Exactly two decades ago, on August 23, 1996, Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States. At the time, few people paid much attention. But it was the start of what’s now the Twenty Years’ War between the United States and al-Qaeda—a conflict that both sides have ultimately lost.
During the 1980s, bin Laden fought alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. After the Soviets withdrew, he went home to Saudi Arabia, then moved to Sudan before being expelled and returning to Afghanistan in 1996 to live under Taliban protection. Within a few months of his arrival, he issued a 30-page fatwa, “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” which was published in a London-based newspaper, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, and faxed to supporters around the world. It was bin Laden’s first public call for a global jihad against the United States. In arambling text, bin Laden opined on Islamic history, celebrated recent attacks against U.S. forces in Lebanon and Somalia, and recounted a multitude of grievances against the United States, Israel, and their allies. “The people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Jewish-Christian alliance and their collaborators,” he wrote.
His central lament was the presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, or “the occupation of the land of the two holiest sites.” Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden had offered to defend Saudi Arabia with his Arab legion. But the Saudi royals decided that the U.S. military would be a better bet. Six years later, American soldiers were still in Saudi Arabia in a bid to contain Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden saw the United States as the power behind the throne: the “far enemy” that propped up apostate regimes in the Middle East. Muslims, he wrote, should abandon their petty local fights and unite to drive the Americans out of Saudi Arabia: “destroying, fighting and killing the enemy until, by the Grace of Allah, it is completely defeated.”
And so began the Twenty Years’ War between al-Qaeda and the United States, which has had five distinct eras to date. The first phase, from 1996-2001, was the phony war marked by intermittent hostilities. It took al-Qaeda two years to organize its first major attack against the United States: the August 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people in total, 12 of them American. The United States responded with a quasi-war against al-Qaeda and its state sponsors, which combined a legal indictment of bin Laden with limited military action, including cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998 that killed at least six al-Qaeda personnel. In 2000, al-Qaeda suicide bombers hit the USS Cole at a port in Yemen, killing 17. The following year, the terrorist group brought the war to the American homeland with the 9/11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people.