Almost 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. forces succeeded in locating and killing Osama bin Laden yesterday. His body was buried at sea within hours after his death, according to U.S. officials. President Barack Obama made a rare Sunday night address from the White House's East Room to announce that "justice has been done."
Behind the celebrations and mourning internationally, and the principled but pointless debates about whether Americans should be celebratory or stoic, lies a more important question: What now?
The effects of bin Laden's death on al-Qaeda's operations in the short term seem limited. Long term, though, the void that bin Laden leaves, paired with recent successes of nonviolent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, paint a grim picture for the terrorist network's health.
Operationally, bin Laden's role was minimal in recent years, and his death is likely not to impact al-Qaeda's capacity to carry out any attacks already planned. Here's a late-night assessment by former counterterrorism analyst Leah Farrall:
[Osama bin Laden] really only got involved in ops planning to approve spectaculars, particularly those using a new means of attack or against a new target. Second tier leaders deal with external operations for the most part. Aside from communications disruptions (which do little to disrupt those already deployed) this section will continue on business as usual.
Business as usual, that is, in the tail end of the Arab Spring. As Adam Serwer observed, the resignation of Egypt's longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak (and that of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia) deprived al-Qaeda of the opportunity to prove that violence was the path to dumping corrupt, Western-backed leaders in the Arab world.
"In its decades of murder, terrorism, and violence against the West and against Muslims, al-Qaeda and their allies have achieved nothing even distantly resembling the triumph the Egyptian people have secured in the past few weeks, and the Tunisian people before them," Adam wrote in the wake of Mubarak's resignation. "Because of what happened today, they are closer to the brink of annihilation than ever before."
The nonviolent overthrow of Mubarak, perhaps the Arab world's most firmly entrenched strongman, provided a strong counternarrative to al-Qaeda's message that terrorism was necessary to delivering Muslims from oppressive leaders. Someone finally achieved al-Qaeda's goal of dumping an American stooge ruling an Arab country, but al-Qaeda could take no responsibility.
Since then, nonviolent protests have been successfully repressed across the Arab world, excepting Libya, where the country continues to teeter somewhere in the gray zone between civil war and anarchy. The lack of nonviolent victories following successes in Egypt and Tunisia does not refute the counternarrative to al-Qaeda's approach, but it does present the organization an opportunity to re-win disenchanted hearts and minds. A larger opportunity for al-Qaeda may yet loom in the potential for democratic experiments in Tunisia and Egypt to turn sour.
Compounding the messaging challenges presented by the Arab Spring, bin Laden's death may leave al-Qaeda in far less capable hands.
An unnamed U.S. official dubbed Ayman al-Zawahiri bin Laden's likely successor, saying that he "is far less charismatic and not as well-respected within the organization, judging by comments from several captured al-Qaida leaders." The anonymous official also suggested that al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, may encounter "difficulty maintaining the loyalty of bin Laden's largely Gulf Arab followers."
Al-Zawahiri has proved his staying power; he was first chosen as bin Laden's No. 2 at the founding of al-Qaeda in 1988. If al-Zawahiri proceeds to demonstrate his prickliness and lack of charisma, however, the organization's survival may depend on dumping or sidelining the old hand in favor of someone who can once again capture the imaginations of disenchanted Muslims ruled unjustly.
This spring -- the Arab Spring -- will go down in history for the inspiring, nonviolent attempts by people eager to seize the reigns of their destiny. For the foreseeable future, though, al-Qaeda will still be there to pick off those who lose hope and seek other means to control the fate of their countries.