One man, however, is not responsible for the millions of people who supported the violent Sunni Islamist extremists that spread across dozens of nations. They were the outgrowth of bad government, of regimes unwilling to share power with their people, or incapable of solving grinding socio-economic problems. Violent Islamist extremists offered the only readily available alternative, a dream of a theocracy in which the application of a strict version of Sunni Islam would somehow solve the problems created by globalism, over-population, and under-education. With or without bin Laden and his al Qaeda, many frustrated Muslims would have turned to the so-called religious men with bombs and guns.
What bin Ladin added to the mix, in addition to his organizational skills, was the psychological ploy of projection.
He encouraged his followers to project their anger about their condition on to an external force, America. Calling America "the Far Enemy," he reasoned that the oppressive, local regimes could not be defeated until the Far Enemy was driven from the region. When his terrorist attack teams inflicted pain on America, their actions not only proved that America was weaker than had been thought, but the attacks also galvanized supporters into thinking that they too could attack the governments they feared.
In the process of such attacks, al Qaeda went from being a pseudo-religious organization meant to advance theocracies to a killing machine. Most of the people its cells killed were Muslims. Most Muslims eventually turned away in disgust or horror. Later, many in the Muslim world turned their attention on the "Near Enemy," their own sclerotic governments, toppling four regimes and extracting concessions from many more in the wave of uprisings we call The Arab Spring. Al Qaeda had almost no role in the "Arab Spring," leaving its isolated leadership to wonder how they could remain relevant.
That narrative, however, is incomplete. The al Qaeda franchises are still a major factor. Groups calling themselves al Qaeda or claiming affiliation with that movement have large, armed formations in Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria, and in the Magreb and the Sahel regions of Africa. They are conducting military-styled attacks in some countries and waves of bombings in others. They are participating in the "Arab Spring" fighting in Libya and Syria.
For them, bin Laden is still a motivating hero. What is not yet clear is how many of them are motivated by bin Laden's call to attack the Far Enemy. Some of them still are.