Al Qaeda Losing Luster? Officials Say UBL Death, Arab Spring Hurt Terror Network

With the Middle East at a crossroads, the death of Usama bin Laden makes the choice for its people that much sharper.

On one side is a world where Islamic radicals try to lure supporters, exploiting an environment of corrupt governance and poverty. On the other, a new wave of reform where populations are demanding their leaders either improve conditions or leave.

The Obama administration hopes the latter is the obvious winner.

Top U.S. officials are pressing the case that bin Laden's death marks a significant blow to the network of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. While he may not have played a major operational role, he was the figurehead of the movement. With him gone, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said the "Al Qaeda narrative is becoming increasingly bankrupt."

While security officials, analysts and lawmakers stress that the fight is not over -- Al Qaeda continues to fester in Pakistan and Yemen and everywhere there are lone wolves willing to take up the cause -- they also cite several factors in arguing the Al Qaeda movement is on the decline.

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Not only is bin Laden dead, but the United States has shown it can infiltrate and track their couriers. The CIA is also analyzing what has been described as a "trove" of evidence collected from the scene -- specifically 10 hard drives, five computers and dozens of storage devices. The exposure has the potential to drive elements of the Al Qaeda network deep into remission.

"They have to be freaking out," said Matthew Levitt, a former intelligence official with the Treasury Department who now leads a counterterrorism unit at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Importantly, the death of bin Laden also comes in the midst of the popular uprising sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. While those demonstrators are not rebelling against Al Qaeda, they are demanding a responsive government. Should they achieve this and give the public a greater role in shaping their countries, the environment could become far less conducive to Al Qaeda and its ilk.

"I think that it's very significant that this happened at ... the backdrop of this Arab spring," Levitt told "It's now clear that there may well be an alternative to the status quo."

He said people are becoming "less and less drawn to the Al Qaeda narrative."

Brennan made a similar argument. "There is a new wave sweeping through the Middle East right now that puts a premium on individual rights and freedom and dignity. And so Al Qaeda, bin Laden, old news. Now's the time to move forward," Brennan said Monday.

The confluence of events has also raised new questions about the direction of the war in Afghanistan, and the need for heavy U.S. involvement. Bin Laden's fugitive status was always the unresolved element that hung over the decade-long U.S. mission. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Tuesday that, "With the death of bin Laden, some people are sure to ask, 'Why don't we just pack up and leave Afghanistan?'"

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted that July 2011 will remain the date for when the U.S. troop drawdown begins, based on conditions on the ground. Some suggest it would be a mistake to accelerate a pullout just because bin Laden is dead.

"I disagree that Afghanistan is a strategic distraction. It's a strategic distraction only until the next attack," Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former State Department official, told Kerry and others at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday.

She stressed the importance of strategic U.S. assistance to the Afghan people, though she said bin Laden's death creates the opportunity to start "negotiations on a political settlement."

"The United States has already made clear that his death is not the end of the war in Afghanistan, but we should now mark this moment as the beginning of the end," she said.

Levitt noted there are other terror networks in Pakistan and beyond that continue to pose a threat. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, too, has been a primary exporter of terror plots while bin Laden was in hiding.

Plus there are competing elements in the region that will continue to test its people, and it's not yet clear whether the new governments that emerge -- in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere -- will reject the extremists. Of concern in Washington is the recent announcement of a Palestinian unity pact between Hamas and Fatah, brokered by a post-Mubarak Egypt. Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group, has condemned the U.S. raid on bin Laden.

But a recent Pew Research Center survey showed that bin Laden's appeal was fading in the region before his death. The survey found that in Pakistan, confidence in bid Laden dropped from 52 percent in 2005 to 18 percent last year.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, questioned whether Al Qaeda would even return if the Taliban regained power. He argued before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that U.S. interest in Afghanistan has become "less than vital with the near-elimination of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan."

Kerry, though, said the U.S. role and the terror threat must continue to be examined in the wake of bin Laden's death.

"The fight against the violence and the hatred that he fomented is not over," he said.