The challenge for U.S. officials was to decide whether to treat bin Laden’s fatwas as the ravings of a madman or as a serious plan of action. After 9/11, the answer appeared self-evident. Yet when these documents first appeared, things were less clear.
Although bin Laden had declared war on the United States, his approach to waging that war took the form of occasional hit-and-run attacks. While hardly trivial, al Qaeda’s demonstrated capabilities during the 1990s did not match its leader’s grandiose intentions.
Moreover, not every terrorist attack conducted by Al Qaeda targeted Americans, and not every terrorist attack targeting Americans was attributable to Al Qaeda. As the 1990s unfolded, other names on the list of American enemies in the Greater Middle East took precedence. When Bill Clinton became president in 1993, the United States was effectively “at war” with Saddam Hussein and would soon find itself “at war” with Mohamed Farrah Aidid and Slobodan Milošević. It took his administration several years to conclude that the United States was also “at war” with bin Laden.
The Al Qaeda leader himself entertained no doubts in that regard. Moreover, bin Laden detected a pattern in U.S. military actions in Iraq, Somalia, the Balkans, and elsewhere. The United States, he believed, was intent on dominating the region outright. In truth, as President Clinton deepened U.S. military involvement in the region, he (like his immediate predecessors) never devised anything remotely approximating an actual strategy. Prevailing assumptions about U.S. military supremacy and history’s direction seemingly made strategy—which implies establishing priorities, making choices, and matching means to ends—unnecessary.
So as bin Laden’s war against the United States unfolded in fits and starts, it took a while for senior officials in Washington to take notice. It took longer still for them to respond. And when that response finally materialized, it amounted to little more than a poorly aimed kick in the shins.