of an emerging cleft between the two.
India has placed blame on Pakistan for the attacks, and no one can really blame them for thinking so. (Pakistan has long supported organizations like the banned-since-2002 chief suspect Lashkar-e-Toiba, and its intelligence and military establishments are known to contain terrorist sympathizers.) As India handed Pakistan a list of names of terrorism suspects to turn over, it also announced its plans to increase troop presence at its border with Pakistan in a show of strength.
Both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Senator John McCain are visiting India this week to show solidarity, and probably to help ease the tension - a shift of Pakistan's focus from the Afghani to the Indian border doesn't exactly help the United States' interests in the region.
The perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks knew that well. We may not know for sure who they are, but it is pretty clear what they want - and so far they haven't had much reason to complain.
They want Pakistan and India to play the blame game. They want to effectively reverse the recent progress that has made in the countries' relations. They want for Hindus in India to feel unsafe, and for Muslims to feel alienated. They want fresh lines of separation to be drawn. They want a shift in Pakistan's focus (and troops) towards India and away from Afghanistan. They want to inject fresh energy to keep their clash of civilizations alive.
They know they can't destroy their enemy, but they can handicap and fragment it, by manipulating its politics, targeting its economy, bleeding its military, and coaxing it into war.
We have all seen that happen with the United States in the last eight years, and it wasn't fun for anyone except those who instigated it.
If the world can't rise above it this time - and again takes the bait - who wins?