The assassination of Osama bin Laden on 2 May 2011 has brought an unhappy chapter in US history to a close. It may be too soon to say that the killing of the Saudi dissident by an elite team of US Navy SEALs, in the compound at Abbottabad where he had been hiding with his family, ended an era of perceived confrontation between the Islamic world and American power, but the signs are fairly abundant. Anti-Americanism, symbolised by the burning of American flags, has been conspicuously absent from the protests that have been shaking the Arab world. Slogans praising ‘Brother Osama’ as a martyr or shaheed have been largely confined to places such as Quetta in Pakistan, where his former Afghan host, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, still has influence. As Fawaz Gerges explains in his excellent book, the Arab uprisings have reinforced the perception that ‘al-Qaeda’s core ideology is incompatible with the universal aspirations of the Arabs. Arabs and Muslims do not hate America and the West but rather admire their democratic institutions, including free elections, peaceful transition of leadership, and separation of powers.’ In consequence al-Qaeda is ‘more of a security irritant than a strategic threat’. There is ‘overwhelming evidence’ to suggest that the original menace it posed is now ‘winding down’.
In Gerges’s view bin Laden’s peak was really his nadir, a moment of hubris that undermined his entire strategy. Although 9/11 was, operationally speaking, a stunning success, it spelt disaster for al-Qaeda’s larger cause of building a new Islamic caliphate free from Western power and influence. In the first place