Al Qaeda is having a very bad year. And from the terrorists' standpoint, the death of Osama bin Laden isn't even the worst of it. The biggest potential blow is the spread of democratic politics in the Arab world. If it succeeds, Al Qaeda will be deprived of its reason for being.
Bin Laden's death at the hands of American commandos produced strikingly little outrage in the Muslim world. In 2001, when he held the United States and Europe in a state of terror, Bin Laden was a hero to a sizable fringe of Muslims frustrated by their countries' stagnant politics. But by the time he died this week, the Saudi-born terrorist had become little more than an object of curiosity. Polls conducted by the Pew Research Center found that the number of people in Muslim countries who expressed confidence in Bin Laden plummeted during the last 10 years. Even in Pakistan, where he lived his final years, the terrorist's "job approval" dropped from 52% in 2005 to 18% in 2010.
Al Qaeda, the movement Bin Laden co-founded, is looking marginal as well. Bin Laden and his lieutenants knew that they could die at any moment, and they tried to design Al Qaeda to survive them. When the United States attacked "Al Qaeda Central" in Pakistan and Afghanistan, they decentralized, sponsoring franchises in Yemen, North Africa and Somalia. And they focused more energy on inspiring and supporting individual would-be terrorists in the West.
That strategy isn't working very well. The last known successful attack against a Western country coordinated by Al Qaeda Central was the London transit system plot of 2005, almost six years ago. The last apparent "self-starter" attack was the 2009 Ft. Hood massacre for which Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan has been indicted, but that was an isolated tragedy.
Even more important, Al Qaeda's theory of history looks increasingly irrelevant. Bin Laden didn't stage terrorist attacks because (as then-President George W. Bush contended) he hated our freedom. Bin Laden and his Egyptian lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, plotted attacks against the United States, "the far enemy," because they believed that that was the quickest way to bring down repressive regimes in their own homelands, "the near enemy."
They turned out to be wrong. Al Qaeda's attacks didn't prompt an American withdrawal from the Muslim world; quite the contrary. The United States increased its presence in the region, invading Iraq and Afghanistan — without touching off the regionwide insurrection Bin Laden hoped for.
Over time, most Muslims decided that they didn't want to live under Bin Laden's version of Islam, especially after local branches of Al Qaeda killed thousands of civilians in Iraq and other countries.
And in the final failure of Bin Laden's career, many of the local affiliates of Al Qaeda — the organizations that were intended to keep his message alive after he was gone — took their eye off the ball. In Iraq, Yemen, Algeria and Somalia, Al Qaeda's successors found themselves sucked into local politics, not the grand transnational terrorism that was supposed to be their trademark.
As my colleagues Brian Bennett and Ken Dilanian reported Wednesday, U.S. intelligence officials say Bin Laden recently sent messages to the affiliates — by courier, apparently, from his Abbottabad hideout — admonishing them to remember that their target was the United States, not local regimes.
But in most of the Muslim world, all politics are local now. Autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt have fallen; autocratic regimes in Yemen, Syria and Libya are tottering. And not only is the United States, Bin Laden's "far enemy," not propping the dictators up, but its president is standing ostentatiously on the sidelines, encouraging young Arabs to take their future into their own hands.
Bin Laden appealed to Muslims with a message that said, essentially: The way to assert your dignity and regain your rights is to attack the United States, as violently as possible.
The lesson of the Arab Spring has been the opposite: Young Tunisians and Egyptians found their dignity and won their rights by going into the streets with as little violence as possible.
In Tunisia and Egypt, Muslim militants have plunged into local politics, but the center of Islamist energy is the locally focused Muslim Brotherhood, not Al Qaeda. "Al Qaeda hates the Muslim Brotherhood," notes terrorism expert Audrey Kurth Cronin. "The Brotherhood is willing to work within the political system, and their success has increased the marginalization of Al Qaeda."
It may take years for Al Qaeda to wither away, warns Cronin, who studied the life-cycles of terrorist groups for her book "How Terrorism Ends." But if most of Al Qaeda's remaining members focus on local politics instead of attacks on the United States, an intriguing question arises: Do we need to care about them anymore?
We'll still worry about terrorism in countries that are important to us: Saudi Arabia, with its oil, or Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons. And in the United States, individual militants may still turn up, inspired by Bin Laden's successors. But those problems are a far cry from the threat we saw in the implacable, well-organized Al Qaeda that attacked New York and Washington in 2001.
As President Obama and his aides have been quick to warn, the war against Al Qaeda isn't over. But we may be seeing the beginning of the end. And among the most important weapons for the United States in the next phase of the struggle are the old-fashioned tools of diplomacy and foreign aid, wielded to help democracy succeed and deprive Al Qaeda of its reason for being.