The Arab Spring popular revolts caught al-Qaida by surprise. The revolts are not al-Qaida's operational handiwork, and they certainly do not fit the ideologically driven historical narrative spun by al-Qaida elites, such as the late Osama bin Laden.
Of course, militant Islamists are exploiting the revolts. Egyptian Islamist extremists have launched attacks on Coptic Christians, seeking to ignite a sectarian civil war and derail Egypt's transition process. Al-Qaida's Musab al-Zarqawi attempted the same ploy in Iraq, pitting Sunnis against Shias.
However, demands for jobs and freedom swamp calls for a caliphate.
Bin Laden's death at any time would have been a coup, but his death now, in this fascinating Arab Spring, provides Arab modernizers with a political tool to challenge the utopian poppycock of militant Islamist extremists and forward the goal of marginalizing them in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria.
Al-Qaida has always been first and foremost an information power whose most potent weapons are psychological manipulation, ideological influence and media exploitation.
Bin Laden's death gives the entire civilized world an opportunity to attack al-Qaida's strengths.
Al-Qaida's dark genius was to link the Muslim world's angry, humiliated and isolated young men to a utopian fantasy extolling the virtues of violence. Al-Qaida's appeal to perceived grievance and its promise to redress 800 years of Muslim decline (by forging a global caliphate) made it a regional information power. The 9-11 attacks made al-Qaida a global information power. Sept. 11 was bin Laden's international advertising campaign. He was al-Qaida's CEO, corporate spokesman and AK-47 armed icon, all in one. His message: Young Muslims could believe in his courage and rectitude.
He failed to create his caliphate, however -- and, oh, he wanted one, so desperately. The worldly power of the Islamic empire he envisioned would confirm the divine sanction of bin Laden-interpreted religious law.
It didn't happen. He's dead. And Muslim extremists won't bring jobs to Egypt, either.
Bin Laden's also failed -- utterly -- to buckle America. America, according to Osama's narrative, was ultimately to blame for the wretchedness of Muslim lands. The U.S. supported corrupt governments, both feudal kingdoms (Saudi Arabia) and authoritarian regimes (Hosni Mubarak's Egypt).
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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