Osama Bin Laden Declares Jihad Against “Jews and Crusaders”

On February 23, 1998, Osama Bin Laden declared a fatwa calling on all Muslims to kill Americans, their allies, and the Jews occupying Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Holy Ka՚bah, Islamic shrines in Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia. It was an affirmation of his earlier “declaration of jihad on Americans occupying the country of the two sacred places,” on August 23, 1996.

Summary of Event

Osama Bin Laden’s jihadist career began in the wake of two events—Iran’s Islamic Revolution (1978-1980) and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (begun on December 24, 1979). The latter event in particular inspired Bin Laden to relocate to Afghanistan from his native Saudi Arabia as a supporter of the Afghani mujahideens resisting the invading Russians. World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders
Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders
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[kw]”Jews and Crusaders”, Osama Bin Laden Declares Jihad Against (Feb. 23, 1998)
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World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders
Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders
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[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Feb. 23, 1998: Osama Bin Laden Declares Jihad Against “Jews and Crusaders”[09930]
Bin Laden, Osama
Zawahiri, Ayman al-
Taha, Ahmed Refai
Hamzah, Mir
Rahman, Fazlul

The eventual Soviet retreat from the region in 1989 made him believe in the possibility of a triumphant Muslim jihad against reprobates and infidels. The defeat of a European superpower by Islamic warriors was a defining moment for Bin Laden’s holy war project that led eventually to the formation of al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda[Al Qaeda]

After his return from Afghanistan and a brush with the Saudi government over its 1991 alliance with the United States—following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait—Bin Laden was subsequently expelled from Saudi Arabia and began a sojourn in Sudan. He was expelled from his new home by the Sudanese authorities in May, 1996, at the behest of the United States. He returned to Afghanistan once again and befriended the Taliban government that had taken over the country after the Afghan-Soviet war.

The literal translation of the Arabic word jihad is “a determined and unrelenting exertion for a noble cause,” although the Qur՚ān uses the term to describe warfare against the enemies of the ummah (Muslim community) or Dar al-Islam (territory ordered by Islamic law). Bin Laden declared two jihads against the West (namely, the United States). His bayan (statement) of August 23, 1996, accused the United States of occupying two holy places in his native Saudi Arabia—Mecca and Medina—and his fatwa of February 23, 1998, specified a defensive struggle against Americans and their allies who had declared war on the Muslims. The lengthy declaration of 1996 urged war on the United States, Israel, and their allies; it also accused the Saudi regime of failing to enforce sharia (Islamic law) and of aiding the U.S. military presence in the Holy Land in causing corruption and the lowering of oil prices. In contrast, his fatwa of 1998 was shorter and much stricter, charging that the Americans were using their base in Saudi Arabia to molest the neighboring Islamic countries. The 1998 fatwa was signed by Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Ahmed Refai Taha, Sheikh Mir Hamzah, and Fazlul Rahman; it reflects his grasp of local, regional, and global issues affecting Muslims and his tactical alliances with other radical Islamic groups.

On May 28, 1998, the Islamabad daily The News reported on Bin Laden’s formation of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, urging Muslims to wage holy war against the Americans and Jews, and against unpopular regimes backed by the latter, with a view to protecting the Islamic faith. Following Bin Laden’s declaration, London-based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported on May 14, 1998, that the Afghan ulema (Islamic clergy) issued a fatwa calling for jihad against the United States and its followers. On June 26, the newspaper Al-Watan al-Arabi of Paris commented on Bin Laden’s emerging leadership of a global struggle against the enemies of Islam.

