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 continues to support 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.
The demonstrators’ use of nonviolent protests—as opposed to Al Qaeda’s call for violence—has magnified some regional governments’ brutal tactics and helped garner support from the United States and the international community. This support has taken different forms, such as negotiated agreements as seen in Egypt, international resolutions, economic sanctions, and military strikes, which have been vital to the changes that have occurred. These tactics represent a stark contrast with Al Qaeda, whose terrorist activities have isolated it from the international community.
In addition, the protesters’ end goals threaten Al Qaeda. Despite the demonstrators’ diverse range of opinions and objectives, there is no indication that any groups want fundamentalist Islamic theocracies to replace the old regimes. The protesters are fighting for freedoms, economic opportunities, and democratic, accountable governments.
Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for the Office of Counterterrorism, recently described the threats democracy poses to Al Qaeda: “Because democracies increase the space for peaceful dissent, and give people a stake in their governance, it greatly weakens those who call for violence.”
Finally, the threats that these uprisings pose to Al Qaeda are substantial because of the changes they have already produced. In the last five months, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have stepped down, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has agreed to step down, NATO has launched an air campaign against Libyan President Moammar Qaddafi, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government faces significant international rebuke. Al Qaeda’s actions have not produced any comparable results to the Arab Spring despite years of terrorist attacks.
The United States has employed a comprehensive strategy from the beginning in favor of the reforms the protesters seek. It has stated its public support for political and economic reforms and it has implemented a range of diplomatic, economic, and military actions to increase the pace of reform. It has put in place each of these steps while balancing the protesters’ desires with regional and international opinion, and critical U.S. security ties with regional actors.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton best described U.S. policy toward events in the region at the recent U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Washington: “The United States is committed to standing with the people of Egypt, Tunisia, and the region to help build sustainable democracies that will deliver real results for people who deserve them.”
The Arab Spring—a common nickname for the revolutions—poses significant short-term threats to Al Qaeda, but certain conditions could help Al Qaeda in the long term. Rising expectations among Arab youth coupled with unmet demands could lead to radicalization of certain elements within the opposition movements. In addition, Western countries will have a shorter attention span than Al Qaeda in working to influence the revolutions’ outcomes.
As the Arab Spring unfolds, it will be important for the United States to continue to support the push for political and economic reforms in the short and long term as a means to reduce support for Al Qaeda and for the many positive effects it will have on societies in the region.
Ian Bomberg is a Research Associate for National Security at American Progress.