On August 6, 1998, very few people knew about Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and their international terrorist enterprise known as al Qaeda. Only a handful of Middle East and Islamic scholars knew of the threat posed by the metastasizing Sunni militant group, which was founded 10 years earlier by bin Laden and his mentor, Palestinian terrorist Abdullah Azzam.
Al Qaeda, founded by bin Laden and Azzam, was originally composed of Arabs who made up the mujahideen who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. What made al Qaeda unique is that it embraced an offensive posture on the concept of militant jihad.
Al Qaeda sought not only to protect the interests of what it deemed the Muslim world, but also called on its adherents (and every Muslim) to “kill the Americans and their allies.” In February 1998, just six months before the bombings, bin Laden announced a fatwa that claimed it was the “individual duty for every Muslim” to target every American and those who assist the Americans, as well as the “Jews and Crusaders,” or Christians.
In the West, the fatwa went mostly ignored, but just six months later, every calculation about global security threats changed forever. Al Qaeda — and bin Laden’s — global recognition increased exponentially with the August 7, 1998, bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya.
The massive suicide truck bomb attacks resulted in the deaths of 258 people, along with 4,000 more wounded in the blast. The vast majority of those who perished were African citizens. However, 12 Americans were killed in the attack, including two CIA employees.
The U.S. government issued indictments charging 21 people for various roles in the bombings. Seven of those individuals are locked up in American supermax prisons serving life sentences, while an eighth man began a 25-year sentence in prison as a result of a plea bargain. Ten of the 21 were either killed on the battlefield or died while awaiting trial. Three of the suspects — current al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and al Qaeda leaders Saif al-Adel and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah — remain at large. Zawahiri currently has a $25 million bounty on his head, while the other two fugitives’ price tags are at $5 million each.
Al Qaeda remains a fighting force with affiliates across the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. But today, al Qaeda is hardly the only radical Islamic group that aspires to achieve a Sunni caliphate and uses offensive jihad as a weapon to impose its will. The global jihadist movement is alive and well, and the “long war” against radical Islamic terror continues without much of a strategy to defeat or mitigate the global threat.