When Terror Loses its Grip

Dangers remain, but the Arab Spring and the death of bin Laden should finish al-Qaeda

  • James Nachtwey for TIME

    Bin Laden's sudden, unexpected death unleashed a decade's worth of pent-up anxiety — and relief

    It is a bizarre historical coincidence. President Barack Obama announced to the world that Osama bin Laden was dead on May 1, the very same day that, 66 years earlier, the German government announced that Adolf Hitler was dead. It's fitting that two of history's great mass murderers share a day of death. (Sort of. Hitler actually killed himself a day earlier, but his death was not revealed to the world until the following day.) Both embodied charisma and intelligence deployed in the service of evil — and both were utterly callous about the killing of innocents to further their causes.

    There are, of course, many differences between Hitler and bin Laden. But one great similarity holds. Hitler's death marked the end of the Nazi challenge from Germany. And bin Laden's death will mark the end of the global threat of al-Qaeda.

    Let me be clear. Of course, there are still groups that call themselves al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Yemen, North Africa, Somalia and elsewhere. They will still plot and execute terrorist attacks. We will still have to be vigilant and go after them. But the danger from al-Qaeda was always much more than that of a few isolated terrorist attacks. It was an ideological message that we feared had an appeal across the Muslim world of 1.5 billion believers. The organization had created a message of opposition and defiance that was resonating in that world during the 1990s and right after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

    A few weeks after 9/11, I wrote an essay titled "Why They Hate Us," exploring the roots of this Muslim rage. I argued that while U.S. foreign policy might be a contributing factor to the unhappiness of Arabs, it could not alone explain the scale, depth and intensity of Islamic terrorism. After all, U.S. foreign policy over the years has victimized many countries in Latin America and killed millions of Vietnamese, and yet you did not see terrorism emanating from those quarters. There was something different about the nature of Arab frustration that had morphed into anti-American terrorism.

    The central problem, I argued, was that the stagnation and repression of the Arab world — 40 years of tyranny and decay — had led to deep despair and finally to extreme opposition movements. The one aspect of Arab society that dictators could not ban was religion. So the mosque became the gathering ground of opposition movements, and Islam — the one language that could not be censored — became the voice of opposition. The U.S. became a target because we supported the Arab autocracies.

    Al-Qaeda is a Saudi-Egyptian alliance — bin Laden was Saudi; Ayman al-Zawahiri, his deputy, is Egyptian — that was formed to topple the Saudi and Egyptian regimes and others like them. And that is why bin Laden's death comes at a particularly bad moment for the movement he launched. Its founding rationale has been shattered by the Arab Spring of this year. Al-Qaeda believed that the only way to topple the dictatorships of the Arab world was through violence, that participation in secular political processes was heretical and that people wanted and would cheer an Islamic regime. Over the past few months, millions in the Arab world have toppled regimes relatively peacefully, and what they have sought was not a caliphate, not a theocracy, but a modern democracy. The crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square did not have pictures of bin Laden or al-Zawahiri in their hands as they chanted for President Hosni Mubarak's ouster.

    Polls around the Muslim world confirm that support for bin Laden has been plummeting over the past five years. As al-Qaeda morphed into a series of small, local groups, the only places it could mount attacks were cafés and subway stations — in other words, against locals. That turned the locals against al-Qaeda. Their "support" for radical jihadism had in any event always been more theoretical than real, a support for a romantic notion of militant opposition to the West and its domination of the modern world. And it was premised on the assumption that any violence would be directed against "them" (the West), not "us" (Muslims). Once the terrorism came home, even people in Saudi Arabia realized that they didn't want to return to the 7th century, and they didn't much like the men who wanted to bomb them back there.

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