Only with the next major episode, the simultaneous bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998, did the Al Qaeda leader start garnering serious attention.
The embassy attacks, executed precisely eight years after U.S. forces had first begun arriving in Saudi Arabia, were carefully planned and devastatingly effective. In each case, a truck packed with explosives produced massive structural damage of the intended target. In Nairobi, the attack killed 227, including twelve Americans, and injured several thousand others, the great majority of them Kenyan bystanders. In Dar es Salaam, ten embassy employees, none of them Americans, were killed, and several dozen others were wounded.
Within twenty-four hours, President Clinton took to the airwaves to explain what had occurred. “Americans are targets of terrorism,” he said, “because we have unique leadership responsibilities in the world, because we act to advance peace and democracy, and because we stand united against terrorism.” The statement was at best incomplete and at worst misleading, designed not to inform but to reassure and thereby to conceal. The smoldering U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania heralded a problem whose complexity—historical, ideological, and religious—the president was not prepared to acknowledge. In place of elucidation, he offered resolve, promising to “continue to take the fight to terrorists.” How or against whom the United States was going to fight went unspecified.
In fact, with U.S. intelligence agencies quickly fingering bin Laden as responsible—CIA director George Tenet characterized the evidence as a “slam dunk”—Clinton opted for direct but limited military retaliation.14 In effect, the scope of America’s War for the Greater Middle East was now widening to include Al Qaeda.
Among the distinguishing characteristics of this new adversary, one in particular stood out: It was not a state but a movement. As such, it transcended place. Even so, to initiate their campaign against Al Qaeda, U.S. officials decided on a missile attack targeting a small set of fixed facilities…
…From being largely oblivious to bin Laden, the American security apparatus now went to the other extreme, seeing him as the mastermind of a plot with existential implications. Within the Clinton administration, “getting” bin Laden—and thereby presumably leaving Al Qaeda leaderless—became a matter of feverish concern.
This reaction proved deeply problematic. In categorizing the threat posed by Al Qaeda as somehow distinct from other developments already occasioning U.S. intervention in the Islamic world, the United States was committing a fundamental error, exaggerating the danger bin Laden’s organization posed even while simultaneously ignoring the circumstances that had produced it. Once again, U.S. policymakers were mistaking symptom (terrorism) for disease (profound political and social dysfunction exacerbated by ill-advised U.S. policies).
It was the equivalent of the British government after the Boston Tea Party fancying that Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty defined the challenge to the Crown’s authority throughout its North American colonies. To imagine that capturing Adams and crushing a gang of rabble-rousing Bostonians would set things right was to indulge in a vast illusion. As in the mid-1770s, so too in the late 1990s: If the “war of the future” was at hand, the world’s reigning superpower was utterly clueless about what it was getting into.