How the Arab Spring Made Bin Laden an Afterthought

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Balkis Press / Abaca

Osama Bin Laden in an undated al-Qaeda video.

There were no banners hailing Osama bin Laden in Egypt's Tahrir Square; no photos of his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri at anti-government protests in Tunisia, Libya or even Yemen, a key staging ground for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and bin Laden's ancestral home. An occasional image would appear, now and then, almost as an afterthought, say as a sticker on the rifle butt of a rebel in Benghazi, who really wanted to oust a dictator and establish democracy — not al-Qaeda's Caliphate.

During these past few months of momentous political upheaval in the Middle East, Al-Qaeda's leaders were barely seen or heard. Their feeble attempts to claim a role in unshackling Arabs from their decades-old, repressive (and largely pro-American) regimes were ignored. In many ways, Osama bin Laden and his band of extremist brothers were already largely irrelevant in this region long before news of the terror mastermind's death in Pakistan. The movement was marginalized and "little more than a symbol as a result of his past achievements," as Peter Harling, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group, told TIME.

Bin Laden's appeal to the so-called Arab street was overstated by secular regimes like that of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, which had vested interests in claiming to keep the extremist bogeyman at bay. If anything, Al-Qaeda's influence and ideology were perhaps more potent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, rather than in Zawahiri's homeland of Egypt, or bin Laden's Saudi Arabia. But even in those South Asian countries, the homegrown Taliban seem to be leading the "anti-imperialist, anti-Crusader" charge, rather than the Arab foreigners. "There is a reality to this Salafi Jihadi phenomenon, it's real, there's no doubt about it," the ICG's Harling says. Still, "regimes throughout the region have exploited this phenomenon to make their case for conservative policies and a lack of reforms." Ironically, it was those same repressive polices and lack of reforms that helped bring about the demise of the despots.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, says that in recent years, Al-Qaeda morphed from an organization into an idea, "and the idea has proven increasingly unattractive to most Arabs," he tweeted. "Bin Laden, Hamid says, "presided over Al-Qaeda's turn toward irrelevance the past five years."

Still, irrelevant does not mean innocuous. Al-Qaeda 2011 is weaker than the Al-Qaeda of 2001, but it's still dangerous. Although the group is less centralized, having been driven underground after losing its base in Afghanistan, it still has franchises across the globe, including in Yemen, where American-born Anwar al-Awlaki sought refuge and taunts the West with his English-language sermons aimed at radicalizing Westerners. It doesn't take much to wreak havoc, both in terms of money or manpower. As al-Qaeda's Inspire magazine boasted in its November 2010 edition, its attempt to bomb two U.S-bound cargo planes cost just $4,200.

Awlaki is considered a potential successor to bin Laden, as is the dead Saudi's number two, Zawahiri. Still, both men lack "the sheikh's" charisma, says Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Italy, and one of the world's foremost experts on Islamist militancy. "They don't share bin Laden's charisma or his global vision. His vision was as important as his charisma." Bin Laden's death is "a big blow" to the organization, Roy says, but the bigger blow was already dealt. "It wasn't making headlines in the Middle East, it ceased to be at the core of the region's issues."

While Reuters reported that the Palestinian militant group Hamas released a statement condemning the "assassination" of an "Arab holy warrior," the Palestinian Authority had a very different take on bin Laden's take down. Spokesman Ghassan Khatib said bin Laden's death "is good for the cause of peace worldwide." In Yemen, a member of Al-Qaeda contacted by AFP called the killing a "catastrophe."

But these militant groups no longer define the Middle East. The Arab Spring is shaking up the region in a manner not seen since Mark Sykes and Francois Picot took to a map with their markers in 1916 and divided up the moribund Ottoman Empire into spheres of interest between Britain and France. The paradigm has changed. In the old days, if an autocratic regime was pro-American and anti-Islamist, its opponents were anti-American and Islamist almost by default, and vice versa. But today's young Arabs have rejected both autocrats and extremists. "It's certainly coincidence that the two events are linked in time, but in fact it's logical because the death of bin Laden symbolized the marginalization of Al-Qaeda in the Middle East," Roy says. At the same time, the political culture of the 1950s, of secular, charismatic pan-Arabist leaders, is also dead, he says. It's a brave new world in the Middle East, and in the way the West views the region. For a decade Arabs have largely been viewed through the prism of 9/11. If nothing else, Bin Laden's death may also help lay that ghost to rest.