Osama bin Laden, slain by US forces in Pakistan on Sunday, seems curiously irrelevant in an Arab world fired by popular revolt against oppressive leaders.
“Bin Laden is just a bad memory,” said Nadim Houry, of Human Rights Watch in Beirut. “The region has moved way beyond that, with massive broad-based upheavals that are game-changers.”
The al-Qaeda leader’s bloody attacks, reportedly including those of Sept. 11, 2001, once resonated among some Arabs, who saw them as grim vengeance for perceived indignities heaped upon them by the US, Israel and their own US-backed leaders.
Bin Laden had dreamed that his global Islamist jihad would inspire Muslims to overthrow pro-Western governments, notably in Saudi Arabia, the homeland that revoked his citizenship.
He espoused jihad largely in anger at what he viewed as the occupation of Muslim lands by foreign “infidel” forces — the Russians in Afghanistan, the US in Saudi Arabia in the 1990 Gulf crisis, or the Israelis in Palestine.
However, al-Qaeda’s indiscriminate violence never galvanized Arab masses, while his networks came under severe pressure from Arab governments helping Western counterterrorism efforts.
“Bin Laden’s brand of defiance in the early days probably excited some imaginations, but the senseless acts of violence destroyed any appeal he had,” Houry said.
Nowhere was this change of heart more marked than in Iraq, where anger at Muslim casualties inflicted by al-Qaeda suicide bombings — and the Shiite sectarian backlash they provoked — eventually drove Sunni tribesmen to ally with the US.
Popular sympathy for al-Qaeda also evaporated in Saudi Arabia after a series of indiscriminate attacks between 2003 and 2006.
If the ideological appeal of bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, who advocated the restoration of an Islamic caliphate, was already fading, the pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world have further diminished it.
“At some stage Arab public opinion looked on bin Laden as a hope to end this kind of discrimination, the West’s way of dealing with Muslim and Arab nations, but now these nations are saying: ‘We will do the change ourselves, we don’t need anyone to speak on our behalf,’” Mahjoob Zweiri of Qatar University said.
He said bin Laden’s killing would affect only a few who still believe in his path of maximizing pain on the West.
“The majority of Muslim and Arab nations have their own choice. They are moving toward modern civil societies,” Zweiri said. “People believe in gradual change, civil change, they don’t want violence, even against the leaders who crushed them.”
Peaceful Arab protests have already toppled autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia, and they are threatening the leaders of Yemen and Syria, while a popular revolt against Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi has turned into a civil war with Western military intervention.
These dramas appear to have shocked al-Qaeda almost into silence. Even its most active branch, the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has mounted no big attacks during months of popular unrest against Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Martin Indyk, a former US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, described bin Laden’s death as “a body blow” to al-Qaeda at a time when its ideology was already being undercut by the popular revolutions in the Arab world.