Osama Bin Laden’s killing is a huge symbolic victory for the US, but just that – symbolic. Al Qaeda always was, and remains, a quintessentially decentralised organisation and over the last decade Bin Laden has never been able to sustain any significant organisational capability because of the risk of electronic detection. To that extent his death will make little difference to the network as a whole which will continue to operate irrespective of whoever replaces him, whether his Egyptian deputy or another, but certainly no-one with the same charisma or mythical status. What has driven al Qaeda is not its figurehead symbol, but the message he promulgated which resonated across the Muslim world. Ironically it is that message which is now being answered, not by violent Islamic jihad, but by another outburst that Bin Laden could never has foreseen.
The message was the call to arms to overthrow the repressive Middle East regimes, backed by the West and particularly the US with its oil interests, which crushed the Muslim faith and allowed foreign (US) troops to occupy the holy places of Islam centred on Saudi Arabia. It is a profound irony that those regimes are now indeed being overthrown by the democratic revolutions now sweeping across the Arab world – a development that Bin Laden would not have anticipated and would not necessarily have approved of. Of course it remains to be seen what sort of regimes emerge from these revolutions, whether the more democratic and more open societies that the youth driving the uprisings clearly want or conceivably a more Islamic-type regime along the lines of the Iranian model.
But the key point is that these revolutionary forces, whilst not exactly making al Qaeda irrelevant, have largely robbed the organisation of its prime purpose. Not that that will stop attacks by its irreconcilable elements (like the Real IRA in Ireland), not least in early reprisals against Bin Laden’s killing. But if the new emerging Arab regimes grant greater freedom to Muslim adherents of Islam and if the Arab revolutions, Fatah-Hamas unification and increasing isolation of Israel force a major reappraisal of US policy towards the Middle East, a transformation could gradually occur which could steadily deprive al Qaeda of its appeal to the Arab street.
America will meantime exult that they have ‘got their man’, that American power has finally prevailed. The reality is rather the reverse, that in the decade since 9/11 American power has markedly declined. The US war against Iraq turned out a disaster, while the US war in Afghanistan is proving unwinnable. America was so tied down on two fronts that it had to abandon a third front in Libya. The Wall Street financial crash has wrecked the US economy for perhaps a decade and destroyed a quarter of the US housing market. And US economic competitiveness continues steadily to deteriorate. They’ve got their man, but the US half-century is largely over.