LONDON – By the time Navy SEALs gunned down Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Abbottabad, America's public enemy No. 1 had already lost the battle for the hearts and minds of a new generation of Arabs.
Look at the signs and banners of the frustrated masses that kicked off the Arab uprising in the streets of Tunisia; the eager protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square who overturned Egypt's modern pharaoh; the resentful Shia who braved bullets in Bahrain; the angry crowds challenging the dictatorial government in Yemen; or the long-suffering Syrians who are so fed up with one-family rule that they are willing to face tanks in the streets.
Look closely at the videos and shaky mobile phone clips of these mass protests that have mobilized the Arab public.
Where are the pictures of bin Laden and the slogans of Al Qaeda? Absent.
What are these angry Arab citizens demanding? Certainly not a return to the Middle Ages or the establishment of a new Islamic caliphate. Their heroes are not Islamic fundamentalists like bin Laden, but people like themselves who have the guts to stand up to dictators. Young bloggers and Facebook activists are replacing bearded kill-joys as the new force in the Middle East.
Bin Laden had great ambitions when he built his organization two decades ago. Back in 1996, CBS News producer Randall Joyce and I began negotiations in London with a Saudi Arabian exile to arrange an interview with bin Laden in Afghanistan.
Our contact explained that bin Laden had a plan. First of all, he wanted to raise his profile in the international media. Then he wanted to provoke the United States into attacking a Muslim nation. He hoped that would cause the Muslim world to rise up against the United States. Bin Laden would lead the uprising and force America to stop supporting corrupt Arab governments, including the royal family of Saudi Arabia, which he especially hated.
Of course things didn't work out quite that way. After Sept. 11, the United States invaded not only one, but two Muslim nations, at huge cost to all parties. But the pan-Arab uprising against America never happened.
What has occurred instead, a decade later, is that long-suffering Arab populations themselves have decided to get rid of their corrupt autocrats, without any help from bin Laden. And American attempts to do the job for them in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been notably successful.
In all the discussions and second-guessing in the American and international media about the manner and meaning of the killing of bin Laden, this point should not be overlooked. Bin Laden and his relatively small band of fanatics succeeded in killing a large number of Americans, and a much larger number of Muslims, over the years. And it did incredible damage to America and its allies by sucking them into two wars, as well as the so-called war on terror. Americans hailed his death. But the unexpected Arab uprisings revealed he had become marginalized, almost irrelevant, on the Arab street.