By John Esposito
The killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad is a major psychological blow to al Qaeda, who lost a charismatic leader, viewed by both his supporters and his enemies as the true symbol of global terrorism and militancy. For many around the world it is a victory in the war against extremist violence which has resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people.
But the death of bin Laden does not mean an end to the global terrorist threat. As President Barack Obama has stated, “There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must — and we will — remain vigilant at home and abroad.” Terrorists have promised acts of revenge and that their “militant jihad” will continue, declaring that their struggle like that of bin Laden, is not for bin Laden for Allah who remains alive.
While the death of the major leader of al Qaeda does not mean an end to the organization, it will strengthen the trend toward a more decentralized network of militants. Regional groups associated with al Qaeda, like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have long operated with inspirations from the central group but limited organizational direction.
Most importantly, the death of bin Laden and the Arab Spring signal a major transformation in the Arab world. Al Qaeda and other terrorists have been weakened by counterterrorism efforts by the U.S., Europe and some Muslim countries. Al Qaeda and other groups have failed in fact to inspire a mass movement or topple oppressive governments. While terrorist groups, a fraction of 1% of Muslims, are able to appeal to and recruit from small pockets of Muslims. Moreover, from Egypt and Algeria to Iraq and Pakistan, terrorist attacks and suicide bombings have slaughtered innocent Muslim civilians. As a result, as the Gallup World Poll indicated, Muslims globally, like majorities in the West, share a common fear and concern about the threat of religious extremism and terrorism to their families and societies.
Although the rise of militant religious extremist organizations in the past two decades has been ineffective in liberating people, in contrast broad based non-violent opposition has proven effective. The Arab Spring or revolt has toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, threatening to do the same in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, inspired calls for democratic reforms Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Oman. They are a clear testimony to popular rejection of both authoritarian regimes and of al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
The current process of transformation in the Arab world and broader Muslim world offers new opportunities for rebuilding US – Muslim world relations. The challenge for leaders around the world is to take advantage of these opportunities. The United States should take the lead in working with European and Muslim allies in efforts to construct new political and socioeconomic realities that reduce conditions and grievances (failure to promote democracy and instead the support for authoritarian regimes, military intervention, invasion and occupation, that have fostered anti-Americanism, fears of Western intervention and the growth extremism and the recruitment of terrorists.
John L. Esposito is University Professor of Religion and International Affairs and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, and past president of the Middle East Studies Association.