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Bin Laden and the Middle East

Author: Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
May 2, 2011

Bin Laden and the Middle East - bin-laden-and-the-middle-east

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Bin Laden's death brings to a close the decade-long search for the mastermind of the terrorist attacks against New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. As such, it will mark a significant turning point, though not an end, to the U.S.-declared "War Against Terror." The significance of bin Laden's departure, especially given al-Qaeda's decentralized structure, will likely be more symbolic than operational. Terrorism did not begin with al-Qaeda, nor will it end with al-Qaeda weakened, though weakened it will be. Nonetheless, bin Laden's death deals a blow to those who took inspiration from the Saudi-born terrorist leader, and demonstrates that the United States remains a superpower with global reach.

In the Middle East, bin Laden's death will serve as a sort of Rorschach test. Many moderate Sunni Arabs and Shiites will welcome his departure from the scene, some explicitly, others tacitly. Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority welcomed bin Laden's death as a victory for moderation, while his soon-to-be partner Hamas denounced the killing. Israel, long in the vanguard in the fight against terrorism, sees vindication of its own assertive and often creative approach against terrorist leaders worldwide. In Abu Dhabi today, the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates met and declined to comment on bin Laden's death. Nor have the Saudis commented so far. The fear that bin Laden instilled for some is likely to live on.

Given the unrest sweeping the Arab world, bin Laden's death is likely to be less significant to the people of the Middle East than otherwise would have been the case. For many Arabs, bin Laden had represented a violent reaction to the Arab's powerlessness and failure to measure up to the West. Yet even for many who had sympathized with his tactics, bin Laden had become an embarrassment, having helped solidify a global image of the Arabs as terrorists. The Arab uprisings now sweeping the region are an attempt to forge a new Arab image and identity.

Now that Arabs from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Oman are taking matters into their own hands, bin Laden may well be forgotten more quickly than he is in the United States, where he murdered thousands of Americans and perforated the nation's sense that international affairs take place abroad and not at home. Yet for a small but significant group of bin Laden's followers, he will be a symbolic martyr whose death will now need to be avenged.

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