On August 21, 1998, dozens of United States Tomahawk Cruise Missiles destroyed a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan (believed to be manufacturing chemicals used in nerve gas), along with alleged terrorist training camps in Afghanistan sponsored by Osama bin Laden. The London based Arabic newspaper, al-Quds, reported that bin Laden narrowly escaped being killed by the missiles because he had been delayed returning to one of the camps for a dinner engagement. The raids were in retaliation for the bombings of a pair of United States embassies two weeks earlier on August 7: in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar as-Salaam, Tanzania. The bombings killed 12 Americans and nearly 300 Africans. The U.S. believed that at least some of the attackers were hiding out in Somalia.
Official Arab reaction to the U.S. missile attack on the Sudan was muted for the most part. Some Sudanese officials angrily denounced it noting how it came barely three days after President Clinton admitted he had lied about his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Writing in the Arabic weekly al-Majalla (no. 967, August 23-29, 1998, 12), Mustapha Kirkuti argued that it was the responsibility of the United States to combat terrorism not only as a security problem, but also by addressing the root causes (injustice, poverty, etc.). He noted that the attack on Khartoum had weakened the hand of the coalition of forces in Sudan opposing the ruling regime and struggling to institute a federalist, democratic state there. The coalition had been broad based, made up of Muslims, Christians, Animists, Tribalists, and Secularists.
U.S. officials claimed they had proof the embassy bombings were financed by ex-Saudi millionaire, Osama bin Laden, who had lived in the Sudan from 1991-1996 and at the time of the bombings was residing in Afghanistan where he had returned in 1996 to form an alliance with Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia. An estimated 3,000 militiamen were under bin Laden's command in his al-Qaeda movement ("The Base") making his the largest terrorist organization in the world. The origins of the movement's name are not entirely clear. It may derive from the filename for one of Osama's computer files dated 1988: a list of all the jihad fighters who had passed through the training camps he set up in 1986. Some think Abdullah Azzam came up with the organization's name. The U.S. government in the 1990s began referring to the group as al-Qaeda, and subsequently the term entered popular usage. Bin Laden's organization was believed to have been behind the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 as well as the bombing of a U.S. Naval vessel (USS Cole) the previous year (see below and also).
Many of al-Qaeda's members, including bin Laden, had fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 and had benefited from $3 billion worth of CIA training and funding (more). One of the chief ideologues for these "Afghan Arabs," as they were known, was a Palestinian university professor named Abdullah Azzam, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, graduate of al-Azhar, and radical jihadist. Bin Laden had been one of Azzam's students at Abd al-Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Azzam was assassinated under mysterious circumstances in Afghanistan in 1989.
Bin Laden was one of 54 children born to a Saudi man of Yemeni origin who made a fortune in the construction trades. By the time of the elder bin Laden's accidental death in 1968, he was worth in excess of $11 billion earned mostly from highway construction projects and building palaces for the royal family. Young Osama and his siblings were raised and educated with members of the Saudi royal family. Osama grew up deeply influenced by the examples of the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabism.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, bin Laden went to Peshawar, Pakistan, and began taking an interest in the jihad that had been mounted to oust the Communists and establish an Islamic theocracy in neighboring Afghanistan. He returned to Saudi Arabia to raise money for the jihad fighters, then went to Afghanistan himself in 1982 to collaborate with his former teacher Abdullah Azzam in a campaign to attract volunteers for the jihad. In 1986, bin Laden began setting up his own training camps in Afghanistan.
In 1989, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia where he began supporting extremist movements. In 1991, the Saudis forced bin Laden to leave the country (he was subsequently stripped of his citizenship in April, 1994). He first returned to Pakistan and Afghanistan, but then went to the Sudan and lived under the protection of the Islamist regime there. The Sudanese expelled him in 1996. They had come under international pressure following the attempt on the life of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in an attack in Addis Ababa in June, 1995. Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan.
In August, 1996, bin Laden formally declared war on the United States with his fatwa, "Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places" (text at MidEast Web). He was outraged by the presence of "infidel" American troops on the holy Muslim soil of Saudi Arabia, troops who had been invited by the kingdom in 1990 to defend Saudi Arabia against the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's invasion and annexation of Kuwait. He was also angry with the Saudi government for rebuffing his offer of his own jihad fighters to defend the country. The failure of the United States to complete its mission in Somalia (begun in 1992) led bin Laden to conclude that the U.S. was at least somewhat of a paper tiger and therefore vulnerable to attacks by jihadists.
