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Persistence over bin Laden may reverse Europe's image of a US in decline

In the strike on Osama bin Laden, and in the Arab spring, some analysts see hope for the end of a chapter of global violent jihad – and the possibility of a larger swing toward democratic values.

By Staff writer / May 2, 2011

People watch a news bulletin announcing the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at a local electronic shop in Quetta, Pakistan on Monday, May 2. Osama bin Laden, the glowering mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that killed thousands of Americans, was slain in his Abbottabad Compound in Pakistan early Monday in a firefight with US forces, ending a manhunt that spanned a decade.

Arshad Butt/AP

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Paris

US persistence in ending the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden may reverse a long-held perception in Europe that America is in decline – both in terms of its soft power as well as its military clout.

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The news about the US attack on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Mr. bin Laden comes after a season of Arab uprisings that are largely democratic in sentiment, received support from US and European leaders, and appeared to take place without Islamist or Al Qaeda backing. To some analysts, it holds out hope for the end of a chapter of global violent jihad started by bin Laden in the 1990s – and may enhance a larger swing toward sympathy with democratic values and a larger antipathy toward extremism.

“Seen from Europe, this is part of the return of America. The story a few years ago was America’s relative decline, but this shows a return,” argues Dominique Moisi, a leading intellectual at the French Institute of International Relations. “We see that democracy prevails as an aspiration and democracy prevails as a force. The way bin Laden was disposed of, not by a drone or a missile … that makes a difference.”

IN PICTURES: Osama bin Laden death: reaction

While bin Laden’s call for global jihad, exemplified in attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York and on the Pentagon in Washington, led to a “global war on terror,” the Saudi sheikh’s support among European Muslims was minimal at best. Many are quietly glad he is gone.

“Bin Laden did not have a real following [in Europe], and [his killing] won’t make any real difference directly,” says Christophe Jaffrelot, a South Asian specialist in Paris. “Indirectly, we will have to see if in North Africa or Egypt he is made a martyr. That could have some aftershocks … but I don’t see any waves of sympathy for bin Laden among Muslims here.”

Nor is it lost on Europeans that the successful bin Laden operation, in which his son was killed, comes only a day after a missile strike in Tripoli reportedly killed a son of Muammar Gaddafi and three grandchildren.

End of an era

"It’s the end of an era and the beginning of a new one,” says Karim Emile Bitar. “The new chapter has opened with the Arab spring. Bin Laden was silent about and caught off guard by this spring, and he had very little popularity in the Arab world.”

British and French foreign secretaries warned today that Al Qaeda remains a threat. European embassies were put on high alert as news of the raid and killing broke here.

Still, British Tunisian expert Abdel Darwish agrees that “it has not been a good year for Al Qaeda." The Arab uprisings were a fairly direct call for “a Western or even American way of life” by ordinary people, he told the BBC today.

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