Editor's note: Kristin Wood is a former CIA counterterrorism officer.
(CNN) -- As we watch, fixated, on events in Tunisia, in Egypt and now in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere, we must be aware that equally riveted -- and sitting on the sidelines -- are the terrorists the Western world has spent 20 years chasing. And they are fearful their time has come and gone.
The Egyptian Islamic Jihad, for example, spent 30 years unsuccessfully seeking to overthrow the Egyptian government before joining al Qaeda in 2001. Members assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, killed other ministers and attacked tourist sites, alienating the population and triggering a crackdown that left the group unable to operate in Egypt. The group had received millions of dollars in support. But at the end of the day, poverty and despair succeeded in 18 days where a well-financed, violent cadre of motivated true believers failed over decades. The implications are far-ranging.
Al Qaeda, the mother ship for Islamic extremism, has cast a wide net over much of the Middle East. It has launched spectacular attacks throughout the world -- on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and many, many more.
Members have justified the violence against innocents by portraying themselves as the vehicle needed by the poor and oppressed to overthrow governments and establish a pan-Islamic Caliphate ruled by Islamic law. But none of those attacks overthrew governments or created sea changes in society. Those poor and oppressed, the young men and women without opportunity, parents with children for whom they see no future, have accomplished in short days what seemed to have been an impossible task.
This is not good news for the leaders of terrorist groups.
Al Qaeda and others, even damaged by a decade of Western commitment to the war on terror, might still have the capacity to conduct significant attacks. But the people have taken matters into their own hands, and this could sound the death knell for the "legitimacy" of such operations.
People see they can change regimes without wholesale slaughter or creating additional economic hardship. They have seen and been repulsed by carnage from terror attacks. This is a real opportunity to support the seeds of people's democracies.
Power can be heady. In Tunisia, for example, the exercise in political power has encouraged some workers to refuse to work until they receive better wages.
In Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain and Libya, leaders are facing emboldened masses and offering stopgap measures to maintain their power. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, for example, recently announced that the government was freeing political prisoners and would convene a committee to examine major changes to the government. But the tide of revolt has become a tsunami, and it is looking uncertain that Gadhafi will retain his hold on power.
In Bahrain, protesters are blockading parliament. In Algeria, the government just might have survived this round of protests by lifting the 19-year-old state of emergency and allowing TV airtime to political opponents.
The result is that the 2011 uprisings will shift and shape the Middle East, and force its governments to make changes for years to come.
Western governments need to take advantage of this moment to further weaken terrorist organizations' legitimacy. The good news is that doing what's necessary as democratic nations are the key ingredients: supporting the voice of the people, advocating a return to the rule of law and peaceful transition to new governments and espousing policies that create economic opportunity.
Islamist extremists, whether part of al Qaeda's network or the local variety, will not remain on the sidelines for much longer and undoubtedly have been scrambling to take advantage of the opportunities posed by a power vacuum. In Tunisia, for example, verbal attacks on members of a Jewish synagogue last week were blamed on the Muslim fundamentalist movement El-Tahrir, according to a leader in the Jewish community, which had been "very silent under the regime of (toppled president Zine el Abidine) Ben Ali, but (is) now out to cause chaos."
Al Qaeda needs to get into the action to show it is relevant, but members will be hampered by a need to plan, their inability to move quickly enough and to create a success anywhere near as dramatic as the overthrow of governments already under way.
It may be that 26-year old Mohamed Bouazizi, the jobless Tunisian whose self-immolation to protest police confiscating the produce he was attempting to sell set off the Tunisian revolution, may have reeled in a much bigger fish: Osama bin Laden and his team.
Power has been taken by the people on whose behalf terrorists said they were acting ... the same people who have just discovered they can speak perfectly well for themselves. Where it goes from here depends much on Western nations' ability to focus on this moment to ensure al Qaeda does not regain its footing.
The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Kristin Wood.