Since 9/11, Al Qaeda and the United States have been at war not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in what one expert calls a "battle of competing narratives" across the Middle East. On one side, the US has promoted a vision of change through democratic principles, while Al Qaeda has sought to topple hated regimes through violence and terror.
On Monday in Yemen, for example, organizers of rallies aimed at bringing down the autocratic regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh cautioned fellow protesters against holding aloft images of Mr. bin Laden. “We are not working with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. We have one cause and it is the fall of the regime,” one protester in Sanaa told Reuters.
Moreover, on Facebook, movement organizers implored followers not to “raise pictures or banners or mention bin Laden” in a manner that could be exploited by the Saleh regime.
As the news of bin Laden’s death sank in across the Arab world, anti-US demonstrations popped up in a few places, and at least one leader, Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh, mourned the Al Qaeda leader as an “Arab holy warrior.”
Little outcry in Arab world
But there was no mass outpouring of bin Laden sympathy in countries such as Egypt and Yemen, which are deeply involved in the sweeping regional effort for change known as the Arab Spring. The lack of Arab fury over bin Laden’s demise – and the continuing focus on change through peaceful protest – is a sure sign to some regional analysts that bin Laden’s appeal had long since faded. His death may have simply been the coup de grâce, they add.
Bin Laden’s death “comes at a time when Al Qaeda’s narrative is already very much in doubt in the Arab world,” says Martin Indyk, vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“Its narrative was that violence was the way to redeem Arab and honor and dignity,” he said in a conference call with reporters Monday. “But Osama bin Laden and his violence didn’t succeed in unseating anybody.”
The Al Qaeda narrative had already taken a “body blow” from the successful revolutions in Egypt – home to Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri – and Tunisia. Now “the killing of Osama bin Laden will put Al Qaeda in a leadership crisis, just as they were already in a narrative crisis,” he adds.
Despite that, no international terrorism experts are suggesting that the one-two punch of the Arab Spring and bin Laden’s death mean that Al Qaeda is a threat of the past. But its emphasis could shift.
Al Qaeda's new void
Bin Laden remained a galvanizing force for a global vision of Al Qaeda’s aims, and that big-picture approach may suffer without the charismatic leader, some terrorism experts say.
“One of the big questions now about the [Al Qaeda] affiliates will be, will their agenda be primarily local or global?” says Daniel Byman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a Middle East counterterrorism expert at the Brookings Institution.
But even if strategic coordination suffers in bin Laden’s absence, that does not mean Al Qaeda can be dismissed, adds Mr. Byman, who notes that US counterterrorism efforts have increasingly focused on the aims and operations of particular affiliates.
For some regional experts, radical Islam’s appeal will only fade when Islam’s most influential leaders with Muslim youth – religious leaders – fully disavow incitement to violence as a viable message and a path to personal honor.
Bin Laden’s brand of extremism “will not end until senior clerics preach that blowing yourselves up in the name of martyrdom and Islam isn’t acceptable,” says Mark Ensalaco, a terrorism expert at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
Yet he seconds other regional experts who say the uprisings sweeping the Arab world suggest bin Laden’s ideology was defeated before the man’s stunning demise.
“Everywhere he preached his message has turned into a disaster for him,” Mr. Ensalaco says. “You see that in the pro-democracy movements in the Middle East."