The euphoria in the United States that greeted Osama bin Laden's death in Pakistan early on 2 May 2011 reflects how far he had been the focus for the “war on terror” declared by George W Bush in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The al-Qaida leader's actual role in the movement may have diminished in recent years, but his mere existence was an enduring source of American dismay: a living symbol of Washington’s inability to kill or capture its chief global adversary (see "America vs al-Qaida: the widening war", 11 November 2010).
This national wound was revealed by President Obama’s differential arguments over Iraq and Afghanistan: the former was a bad war (of choice) which now demanded the withdrawal of US forces, whereas the latter was a good war (of necessity) because it connected directly with 9/11 through the continuing presence of al-Qaida.
Osama bin Laden’s active leadership al-Qaida had long receded, though he remained an iconic figure during a decade of the movement’s dispersal. There is now too little residual connection between the Taliban and al-Qaida. The Obama administration’s signals of willingness to negotiate a progressive withdrawal from Afghanistan too, even if it involves talking to the Taliban, may reflect its understanding of this reality.
The administration's problem in pursuing this strategy has been that the Republican right - sharing and (via the media) amplifying the view of many Americans that the Taliban and al-Qaida are interchangeable - would depict any lessening of military commitment in Afghanistan as a sign of presidential weakness. Bin Laden’s death, in removing al-Qaida’s figurehead and breaking the Afghanistan-9/11 connection, partially resolves that problem: Obama now has an opportunity to speed up the withdrawal before the presidential-election campaign for 2012 gets underway (see "Afghanistan: between war and politics", 28 April 2011).
This domestic American dimension throws light on the viability of al-Qaida after the death of a leader whom the course of the campaign had made peripheral. It is worth at this point recalling the key aims of the al-Qaida movement:
• to evict “crusader” forces from Islamic lands
• to terminate the House of Saud and replace with “true” Islamist rule
• to end and replace other unacceptable regimes, especially in Egypt
• to oppose and eliminate the “Zionist entity”
• to support local Islamist movements, such as in Thailand and Chechnya.
These are all short-term aims measured in decades and imply a century-long struggle to create a pure new Islamist caliphate.
In none of these aims - excepting the departure of the US uniformed military from Saudi Arabia - has al-Qaida made serious progress. At the same time, the movement was greatly aided by the George W Bush administration's excessive concentration on military responses, especially the spectacularly counterproductive occupation of Iraq.
Barack Obama, inheriting the toxic legacy left by his predecessor, has followed a more cautious policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now also in Libya. This has already posed difficulties for the diffuse al-Qaida movement; but a much greater problem for it, transcending the death of Osama bin Laden, is the Arab spring.
In the al-Qaida cosmology, the corrupt regimes of the Arab Islamic world were to be humbled by the radical and violent actions of a determined vanguard. Instead, non-violent and courageous demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of citizens have ended autocracies in Tunisia and Egypt, and threaten others.
The effect of these protests has been to reduce al-Qaida to a spectator in a way that is immensely disturbing to its ideologues. Its influence lingers, and it can yet make some progress in Yemen, the Horn of Africa and parts of the Maghreb; the anti-American mood in much of Pakistan may also bring more recruits. But even Yemen is to an extent peripheral to al-Qaida's main areas of intended operation, and Afghanistan and Pakistan are hardly central to its worldview of a new caliphate centred on the holy places. In the long term this is a far greater problem for al-Qaida than the loss of Osama bin Laden, who now in any case can be represented as a martyr to the far enemy.
Against this canvas, some of al-Qaida’s strategists feel both fear and hope. The fear is that the Arab spring is the prelude of real change - and that emancipation, equity and democracy combine to change the face of the Arab world. If that happens, al-Qaida will eventually fade into mere memory.
The hope within al-Qaida is that the aspirations embodied in the Arab spring are dashed, and that it can benefit from the ensuing deep disillusion. If autocratic rule is maintained in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen (and if it returns in Egypt) then the movement and its disparate associates will again have their day. After the failure of democratic and non-violent protest, they will work strenuously to embed a core idea - that the only path to renewal is Islamist and it must be won by violence.
The future of the middle east, the livelihoods of millions of people there, al-Qaida’s chances of survival and all that entails - the Arab spring is carrying the world in its hands.