On August 7, al-Qaeda terrorists bombed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, killing 224 people. The responsibility for this carnage was claimed by a group calling itself Islamic Liberation Front Army of the People of Kenya. The group justified the killings by declaring that “the Americans humiliate our people . . . occupy the Arabian peninsula . . . extract our riches . . . impose a blockade, and . . . support the Jews of Israel, our worst enemies, who occupy Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

The fatwa of 1998 demonstrated a religious legitimation for jihad supported by the use of select passages from the Qur՚ān, select events from Muslim history, and a shrewd analysis of grievances of the Middle East’s Muslims since 1991’s Operation Desert Storm. It was a call for self-defense against aggression by hostile non-Islamic forces, and its goal was to restore the peace and glory of the ummah. Thus Bin Laden appeared as a “peacemaker” par excellence. However, as he explained, since all peaceful efforts to extirpate foreign occupation and expunge the process of de-Islamization had failed, the need to take action, even violent action, became imperative by default.

An important feature of the 1998 fatwa is its global focus, reflected in the following call—featured in its text and taken from the Qur՚ān—to “fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them.” The document, which accused the United States of declaring war on God, stated the following: “To kill the Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is an individual duty for every Muslim who is able, in any country where this is possible, until Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Haram Mosque [al-Masjid al-Haram, or the Sacred Mosque surrounding the Ka՚bah] are freed from their grip and until their armies, shattered and broken-winged, depart from all the lands of Islam.” The fatwa goes on to condemn what it perceives as the desecration of the Islamic Holy Land by the American military presence; the massacre of the Iraqi people by the American-Jewish (“Crusader-Zionist”) alliance; and the continued unjustified Jewish occupation of Jerusalem.


In basic terms, Bin Laden’s fatwa represents the antisecular, antimodern, and anti-Western sentiments of the Islamic world. Its specifically anti-American bent is a reaction to the continued presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. The fatwa is a viable threat to the West insofar as it is a call to combat from a free-roaming jihadist in command of contingents of seasoned volunteer warriors committed to what they perceive as the struggle for Muslim liberation in the Middle East.

It must be noted that the Qur՚ānic text on which the fatwa was based has multiple interpretations. Furthermore, the standard sharia texts do contain a chapter on jihad against apostates and infidels, but sharia also prescribes correct behavior and respect for the rules of war. As Middle East expert Bernard Lewis has observed, “At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder.” Nevertheless, many Middle Eastern Muslims regarded Bin Laden’s fatwa of 1998 as a sacred call to action by their spiritual leader. World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders
Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders

Further Reading

  • Bin Laden, Osama. Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden. Edited by Bruce Lawrence and translated by James Howarth. London: Verso, 2005. Contains translations of twenty-four public statements made by Bin Laden from 1994 to 2004.
  • Furnish, Timothy. “Bin Laden: The Man Who Would Be Mahdi.” Middle East Quarterly 9 (Spring, 2002): 53-59. Compares Bin Laden with spiritual warrior al-Mahdi of 1880’s Sudan.
  • Knapp, Michael G. “The Concept and Practice of Jihad in Islam.” Parameter (Spring, 2003): 82-94. Explains the traditional Sunni and Shia interpretations of jihad as well as a modern interpretation that has influenced the ideology of al-Qaeda.
  • Lewis, Bernard. “License to Kill: Usama Bin Laden’s Declaration of Jihad.” Foreign Affairs 77 (November/December, 1998): 14-19. Offers a succinct analysis of Bin Laden’s fatwa as primarily a religious phenomenon harking back to the Crusades of the eleventh century.
  • Orbach, Benjamin. “Usama Bin Laden and al-Qa’ida: Origins and Doctrines.” Middle East Review of International Affairs 5 (December, 2001): 54-68. Examines the evolution of al-Qaeda’s ideology and strategy and compares the implications of Bin Laden’s fatwas of 1996 and 1998.
  • Ranstorp, Magnus. “Interpreting the Broader Context and Meaning of Bin Laden’s Fatwa.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 21 (1998): 321-330. Compares Bin Laden’s fatwas of 1996 and 1998 and posits that both are part of a broader contest between sacred authority in Saudi Arabia and continued American presence on the Arabian peninsula.

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