Al-Qaida 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-Qaida 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 last 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 past 10 years. Even in Pakistan, where he lived his final years, the terrorist's "job approval" dropped from 52 percent in 2005 to 18 percent in 2010.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Al-Qaida, 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-Qaida to survive them. When the United States attacked "al-Qaida 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-Qaida Central was the London transit system plot of 2005, almost six years ago. The last apparent "self-starter" attack was the 2009 Fort Hood massacre, but that was an isolated tragedy.
Even more important, al-Qaida's theory of history looks increasingly irrelevant. Bin Laden didn't stage terrorist attacks because (as then-President Bush contended) he hated our freedom. Bin Laden and his Egyptian lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri, plotted attacks against the United States, "the far enemy," because they believed that was the quickest way to bring down repressive regimes in their own homelands, "the near enemy."
They turned out to be wrong. Al-Qaida'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-Qaida killed thousands of civilians in Iraq and other countries.
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 up the dictators, 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.
As President Obama and his aides have been quick to warn, the war against al-Qaida 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-Qaida of its reason for being.