But his death may end up meaning very little to a terrorist group that has been in a long, slow period of decentralization and decline. While Al Qaeda and its offshoots are likely to plot fresh attacks, and Mr. bin Laden has an obvious successor in his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, the franchise's grand vision is unlikely to hold the appeal it once did under the Saudi terrorist leader.
Yes, bin Laden was the face of Al Qaeda, a revered figure among the jihadi wannabes who haunt militant chatrooms, where his continued survival made him a potent symbol of defiance.
“Whether bin Laden provided material assistance or not to actual terrorist attacks, his act of survival provided spiritual sustenance to supporters,” says Ray Takeyh, a Georgetown professor and senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That’s been removed."
Bin Laden's likely successor
Mr. Zawahiri, an Egyptian cleric, is haughty and droning with little of bin Laden’s ability to inspire others to carry out terrible deeds. All this makes bin Laden’s death a loss for the traditional core of Al Qaeda based in Pakistan.
But in the final years of his life, bin Laden’s “charisma” was reaching smaller and smaller fractions of young Muslims, turned off by the group’s bloodthirsty reputation and looking for solutions to their nations’ problems that didn’t involve restoring a medieval Islamic caliphate.
“The fact is, al-Qaeda had already been effectively marginalized within the mainstream of the Arab world long before bin Laden died,” writes Marc Lynch, a political science professor at George Washington University. “His death removes the only al-Qaeda figure still able to speak effectively to that Arab mainstream, and marks the end of an era of Arab politics which had already largely faded away. Al-Qaeda's marginalization in Arab politics has been developing for a long time, and will only be further advanced by bin Laden's death.”
The numbers back Lynch up. A Pew poll released yesterday, and conducted before bin Laden's death, shows that Muslim "confidence that Osama bin Laden will do the right thing in international affairs" has plummeted in the past eight years. In Indonesia, the number of supporters fell from 59 percent to 26 percent. In the Palestinian territories, the number fell from 72 percent to 34 percent, while in Pakistan it dropped from 46 percent to 18.
Bin Laden's actual relevance to recent global terrorist operations was limited. Like-minded terrorist groups – the so-called Al Qaeda franchises in Iraq, in Yemen, in North Africa and elsewhere – had put out shingles of their own. They use the Al Qaeda name and share bin Laden’s austere and chauvinistic salafy brand of Islam, but are free agents.
The 16 people murdered by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in a Morocco explosion last week, for instance, didn’t die at bin Laden’s hands or on his orders. Whether AQIM flourishes or fails has almost nothing to do with bin Laden.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based group that claimed responsibility for sending the failed underwear bomber to the US, is also autonomous and more internationally engaged than the old core of Al Qaeda in Pakistan.
Al Qaeda's brand of standing up to 'imperalist' America falters
Bin Laden’s death comes at a time when the irrelevance of his worldview has never been clearer.
The Saudi-born militant had convinced himself that the victory of the mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan had led to the collapse of that empire and that terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies would likewise lead to the crumbling of what he saw as a godless and corrupt order.
That desire was at the heart of his and Zawahiri’s creation in 1998 of the Global Front for Jihad against Crusaders and Jews, as Al Qaeda was originally known. The house of Saud in his homeland, he believed, was utterly reliant on the US for its power, and in his mind the road to Mecca would be paved with US bodies.
In bin Laden's eyes, his greatest victory was Sept. 11, the sort of moment he imagined would inspire millions of Muslims and see young men flock to his cause. In the early years of the Iraq war, he was no doubt heartily encouraged.
Thousands of fighters converged on Iraq from Libya, from Egypt, from Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda was developing a new core of radicalized fighters one country away from Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. Bin Laden’s statements dripped with conviction that the US would be defeated there and that Muslims worldwide would reject secular politics.
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.”
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.