There is no question that Osama bin Laden’s death is a significant milestone in the U.S. fight against Al Qaeda. But the youth-led uprisings in the Middle East ultimately pose a greater threat to Al Qaeda than bin Laden’s death. It is therefore critical that the United States maintain support for the revolutions’ call for political and economic reforms as they continue to unfold.
Even though Al Qaeda is a decentralized network of regional affiliates, bin Laden served an important symbolic role for the organization by helping unify the various groups. U.S. intelligence reports are also increasingly highlighting his role in continuing to provide “strategic direction” to Al Qaeda. His death leaves a leadership vacuum that will be difficult for the terror network to fill.
Al Qaeda does not frame itself around one individual, however, and therefore it will likely continue to draw support. Al Qaeda’s message arguing for the violent overthrow of Western societies backing autocratic Arab rulers and the formation of fundamentalist Islamic theocracies continues to reverberate in the Muslim world, where economic opportunities and political freedoms are in short supply and many corrupt governments still exert control over local populations.
But this message—which already showed signs of fraying—is losing its appeal at a greater pace. The large youth populations in the Middle East and North Africa (60 percent are under the age of 30) are leading uprisings that reject Al Qaeda’s ideology. These protests seek to address the same economic and political problems that Al Qaeda has vowed to change, but they tackle these problems through a different means, with a different end goal, and with far greater success to date than Al Qaeda.
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