Fun with the newly accessible New York Times archives. The oldest reference to "al-Qaeda" (August 28, 1998) that I could find concludes with this paragraph, eerily similar, yet strikingly different from today's offerings:
At a news conference at F.B.I. headquarters, senior law enforcement and diplomatic officials here hailed the action as an important victory in the United States war against terror in large part because they had succeeded in bringing a suspect in an overseas attack from Africa into an American court within 20 days of the bombing.
See also this early think piece from September 12, 1998 where we see the first stirrings of a familiar pattern:
Two years later, after investigators tied Mr. bin Laden's group to bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 250 people, including 12 Americans, Clinton Administration officials launched a cruise missile attack on his camps in Afghanistan. ''This is, unfortunately, the war of the future,'' Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said.
Terrorism experts applauded the military action as a necessary quick response. But they said the notion of announcing a war against someone like Mr. bin Laden posed problems.
''It's unfortunate that she used the term war, because it's very misleading. Americans like their wars to be short, with no casualties, and then we kick back and watch the Super Bowl,'' said David Long, a former State Department official. ''Flu would be a better simile. Every year there's a new strain of flu, and every two or three years one is lethal. You manage it. You're not going to win the war on flu.''
You can also see from a search for "Osama bin Laden" that, somewhat contrary to the post-9/11 mythology, OBL had been fairly extensively covered in the couple of years before the attacks. Indeed, his first mention comes way back in Chris Hedges' 1994 article "Sudan Linked to Rebellion in Algeria" where the sixteenth graf of the piece, amidst a long litany of complaints about Sudan's regime, notes that "Osama Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi financier who bankrolls Islamic militant groups from Algeria to Saudi Arabia, also lives under heavy guard in Khartoum." A 1996 note observed his relocation to Afghanistan. Blogosphere faves Jeff Gerth and Judy Miller teamed up later in '96 to write about terrorism financing and noted that "The State Department, in a detailed document made public this year, called Mr. Bin Laden 'one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world.'" Coverage only really heats up, however, in 1998, around the time the term "al-Qaeda" starts showing up in the press.