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Bin Laden's death puts exclamation point on Al Qaeda's demise

A threat remains from the Al Qaeda core as well as the splinter groups it inspired. But bin Laden's global terrorist franchise and its grand vision of challenging 'imperialist' America is waning.

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Al Qaeda hasn’t come close to carrying out another 9/11, says Prof. Takeyh, who doubts they ever will. “Everything had to go right for this group to pull off a 9/11,” he says. “They had to have personnel who were stern and determined like Mohammed Atta, all the stars had to align, and they could only align once.”

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By 2006, any momentum Al Qaeda had developed by framing itself as the only group capable of standing up to “imperialist” America had started to reverse.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda’s champion in Iraq, ran a group that killed thousands of Iraqi civilians, stoking the Shiite-Sunni civil war, until his own death in a US airstrike in 2006. Al Qaeda’s atrocities in Iraq helped undercut the image bin Laden had sought to create for his group.

Rather than millions in Egypt or Saudi Arabia being inspired, they were sickened by the sight of Muslims killing Muslims.

That isn’t to say acts of terrorism carried out by small cells of ideologically like-minded people is about to end, says Takeyh. It’s just that Bin Laden’s dream of shaping societies through such acts has failed.

Arab spring further sidelines Al Qaeda

Now, the events of the past four months in Egypt and Tunisia have showed bin Laden’s political irrelevance like never before.

A core piece of his argument and appeal was to say that only by joining his jihad, and using his methods, would the autocrats of the Middle East ever be removed from power. The US would stand in the way of all other attempts at change, he said.

But the popular, mostly peaceful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, which saw two Western-backed dictators ousted in quick succession, was prima facie evidence that his view of the world was false. The predominant discourse of the demonstrators who led change in those countries, and are currently fighting for it in Libya and Syria, is one of democratic rights – not violent jihad.

Al Qaeda’s “grandiose vision was completely wrong," says Takeyh. "Sept. 11 led to a deepening of American involvement in the region. To the extent that regimes are being displaced, it’s being done by people power and so forth … it has nothing to do with Al Qaeda.”

Al Qaeda's plan going forward

Those who make up what's left of Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been planning for this moment for some time. As far back as 1998, bin Laden spoke wistfully of his own death, predicting it would make him a martyr that would attract thousands of new recruits to his quest to force the world to adopt his version of Islam.

That hope is likely to be disappointed. Amid mass political uprisings across the Arab world, which he did nothing to start and couldn’t influence, America’s most wanted fugitive was killed.

That is of huge political relevance in the US, and will shape the ongoing American debate about the war in Afghanistan and its relationship in Pakistan. But in the Arab world – and most of the Muslim world too – bin Laden was already yesterday’s man.

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