They set out to kill Jews. But they missed the charter flight carrying Israeli tourists and instead ended up murdering more Africans. That didn't keep the terrorists, believed by Washington to be members of al Qaeda, from some chest-thumping about their bloody suicide car bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel near Mombasa, Kenya, last week.

It was much the same four years ago in the East African capitals of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Bomb attacks launched simultaneously by al Qaeda against U.S. embassies in those cities left mostly Africans among the dead and wounded. Still, that carnage was scored by al Qaeda as a strike against America. To al Qaeda, dead Africans mean nothing.

And in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it mattered not that among the smoldering rubble and in the four doomed aircraft were thousands of innocent men, women and children. In New York, Washington and rural Somerset County, Pa. -- as in Kenya -- religious extremists driven by hatred of non-Muslims, and swallowed up in their own moral righteousness, took it upon themselves to decide who was deserving of death. Where al Qaeda is concerned, dead and maimed civilians come with the territory when fighting in the cause of Allah.

Thus Rodney Dickens, Bernard Brown and Asia Cottom, the three 11-year-old, African American D.C. public school students who boarded American Airlines Flight 77 at Dulles, meant nothing to the five hijackers who took over their plane. And if the hijackers somehow missed Rodney, Bernard and Asia, surely they might have noticed 3-year-old Dana Falkenberg and her 8-year-old sibling Zoe. But, then again, American children of whatever race -- as with the Kenyan dancers -- are of no account in the eyes of Osama bin Laden's true believers.

The terrorist attacks must be seen for what they are: An unconditional call to kill and plunder those who do not see the world through Osama's eyes. No less an authority than Osama himself reportedly spelled out what is at stake in a little-noticed but sobering "letter to the American people" reported in the Observer of London two Sundays ago. Read it and you will understand Mombasa, the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, the Khobar Towers truck bombing in Saudi Arabia and other terrorist attacks yet to come.

Read his alleged letter as a measure of what all of us in this country, without regard to EEOC classification, are up against in today's war against terrorism.

And for goodness' sake, when thinking about this new kind of war, take domestic politics out of the equation. Osama bin Laden's fight is not with the Republican or Democratic parties. Or with the Greens or LaRouche followers, for that matter. Al Qaeda couldn't care less which bunch of political groupies runs America. Yes, he hates George W. Bush. But Osama's no friend of Bill Clinton either, asking, as he did in his letter, "Who can forget your President Clinton's immoral acts committed in the official Oval Office? After that you did not even bring him to account other than that he 'made a mistake,' after which everything passed with no punishment. Is there a worse kind of event for which [America's] name will go down in history and remembered by nations?" (Well, yes, now that you ask, Osama, but why should I help you?)

Lest we forget, Osama bin Laden announced his war against America in February 1998, when Bill Clinton was otherwise engaged in the Monica Lewinsky affair. Perhaps that's why many in this country didn't notice the statement, issued by Osama and four other Islamic clerics, titled "Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders."

Having decided the "crusader-Zionist alliance" (read: Americans and Israelis) had declared war on Allah and Muslims everywhere, Osama et al. issued this fatwa: "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it."

That is what they've been up to ever since.

My friends in the peace movement who dissent from this country's response to the Sept. 11 attacks have another take on what must be done to free us from terrorism and restore security. Look, they say, at what America is doing to make people fly planes into buildings. They cite our "miserly" $6 billion foreign aid budget to help the world's poor vs. more than $300 billion "for the power to kill." Rather than crusade against wickedness, America should halt the arms trade, lift sanctions against Iraq and curb the CIA, they argue. Correct, they demand, the 50-year imbalance in the U.S. stance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ("the most important source of hatred for the U.S. throughout the Muslim world"). Embrace the United Nations, the Kyoto agreement on global warming, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Law of the Seas agreement and an international war-crimes court. To quote one author, "Until we take responsibility to try to lift up that which is good in us and cast out that which is bad, the scourge of terrorism will continue to torment us."

Sorry, but I don't think that's going to quite cut it with al Qaeda.

We are, I do believe, regarded by Osama as beyond the pale.

He's attacking us, he says in his letter, because America helped the British hand over Palestine "to the Jews, who have occupied it with oppression, tyranny," etc. "The creation and continuation of Israel is one of the greatest crimes, and [Americans] are the leaders of its criminals." Thus, short of wiping Israel from the face of the Earth, there's no getting on Osama's good side.

He is put out with us because of the American presence in Saudi Arabia; because Americans are not heeding his call to come to Islam; because Americans indulge in "the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and trading with interest."

We are condemned as a nation for choosing the Constitution over sharia, or Islamic law, and for allegedly bringing AIDS to the world. To Osama bin Laden, America is virtually beyond redemption for allowing the rich to dominate political parties and election campaigns with huge donations. And the culprits? "Behind them stand the Jews, who control your policies, media and economy," Osama writes.

And, to boot, he considers America the scourge of the Earth for not signing the Kyoto agreement. There's just no meeting this guy halfway.

And why should we? Osama bin Laden thinks Rodney, Bernard, Asia, Dana and Zoe are expendable. He wants all who don't think like him to feel vulnerable and live in fear. He and his ilk, hijackers of a religion, are sworn and determined enemies. Appease them now if you want. Just be prepared tomorrow to offer up and hold in memory even more who will die at their hands.

e-mail: kingc@washpost.com