Had Osama bin Laden been killed during the presidency of George W. Bush, he might have become an iconic martyr for anti-Western movements throughout the Muslim world. Those days are gone. Jihadist Web sites mourn their slain mentor, but few in the Arab street care for a man who brought nothing to the region but havoc and desolation, provoked the United States into waging war and, above all, reinforced the very rulers whom radical Islamists most wished to topple.
Arab despots initially saw their life expectancies extended after 9/11: better Ben Ali, the thinking went, than Bin Laden. Now the dictators — Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — are being thrown out, while their counterparts in Libya and Saudi Arabia cling to power by playing the old trump card of Arab oil. From Libya to Bahrain, Syria to Yemen, a pluralistic political system is the goal of a young, urban middle class that is sick of the old order.
In the end, Bin Laden did not deliver. He trapped the United States into invading and occupying Iraq only to see it become a playground for the Shiite leaders of Iran, much to the chagrin of both neo-conservatives in Washington and the Sunni radicals who make up Al Qaeda. He had nothing to offer beyond hatred for the West.
The waning relevance of Al Qaeda and authoritarian legitimacy opened a political space for the Jasmine Revolution in Tunis and the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt. Islamists and their sympathizers have been involved in the antigovernment movements. Some might once have been lured by Qaeda mythology, but most seek to blend democracy and pluralism with the tenets of Islamic civilization. The Turkish example of a secular state with an Islamic flavor is debated far more in the Arab media than Al Qaeda’s jihadist vision.
The most charismatic of global terrorists is now gone: does that mean that his network will collapse in despair, or are we to expect more violence by his orphans? In April, Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian-born doctor who was Al Qaeda’s second in command, posted an hourlong video from his hideout in Pakistan singing the praises of Abboud al-Zomor, the former intelligence officer who supplied the bullets that killed President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt in 1981. Mr. al-Zomor, who was released from prison after Mr. Mubarak’s downfall, has been trying to mobilize an Islamist party that would adopt Shariah law.
But Mr. al-Zawahri’s desperate effort to jump on the bandwagon of the Egyptian revolution has had little resonance. More troubling are the continued efforts of Qaeda splinter groups in North Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula. Any future acts of terrorism, however, are unlikely to have a snowball effect. Terrorism has its own political economy: when repeated too often, to no avail, its operations lose impact and eventually backfire.
Bin Laden’s heirs can still spread havoc, but they have lost the political momentum. Within the field of Islamist militancy, the axis of the battle runs now between Salafists who adhere to a strict, literal version of Shariah and the scattered Muslim Brotherhood, torn between a young generation that finds much in common with its secular contemporaries and the “old turbans” who still run the show. Another fault line divides those Islamists who wish to be a part of pluralistic political life, and those who see elections as a chance to seize power and not give it back.
The White House has rightly been keen to avoid any Hollywood-style display of triumph. President Obama is eager to avoid a backlash and to capitalize on an event that is in tune with present-day Arab history. The raid that killed Bin Laden has set back American-Pakistani relations, though Pakistani intelligence has lost a big bargaining chip and will probably emerge weakened. As for Afghanistan, a Saudi royal is said to have counseled the United States, “Just kill Bin Laden and leave.” It may be time to take his advice seriously.
The challenge is to take advantage of Bin Laden’s death and push to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians — a cloud over the prospects for Arab democracy.
Mr. Obama might well have a unique opportunity, as President George H. W. Bush had after the Persian Gulf war in 1991, when he twisted the arms of Yitzhak Shamir and Yasir Arafat into sending their representatives to a peace conference in Madrid.
The political capital earned from Bin Laden’s death will not last forever — it has to be invested soon. After all, the tragic history of the Middle East is one of opportunities not taken.
Gilles Kepel, a professor of Middle East studies at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris and the co-editor of Al Qaeda in Its Own Words.