So Osama bin Laden has finally been killed. This obviously represents the achievement of a goal long sought by virtually all Americans and most of the world, and is a cathartic moment capturing the attention of the world. As most counter-terrorism experts (and administration officials) have been quick to point out, his death will not end al-Qaeda. It does matter, though. There could be some major operational impact on the relative balance among al-Qaeda Central, the decentralized ideological salafi-jihadist movement, and the regional AQ franchises. But I will leave those crucial issues to others for now in order to focus on the impact of his death on Arab politics and on the broader milieu of Islamism.
The fact is, al-Qaeda had already been effectively marginalized within the mainstream of the Arab world long before bin Laden died. 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. How this happened, and how it matters for the rapidly evolving Arab world, are the questions which now need attention.
Al-Qaeda was never able to attract significant support for its salafi-jihadist ideology, and thrived with mass Arab audiences only when it was able to pose as an avatar of resistance to the West. Al-Qaeda thrived on the "clash of civilizations" and "war of ideas" rhetoric which dominated the first five years of the Bush administration, since this vindicated its claim to speak on behalf of Islam against the West. But the Bush administration's switch in its final two years towards a more nuanced approach focused on highlighting Al-Qaeda's extremism and marginality proved more effective. The Obama administration continued this approach, and built on it by explicitly reducing its rhetorical focus on al-Qaeda and pushing back against all attempts to reignite a "clash of civilizations" narrative. That, combined with continuing aggressive counter-terrorism efforts, weakened and marginalized al-Qaeda long before they finally got bin Laden.
The decline in al-Qaeda's fortunes was also driven by trends inside of Arab politics. Zarqawi's brutality in Iraq and the wave of terrorist attacks inside Arab and Muslim countries drove a serious backlash. Arab governments began to take al-Qaeda more seriously, with the Saudis and Jordanians and many others launching major campaigns at home and across the region after suffering terrorist attacks at home. The message that al-Qaeda killed innocent Muslims, reinforced and amplified by American strategic communications and by sympathetic Arab governments and media, took a serious toll. So did al-Qaeda's repeated picking of losing fights with more popular Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah. In short, while it was able to appeal to and recruit from the small, extreme sub-cultures which developed around jihadist ideology, al-Qaeda has long since lost its attractiveness to mainstream Arabs.
Bin Laden was the only al-Qaeda figure able to command the attention of a mainstream Arab audience despite these setbacks. He remained uniquely charismatic and able to frame al-Qaeda's narrative in ways which resonated with a broader Arab and Muslim audience. His infrequent tapes would still dominate the Arab news cycle. None of his possible successors have demonstrated such an ability. Ayman al-Zawahiri routinely issues tapes, but his pedantic lectures rarely gain any traction outside of jihadist quarters. Some of the "rising stars" such as Abu Yahya al-Libi speak effectively to the radicalized jihadist base, but are somewhere between unknown and incomprehensible to a mainstream audience. I haven't seen much evidence that Anwar al-Awlaqi has any real presence with Arabic speaking audiences. To the extent that al-Qaeda's strategy requires reaching out to a broader Arabic speaking public, bin Laden's death represents a major blow.
The Muslim Brotherhood rapidly seized the opportunity to repeat its frequent condemnations of bin Laden and terrorism. This should surprise no-one who has been paying attention. The Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda have long been fierce rivals, competing with each other to define Islamist identity, doctrine, politics, and strategy (for a detailed discussion of this conflict, see my article from last year Islam Divided Between Salafi-Jihad and the Ikhwan). The Brotherhood used the opportunity to emphasize their differences with al-Qaeda, to condemn terrorism and violence, to defend legitimate resistance to occupation, and to denounce all efforts to equate Islam with terrorism. It will probably try to use this distancing in its election campaign in Egypt and elsewhere, and to try to reassure the West and its domestic opponents about its participation. Ismail Haniya of Hamas, by contrast, denounced the killing of bin Laden, demonstrating the real differences among the various organizations within the Muslim Brotherhood milieu (and potentially differences inside of Hamas itself -- something to follow closely in the coming days).
Bin Laden's death will only temporarily distract the Arab media's attention from the uprisings which have dominated regional politics over the last four months. Al-Qaeda has been almost completely irrelevant to those upheavals, as has been widely noted, and has struggled to find an opening into movements based on fundamentally different principles. It is ironic that their leader's death has been the first time that al-Qaeda has broken into al-Jazeera's news cycle since the Arab uprisings began. It will soon fade, and Arab attention will return to Syria, Libya and the rest of the regional transformations.
This does not mean, however, that al-Qaeda is forever irrelevant, as some would hope. The horrible bombing in Morocco the other day should be enough to disabuse anyone of such ideas. The small but dangerous salafi-jihadist base has always been outside of current political currents in the region, and will continue to seek opportunities to act when appropriate. Indeed, if the revolutions fail, economies don't improve, and elections produce unattractive political leadership, it is easy enough to imagine frustrated youth a few years from now again finding al-Qaeda's message attractive.
Bin Laden's death marks a symbolic point of closure to an historical period which had already faded from view. Al-Qaeda as an organization and ideology will likely adapt and survive, the threat will mutate, and Islamist politics will evolve. It offers another opportunity for the United States to move on from the problems of the past and to establish the new relationship with the people of the Arab world which it so desperately needs. It doesn't change everything, but it does matter. Beyond that, we will just have to wait and see.
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