Reporting from Cairo — The austere image of a tall, turbaned man battling the West from a cave inspired young Islamist warriors for years. But when Osama bin Laden died, his virulent brand of jihad had been all but extinguished by the "Arab Spring" that found more potent and peaceful ways to reshape the world.
Al Qaeda-inspired militants still roam the mountains of Yemen and along the dangerous coast of Somalia. For many Arabs, though, Bin Laden's appeal had waned in the lexicon of Facebook and Twitter; he had become akin to an oldies rock 'n' roll act, an antiquated icon in a new era of revolution.
The pro-democracy movements that overthrew the autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt accomplished in weeks what militants couldn't in decades. Radical and ultraconservative Muslims temper their screeds these days to speak to a Middle East and North Africa that crave jobs and freedoms over religious extremism and "holy war" that have led to promises of paradise but few earthly rewards.
Photos: Osama bin Laden's death
"Many of us never really understood what exactly is jihad," said Nader Hazem, a 27-year-old engineer in Cairo. "Blowing ourselves up anywhere there is an infidel? And what will it lead to? What will Islam gain if Bin Laden is successful with every attack against Western targets he plans?"
That is not to suggest that Bin Laden's philosophy has lost all resonance. The cafe bombing that killed 16 people in Morocco last week is testament to the stunning brutality that can rip through a city street. Before NATO airstrikes against Moammar Kadafi's forces last month, a Libyan rebel said that if the West didn't help, he and others might turn to Al Qaeda as a last resort.
Weeks later, with French jets and U.S. missiles streaking the sky, it was American flags, not posters of Bin Laden, that fluttered during Friday prayers in the rebel capital of Benghazi.
The Arab world has changed much since Sept. 11, 2001, when many across the Mideast cheered as the World Trade Center towers collapsed. The U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq spurred thousands more young Muslim men toward Al Qaeda training camps in the rugged terrain of Pakistan. But years of jihad proved bloody, fruitless and, in a large sense, counterproductive. Suicide bombers in Baghdad targeted not only infidels but also fellow Muslims, leading to disillusionment and the gradual erosion of Bin Laden's mystique.
"We are so glad to hear that news," said Sheik Muhammed Hayis from Iraq's Anbar province, once a stronghold of Al Qaeda disciples. "All orphans, widows and people who suffered that butcher should be happy now.... The killing of Bin Laden is victory for all humanity, not only for Americans."
Col. Raad Ali, who helped lead the Sunni fight against the Al Qaeda affiliate in west Baghdad in 2007, said the group's religious extremism and indiscriminate killing cost it support not long after its fighters had been welcomed.
"At the beginning, they talked about very different things, about liberation and freedom and kicking out the Americans and said, 'We will help you,' " Ali said. "Many Iraqis believed them, but after a while Iraqis discovered this was a lie. And they discovered they [Qaeda] were big killers. The group killed thousands of Sunnis and Shiites."
The decline in Bin Laden's allure has been dramatic. A survey done by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project found that in 2003 Bin Laden had the support of 56% of Jordanians. By this year, that figure had dropped to 13%. Over the same years in Indonesia, those numbers fell from 59% to 26%. And in Turkey, which ranks high in anti-American attitudes, confidence in Bin Laden fell from 15% to 3%.
Yet some predict Bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. special forces will bring a wave of reprisals. It has "left a wound. It has dealt a blow to our morale and has amplified the feeling of oppression," said Sheik bin Salem Shahhal, the son of the man recognized as the founder of the religiously ultraconservative Salafist movement in Lebanon. "But this has only made Islamic Salafist movements even more intent on seeking revenge."
Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, was quoted by Reuters as saying: "We condemn the assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior. We regard this as a continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood."
Al Qaeda's attacks have been visceral and cinematic, providing fleeting release for pent-up rage but doing little to heal the Arab world's larger problems of poverty, political repression and corruption. It wasn't a terrorist plot that brought down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; it was hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters from across society demanding better lives.