[ANALYSIS] The death of Bin Laden is the latest blow to Al Qaeda. The opening decade of the 21st century was not a good one for America. It has been less remembered quite how bad it was for the Islamist network, whose "victory" on September 11, 2001 proved phyrric when it precipitated the – albeit incomplete – defeat of the Taliban.
The controversial US-led removal of Saddam two years later was not part of the jihadist script either. Whatever happens next, Iraq will not become a Salafist theocracy and may eventually emerge as a functioning democracy (though Freedom House currently categorises Iraq as "not free"). Al-Qaeda regards Shiites as apostates, so it would view a Shia-led or pluralist Iraq as anathema, as it would the increased influence of Iran.
2011 may mark a reversal of fortune for the United States and an annus horribilis for Al Qaeda. The sweeping away of dictators - some of whom had good relations with the United States - by the Arab Spring could yet make space for theocracies and sectarian war. However, the Arab upheaval is more likely to emerge as a greater blow to extremist ambitions than the death of Bin Laden.
Al Qaeda's primary battle has been against pluralism and modernisation in the Arab world. Its attacks on the US and the West are a means to an end even more than they are ends in themselves.
Al Qaeda is a diffuse network and is far from finished. A flipside of US actions is that they remain potent recruiting tools for global Jihad. Yet, the chances an Islamic caliphate will be established are remote, to say nothing of Ayman Zawahiri's hope for a subsequent defeat of the United States and an imaginary "world’s Jewish government". Posterity is unlikely to be kind to Al Qaeda, its late leader, or to the Taliban.
The "War on Terror" has been interpreted by some as a war against Islam in which Osama is now a martyr; it is better described as the US response to an assault by Al Qaeda and others on the majority of the Muslim-inhabited world, the West, and everybody else, in that order.
Anyone, it seems, is a legitimate target. Even Bin Laden's likely successor, Zawahiri, might have trouble matching the sweeping conspiratorial paranoia of Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. He said of the murder of UN aid workers in Afghanistan which followed the actions of a fringe US church: "The foreigners brought the wrath of the Afghans on themselves by burning the Koran."
Just as the Cold War did before it, the War on Terror has inevitably skewed US and international foreign policy priorities. Though still distant prospects, the end of Al Qaeda, democratisation of the Arab world or a resolution of the Middle East crisis, would each be tremendous developments. What's more, were any or all of those to happen, it could divert needed attention to the many neglected threats to the survival and well-being of hundreds of millions of people around the globe.