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 a rambling 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.
The second phase of the Twenty Years’ War, from 2001-2003, was the invasion of Afghanistan, which represented the high point of American optimism about victory. George W. Bush seized the sword, declaring a “war against terrorism,” sweeping aside the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan, and installing a new Afghan government under Hamid Karzai. And Bush also grasped the shield, constructing an entire architecture of domestic defense, including the Department of Homeland Security, which was resourced to the tune of tens of billions of dollars every year.
The third phase, from 2003-2006, was the invasion of Iraq, where American hopes evaporated in the Mesopotamian sun. Bush had argued that only war could sever the purported—and it turned out largely imagined—alliance between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, and liberate an oppressed people. But the overthrow of Saddam’s regime triggered widespread disorder, and led to the rise of an al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which began a murderous campaign of violence. The quagmire in Iraq also eroded the parallel mission in Afghanistan. With American attention focused on Iraq, and only limited U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban recovered in the south of the country as well as in sanctuaries in Pakistan.
The fourth phase of the Twenty Years’ War, from 2007-2011, was the surge era, a time of fragile recovery. The deployment of U.S. reinforcements in Iraq, together with the “Awakening” movement, which involved Washington allying with Sunni tribes against AQI (by now rebranded as the Islamic State of Iraq), helped to pull Iraq back from the brink of catastrophe. In Afghanistan, Barack Obama ordered a surge of U.S. forces, which nearly tripled troop levels to over 100,000 from 2009-2010. In 2011, U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in Pakistan. At the end of the year, American troops left Iraq. There was, finally, a sense of closure.
The fifth phase, from 2011-2016, was the era of transformation, as once again, U.S. hopes went unrealized. AQI/ISI evolved into ISIS and moved to the center of the global jihadist movement. Misgovernment and sectarian rule in Iraq had alienated Iraqi Sunnis and breathed new life into the ISI. After Syria collapsed into civil war in 2011, ISI crossed the border; in 2013, firmly ensconced in both Iraq and Syria, ISI changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The following year, al-Qaeda repudiated its former affiliate. But far from collapsing as an organization, ISIS subsequently swept into northern Iraq and declared a global caliphate. Meanwhile, in the often-forgotten war in Afghanistan, American troops were withdrawn and the Taliban made steady gains, with the campaign left teetering between stalemate and failure.