Osama bin Laden has long been hardly more than a figurehead for al-Qaida - what is now a much more dispersed and less hierarchical movement that has little connection with Afghanistan and is attempting to raise its profile in Yemen and across North Africa. Even so, because many Americans see a direct connection between bin Laden and the current war in Afghanistan, his death may enable the Obama administration to speed up the US troop withdrawal and this has positive domestic political implications for President Obama’s re-election campaign next year.
For the al-Qaida movement, there will undoubtedly be persistent attempts to represent Osama bin Laden as a martyr figure and his death will certainly have some effect on the movement. Even so, the much greater problem for al-Qaida is what has been happening in the Middle East and North Africa, especially with the sudden ending of the autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
Al-Qaida has long sought the overthrow of such regimes. Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Muhammad Rabaie al-Zawahiri, was the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad - whose original goal was to overthrow the Egyptian Government through revolutionary and violent action by radical Islamists. Instead, what has taken place in Tahrir Square 2011 has been an outpouring of mass non-violent public protests, often from a markedly secular background.
In that process, radical Islamists were sidelined as protestors seek emancipation, equity and democracy – outcomes so very different from the rigid Islamist aims of al-Qaida.
It follows that, if the Arab Spring is successful in the coming months and years in bringing in genuine political, social and economic reform, then the al-Qaida movement will be in great difficulty.
If, however, the Arab Spring fails, and repressive autocratic rule becomes dominant once more, then al-Qaida and other extremist movements could benefit greatly. They will be quick to claim that mass public protests against these regimes will have been proved a failure and the only approach that can work will be radical action from a deeply conservative religious perspective. For this reason alone, the success of the Arab Spring is hugely important in the coming months and years – failure could prove disastrous.
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