On August 23, 1996, Al Qaeda officially declared war on the United States of America. Osama bin Laden released a fatwa, or religious edict, entitled, “Message from Osama bin Laden to his Muslim brothers in the whole world and especially in the Arabian Peninsula: declaration of jihad against the Americans occupying the Land of the Two Holy Mosques; expel the heretics from the Arabian Peninsula.” Let me translate that for you. The Two Holy Mosques are the two Holy Cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina. Since the 1920’s these cities have been under the control of the House of Saud, the rulers of Saudi Arabia. The “American occupiers” refers to the American troops who were stationed in Arabia, at the request of the Saudi Government, to protect them from the threat of Saddam Hussein’s belligerent army from 1990-1991. These troops remained throughout the 90’s on American-built bases, acting as the Saudi regime’s insurance policy against a renewed Iraqi invasion.
On February 23, 1998 Bin Laden released another fatwa entitled “The Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders”. In this edict he added two additional grievances to his list: continuing American operations in Iraq, and the so-called infidel occupation of Jerusalem, in that order. But these situations were just as present in 1996 as they were in 1998. Why weren’t they mentioned then? They were added because Bin Laden needed to widen his base of support, and mentioning the oppression of Iraqis and Palestinians is a guaranteed way to get the attention of the larger Arab public. Even so, he reaffirmed the so-called American occupation of the Arabian Holy Places as the primary justification for holy war against the West. And I quote:
“First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.”
Unfortunately for Bin Ladin, the logic of this grievance is rather weak. The main theater of battle in the Gulf War was the area of Iraq and Kuwait directly abutting the Persian Gulf. So logically, American and allied troops were stationed here, in the northeast corner of Saudi Arabia. After the war, the remaining American bases were in this area as well. Notice however that the two holy cities are situated on the Red Sea, an area known as the Hijaz. This area of settlement is separated from the rest of Saudi Arabia by hundreds of miles of barren desert. The Hijaz is closer to Egypt and Sudan than it is to Riyadh. If you look at a population distribution map, the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia is connected to the arc of settlement stretching around the Persian Gulf and up the Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys, while the Hijaz is attached to the arc stretching south from Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. In fact it could be argued that Israeli forces, also infidels, are stationed closer to the holy sites than American forces.
The Hejaz is only part of the Saudi state because the House of Saud conquered it from the Sharif of Mecca, who had conquered it from the Ottomans; not because these areas were historically linked in any modern sense of nationhood. Yet it is the American forces that Bin Laden singles out in his fatwas.
In the 7 years since 9/11, there has been a deluge of media distortion and academic misrepresentation in the West that has obscured the primary reason for the attacks; the reason that Osama bin Laden dictates in clearly-worded religious edicts that were broadcast for the entire world to see. Leftists singled out our support for Israel and exploitation of oil resources as the offending sins. Some Evangelicals pointed to homosexuality and the depravity of our pop culture. President Bush was perhaps the vaguest of all, emphasizing that our political freedoms and personal liberty had offended the sensitive Muslims. The truth is that Bin Laden cited the defilement of the two Islamic holy cities as his sole justification for declaring war in 1996, and his primary rallying cry to consolidate the jihad in 1998.