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In this Oct. 7, 2001, file photo made from a video image, Osama bin Laden, left, and his top lieutenant, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, are seen at an undisclosed location.

Despite a widespread tendency to dismiss the possibility of an al-Qaeda comeback now that its leader, Osama bin Laden, is dead, the risk remains very real that the nefarious organization and its affiliates still could spoil the democratic successes of the Arab spring.

People said confidently this week that the death of Mr. bin Laden symbolized the marginalization of al-Qaeda in the Middle East.

And John Brennan, U.S. President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, spoke for many when he told reporters in Washington: "There is a new wave sweeping through the Middle East right now that puts a premium on individual rights and freedom and dignity."

That may be, but that wave has only washed ashore in two countries: Egypt and Tunisia. Both have seen popular uprisings - aided in each case by the army that sided with them - overturn an autocratic president. This was something that al-Qaeda was never able to achieve, despite its fervent wishes and terrorist attacks.

Beyond those two North African states, however, the story is very different: In Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen widespread protests have resulted in open civil warfare or severe repression, and freedom and dignity have proved elusive. Some or all of those countries could see the open sores of conflict lead to an al-Qaeda infection.

With second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri now taking the helm of al-Qaeda, the question is how quickly the remnants of the organization will strike, and where.

Mr. al-Zawahiri and Mr. bin Laden had always made it clear that their primary Mideast targets were Egypt and Saudi Arabia. While an intervention in Egypt is not likely to have any kind of uptake now, the situation in Saudi Arabia is different.

"Saudi Arabia is definitely vulnerable," said John Bell, director of Middle East programs at the Toledo International Center for Peace in Madrid. "And so, too, is Algeria," he added, noting the growth of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.

In fact, the target area could be much wider.

"Revolutionary Islamism is very much alive and stronger than ever," said Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Herzliya, Israel.

"Thinking that bin Laden was the main problem and his death is the solution is very dangerous indeed."

Mr. Rubin listed Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan as countries facing a serious Islamist al-Qaeda-style threat.

Indeed, affiliates of al-Qaeda, based in Yemen, North Africa and Somalia, have played an increasing role in plotting and carrying out attacks.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation says that al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, now poses the biggest terrorist threat to U.S. interests.

And the bombing last Thursday of a Marrakesh café that killed 16 tourists, including a Canadian, is a reminder of the threat from al-Qaeda in Morocco.

It is quite true that the popularity of al-Qaeda and Mr. bin Laden have plummeted in recent years. A recent Pew Research survey showed that the number of people expressing confidence in Mr. bin Laden fell in Jordan this year to 13 per cent from 56 per cent in 2003, and in Lebanon to 1 per cent from 19 per cent.

Here in Turkey, only 3 per cent of this feisty Islamic country said they felt any confidence in Mr. bin Laden.

However, in the past year, the number of Salafi-Jihadists has grown considerably in North Africa and across the Middle East, says Alastair Crooke, author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution. These religious extremists, who believe in a literal interpretation of the Koran and support violence against those who stand in their way, are the very people who find the al-Qaeda dream of a global Islamic caliphate so appealing.

Even Hamas in Gaza is facing a worrying surge of Salafi-Jihadists, some of whom are al-Qaeda wannabes. And, as Hamas's deputy foreign minister, Ghazi Hamad, said: "It doesn't take very many of these radicals to create havoc and worse."

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