American forces were encamped in Saudi Arabia since 1990, when Operation Desert Shield became the first step in the war to oust SDaddam Hussein's army from Kuwait. Abiding by extreme interpretations of Islam that the overwhelming majority of Muslim clerics around the world reject, bin Laden considered the presence of foreign troops on Saudi soil an affront to Islam. He had, in 1990, approached the Saudi government and offered to organize his own campaign to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. The government politely rebuffed the offer.
Until 1996, bin Laden, at least in the Western press, was an obscure figure occasionally referred to as a Saudi financier and militant. He was blamed for two bombings in Saudi Arabia in the previous eight months, including a bombing in Dhahran that killed 19 Americans. Bin Laden denied involvement. He was also known as one of the sons of Mohammed bin Laden, the developer and founder of the Bin laden Group and one of the richest men in Saudi Arabia outside the royal family. The bin Laden Group is still Saudi Arabia's leading construction firm. By 1996, bin laden had been expelled from Saudi Arabia, his Saudi passport having been revoked in 1994, and expelled from Sudan, where he had esatblished terrorist training camps and various legitimate businesses. He was welcomed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, but not exclusively out of the goodness of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. "To maintain good graces with the Taliban," Steve Coll writes in The Bin ladens, a history of the Bin Laden clan (Viking Press, 2008), "Osama had to raise about $20 million per year for training camps, weapons, salaries, and subsidies for the families of volunteers. [...] Some of these budgets overlapped with business and construction projects Osama engaged in to please Mullah Omar."
Yet bin Laden felt isolated in Afghanistan, marginalized and irrelevant.
The declaration of jihad was the first of two explicit declarations of war against the United States. Fund-raising may very well have been part of the motive: by raising his profile, bin Laden was also drawing more interest from the sympathetic charities and individuals underwriting his efforts in Afghanistan. The second declaration of war was to be delivered in February 1998, and would include the West and Israel, giving certain donors even more incentive to contribute to the cause.
"By declaring war on the United States from a cave in Afghanistan," wrote Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower, bin Laden assumed the role of an uncorrupted, indomitable primitive standing against the awesome power of the secular, scientific, technological Goliath; he was fighting modernity itself. It did not matter that bin Laden, the construction magnate, had built the cave using heavy machinery and that he had proceeded to outfit it with computers and advanced communications devices. The stance of the primitive was appealingly potent, especially to people who had been let down by modernity; however, the mind that understood such symbolism, and how it could be manipulated, was sophisticated and modern in the extreme."
Bin Laden issued the 1996 declaration from the southern mountains of Afghanistan. It appeared on Aug. 31 in in al Quds, a newspaper published in London. The response from the Clinton administration was close to indifferent. American forces in Saudi Arabia had been on a higher state of alert since the bombings, but bin Laden's threats changed nothing.