Osama bin Laden's Death
The actual impact of his death will be minimal among the generic al-Qaeda movement he has been so instrumental in creating. Even within al-Qaeda central, his functional role was always less than that of Ayman al-Zawahiri. His greatest significance was as a symbol and rallying point, and given the significance of martyrdom in those circles, he can be that almost as effectively dead as alive. I suspect, however, that the White House is playing up the apparent use of his wife as a human shield in an attempt to tarnish his image even among that set.
There is, however, some impact on al-Qaeda's ability to present itself as an alternative within, for example, the Arab political universe. On this point, Marc Lynch is far more insightful than I could ever be, but the point is that bin Laden had a charismatic biography and sense of authenticity that gave his agenda at least some credibility in the Arab public sphere, many of whom engaged in conspiracy theories to deny his worst atrocities while lauding him as a symbol of resistance to the United States and its policies in the region. That resistance card, however, is the only one al-Qaeda ever played successfully in the court of public opinion. As Lynch says:
"Al-Qaeda was never able to attract significant support for its salafi-jihadist ideology, and thrived with mass Arab audiences only when it was able to pose as an avatar of resistance to the West. Al-Qaeda thrived on the 'clash of civilizations' and 'war of ideas' rhetoric which dominated the first five years of the Bush administration, since this vindicated its claim to speak on behalf of Islam against the West. But the Bush administration's switch in its final two years towards a more nuanced approach focused on highlighting Al-Qaeda's extremism and marginality proved more effective. The Obama administration continued this approach, and built on it by explicitly reducing its rhetorical focus on al-Qaeda and pushing back against all attempts to reignite a 'clash of civilizations' narrative...
"The message that al-Qaeda killed innocent Muslims, reinforced and amplified by American strategic communications and by sympathetic Arab governments and media, took a serious toll. So did al-Qaeda's repeated picking of losing fights with more popular Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah. In short, while it was able to appeal to and recruit from the small, extreme sub-cultures which developed around jihadist ideology, al-Qaeda has long since lost its attractiveness to mainstream Arabs."
The driving ideology in the Arab world right now is not the need to attack the "Far Enemy" so as to have the freedom to implement a puritanical vision of shari'a at home, but rather support for the idea of peaceful popular uprisings against corrupt dictatorships and social transformation through persuasion, regardless of what transformation particular movements are seeking. This is why a number of reports have indicated that the past few months have posed problems for al-Qaeda and company, as crowds in Tunisia and Egypt most prominently have undone the pillar of their distinctive ideology.
The death of Osama bin Laden is thus a good thing, but only one highly visible aspect of al-Qaeda's more general decline. In that sense, bin Laden's death may have just as much symbolism as the myths which surrounded his life, though not in the way he hoped.
(Crossposted to American Footprints)