Osama bin Laden’s death is an enormously symbolic event for the Arab world. The Saudi-born al-Qaeda leader represented a worldview shared by a small but influential group of Arabs. In this season of change in the Middle East, there will no doubt be those who seek to carry on bin Laden’s jihad, but the demands of Tunisian, Egyptians, Syrians, Bahrainis, and others to live in democratic societies suggest that bin Laden’s ideological reach was quite limited.
Even as al-Qaeda and its theoreticians welcomed the recent demise of Tunisia’s Zine al Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak–and would probably like to see Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad go, too–the political change in the Middle East is not good for the al-Qaeda franchise.
If countries in the region manage to make the transition to more open political systems, individuals will have the opportunity to resolve their grievances through political institutions that preclude them from taking up arms against their own states or the United States. More important, it is clear that the vast majority of Arabs do not share bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s view that the only legitimate authority on earth is God’s. They support the sovereignty of manmade law, so long as it is just.
That said, Hamas’s quick condemnation of the U.S. military operation that brought bin Laden to justice, and the fact that extremists are likely to seek revenge, suggests that there is still fertile ground for al-Qaeda in the Middle East and beyond. At the very least, al-Qaeda affiliates can find opportunity to set down roots in places like Yemen, and perhaps Libya and Syria, where Arab leaders have lost their grip but society has not fallen into Somalia-like chaos.