In February, 1998, bin Laden and his colleague Egyptian Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahiri set up the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders. They published a short statement that included quotations from the Qur'an and Ibn Taymiyya and also contained a fatwa ("religious opinion") stating that "the ruling to kill the Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque [Jerusalem] and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim." (complete text) The embassy bombings followed during the summer of that year. Then, on October 12, 2000, the U.S. Navy vessel USS Cole was attacked while refueling in Aden, Yemen leaving 17 sailors dead. (Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002), 320)
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Zawahiri published a tract entitled Knights Under the Prophet's Banner in which he laid out the plan al-Qaeda was pursuing, including the role the 9/11 attacks played in it. (Gilles Kepel offers an excellent summary of Zawahiri's argument in his book The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 94ff.). Zawahiri had been profoundly influenced by the radicalism of Sayyid Qutb, who was hanged by Nasser in 1966 and whose defense lawyer had been Zawahiri's great-uncle.
In July, 2005, Zawahiri wrote a letter to the leader of "al-Qaeda in Iraq," Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that provides a rare look into attempts by the symbolic leadership in Afghanistan to rein in the local leader in Iraq: in the letter Zawahiri urged Zarqawi to refrain from attacks on Iraqi civilians and from videotaped beheadings, and instead focus his attention on American targets alone. (New York Times, Oct. 7, 2005)
In summary, bin Laden's anti-Americanism began with anger over American military presence in Saudi Arabia following the Gulf War, a presence he claimed constituted a desecration of Islam's holy places (that presence was sharply reduced in the spring of 2003 and by September of that year had been removed altogether). Bin Laden was thought to have played at least a supporting role in the bombing of two U.S. military installations in Saudi Arabia that killed a total of 24 Americans in 1995 and 1996. Bin Laden tapped huge wells of Muslim anti-Americanism that had crystallized around two perceptions: that the U.S. was biased in favor of Israel and against Palestinians (see) and that America and Europe had not tried hard enough to stop Serbian atrocities against Muslims in the former Yugoslavia (see, for example).
But, anti-Americanism for bin Laden and Zawahiri was merely a "signpost" along the road, as one of their leading ideologues, Sayyid Qutb, might have put it. The larger target was the leadership of Islam itself. Bin Laden's movement represented one of the latest manifestations of two struggles that had been going on inside Islam since the tenth century: the first between the rationalists (the champions of ijtihad, as they were known) on the one hand, and on the other hand, the champions of tradition (taqlid), whose aim was to restore the caliphate, which the modernist Turkish leader Ataturk had dismantled in 1924. The other struggle was that between Sunnis ("orthodox") and Shia ("partisans") that dates to Islam's first fitna ("civil strife") after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.
American planning to kill or capture bin Laden continued almost up to the time of the Nine-Eleven attacks themselves. But, President Clinton's weakened position resulting from his impeachment along with worries that taking out bin Laden might destabilize Pakistan brought the planning to an end (there were strong ties between the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) and the Taliban-bin Laden alliance, and thousands of Pakistanis, especially those educated in Deobandi madressas, had been rallying to their country's jihadist foreign policies toward Afghanistan and India since the time of Zia al-Haq. See Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (New York: Penguin, 2004), especially 490-560)
By late 2003, it had become clear that al-Qaeda as a concrete organization had been badly disrupted, but that al-Qaeda as an idea, a political rallying cry for unrelated or loosely related militant groups was very much alive. As for bin Laden himself, it was clear at the end of the U.S. presidential campaign in 2004 that he was still very much alive: in a video message to U.S. voters on October 30, he vowed that, as his jihad fighters had bankrupted the former Soviet Union and forced them out of Afghanistan, he would wreak the same damage upon the American economy unless the U.S. pulled its troops out of Middle Eastern countries for good.
However, some doubted whether bin Laden deserved all the credit he was getting as the leader of radical Muslim jihadism worldwide. Other jihadists - among them Sulayman al-Alwan, Abu Mus'ab al-Suri, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and Abu Bakr Naji (a pseudonym) - were regarded as far more potent and formidable forces than al-Qaeda. All of these figures claimed to follow the Salafist traditions of jihad. Jordanian journalist Fouad Hussein, who spent time in prison with both Maqdisi and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (see above) documented al-Qaeda's seven step plan to a new Islamic caliphate (the institution had been abolished by Ataturk in 1924). (See Lawrence Wright, "The Master Plan," The New Yorker, Sept. 11, 2006, 48ff.).
See also why young Saudis were attracted to bin Laden.
See Raymond Ibrahim, The Al-Qaeda Reader (New York: Doubleday, 2007)