Features

BOOK EXCERPT: Losing bin Laden

International

Issue: "Sciavo: Saved by the bill," Nov. 1, 2003

NEAR KHOST, AFGHANISTAN-When Osama bin Laden decided to publicly declare war on the Western world for the fifth time in the Clinton presidency, he called a press conference that began with gunshots. It was May 1998.

Each of bin Laden's previous declarations of war had essentially been ignored by the Clinton Administration. The arch-terrorist first publicly declared war on America on October 12, 1996. "It is the duty of every tribe in the Arabian peninsula to fight jihad and cleanse the land from these Crusader occupiers. Their wealth is booty to those who kill them."

Amazingly, the Clinton Administration largely ignored bin Laden's plain threat. One reason might have been timing. With less than three weeks to go before the 1996 presidential election, Clinton was thinking about re-election, not national security.

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Meanwhile, bin Laden upped the ante. In a February 1997 Arabic-language television interview, bin Laden declared, "If someone can kill an American soldier, it is better than wasting time on other matters." He thought it was his duty, his moral obligation, to kill American soldiers-and again, the Clinton [administration] did not respond.

Bin Laden turned up the volume. On February 23, 1998, the "World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders" issued a fatwa, a declaration of war, signed by bin Laden. (Bin Laden had taken control of the group only weeks before, according to Al-Sharq al-Awsat, a London-based Arabic-language newspaper that serves as a bulletin board for militant Muslims.) The Front announced its desire to kill all Americans, even civilians. The edict was explicit. "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies-civilian and military-is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it." This marked the first time that bin Laden had publicly declared war on American civilians, although it was his third declaration of war. Again Clinton said nothing and did nothing.

A few months later bin Laden appeared on al-Jazeera television and said, "Our enemy is every American male, whether he is directly fighting us or paying taxes." It amounted to bin Laden's fourth declaration of war.

The May 1998 press conference held in the hills near Khost, Afghanistan, was to be bin Laden's last declaration of war before his most devastating attacks on Americans yet....

Dressed in white robes with his beard combed straight, bin Laden emerged and slowly moved forward. He seemed serene and serious. Without any introductions, he began speaking in Arabic and paused only for al-Qaeda interpreters to render his words into local languages. It was a long-winded speech. From the beginning, it was clear he was declaring war on the West, principally America.

"By God's grace, we have formed with many other Islamic groups and organizations in the Islamic world a front, called the International Islamic Front, to do jihad against the Crusaders and Jews.

"And by God's grace, the men reacted to this call and they are going on this path and they are doing a good job. By God's will, their actions are going to have a successful result in killing Americans and getting rid of them."

Bin Laden was working himself into a frenzy. Tears rolled down his cheeks and his voice broke as he talked about the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. To him, it was an unbearable abomination. A personal affront. The Americans were infidels and their garrisons propped up a corrupt, insufficiently Islamic Saudi elite. His jihad would humiliate the American interlopers, crush them, drive them out, and stain them with defeat.

What drove bin Laden to issue his fifth declaration of war on America in May 1998? Aside from his stated ideological reasons, some longtime observers of bin Laden suspect a psychological motivation. In Paris, one senior French intelligence analyst told the author he believed that bin Laden was hoping to provoke a showdown between his forces and American troops in the wastes of Afghanistan. His theory is interesting, though unverifiable: A war in Afghanistan would allow bin Laden to relive the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s and, after a long Vietnam-like conflict, he would defeat America, the world's sole remaining superpower. After such a historic victory, he would be a Muslim hero on par with Saladin, who drove the Crusaders from Jerusalem in the twelfth century. In this new Afghan jihad, unlike the last, he would be a commander, not a quartermaster. (The September 11 attacks would have the same motivation, according to this theory: to lure America into a war in Afghanistan, which bin Laden was sure he could win.) The idea that he, bin Laden, could lose never seems to have occurred to him.

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