Arab revolts turned Osama bin Laden into bloody footnote

BEIRUT Mon May 2, 2011 4:30pm IST

Shopkeepers gather around television screens showing a speech by U.S. President Barack Obama as he announced the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at a market in Quetta May 2, 2011. REUTERS/Naseer Ahmed

Shopkeepers gather around television screens showing a speech by U.S. President Barack Obama as he announced the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at a market in Quetta May 2, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Naseer Ahmed

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Osama bin Laden, slain by U.S. forces in Pakistan on Sunday, seems curiously irrelevant in an Arab world fired by popular revolt against oppressive leaders.

"Bin Laden is just a bad memory," said Nadim Houry, of Human Rights Watch, in Beirut. "The region has moved way beyond that, with massive broad-based upheavals that are game-changers."

The al Qaeda leader's bloody attacks, especially those of Sept. 11, 2001, once resonated among some Arabs who saw them as grim vengeance for perceived indignities heaped upon them by the United States, Israel and their own American-backed leaders.

Bin Laden had dreamed that his global Islamist jihad would inspire Muslims to overthrow pro-Western governments, notably in Saudi Arabia, the homeland which revoked his citizenship.

He espoused jihad largely in anger at what he viewed as the occupation of Muslim lands by foreign "infidel" forces -- the Russians in Afghanistan, the Americans in Saudi Arabia in the 1990 Gulf crisis, or the Israelis in Palestine.

But al Qaeda's indiscriminate violence never galvanised Arab masses, while his networks came under severe pressure from Arab governments helping Western counter-terrorism efforts.

"Bin Laden's brand of defiance in the early days probably excited some imaginations, but the senseless acts of violence destroyed any appeal he had," Houry said.

Nowhere was this change of heart more marked than in Iraq, where anger at Muslim casualties inflicted by al Qaeda suicide bombings -- and the Shi'ite sectarian backlash they provoked -- eventually drove Sunni tribesmen to ally with the Americans.

Popular sympathy for al Qaeda also evaporated in Saudi Arabia after a series of indiscriminate attacks in 2003-06.

If the ideological appeal of bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, who advocated the restoration of an Islamic caliphate, was already fading, the pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world have further diminished it.

"At some stage Arab public opinion looked on bin Laden as a hope to end this kind of discrimination, the West's way of dealing with Muslim and Arab nations, but now these nations are saying, we will do the change ourselves, we don't need anyone to speak on our behalf," said Mahjoob Zweiri, of Qatar University.

He said bin Laden's killing would affect only a few who still believe in his path of maximising pain on the West.

ARABS CHOOSE OWN PATH

"The majority of Muslim and Arab nations have their own choice. They are moving towards modern civil societies," Zweiri argued. "People believe in gradual change, civil change, they don't want violence, even against the leaders who crushed them."

Peaceful Arab protests have already toppled autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia and are threatening the leaders of Yemen and Syria, while a popular revolt against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi has turned into a civil war with Western military intervention.

These dramas appear to have shocked al Qaeda almost into silence. Even its most active branch, the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has mounted no big attacks during months of popular unrest against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Martin Indyk, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, described bin Laden's death as "a body blow" to al Qaeda at a time when its ideology was already being undercut by the popular revolutions in the Arab world.

"Their narrative is that violence and terrorism is the way to redeem Arab dignity and rights. What the people in the streets across the Arab world are doing is redeeming their rights and their dignity through peaceful, non-violent protests -- the exact opposite of what al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden have been preaching," said Indyk, now at the Brookings Institution.

"He hasn't managed to overthrow any government, and they are overthrowing one after the other. I would say that the combination of the two puts al Qaeda in real crisis."

Bin Laden may have become a marginal figure in the Arab world, but the discontent he tapped into still exists.

"The underlying reasons why people turn to these kinds of violent, criminal, terroristic movements are still there," said Beirut-based commentator Rami Khouri, alluding to the "anger and humiliation of people who feel that Western countries, their own Arab leaders or Israel treat them with disdain".

Nevertheless, he predicted a continued slide in al Qaeda's fortunes, particularly as U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq and later from Afghanistan remove potent sources of resentment.

"The Arab spring is certainly a sign that the overwhelming majority of Arabs, as we have known all along, repudiated bin Laden," Khouri said. "He and Zawahri tried desperately to get traction among the Arab masses, but it just never worked.

"People who followed him would be those who would form little secret cells and go off to Afghanistan, but the vast majority of people rejected his message.

"What Arabs want is what they are fighting for now, which is more human rights, dignity and democratic government."

(Editing by Jon Boyle)

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