Through the 1990s, Islamic radicals were driven out of their home countries. That's how Saudi and Egyptian Islamic terrorists ended up in Afghanistan by the late 1990s. They lost the battle for public opinion in their home countries, and Afghanistan provided a refuge. From that refuge, al Qaeda planned the September 11, 2001 attacks. Several months later, with Afghanistan no longer a safe place for Islamic terrorists, the survivors took refuge among pro-Taliban tribes across the border in Pakistan. Over the next year, several thousand al Qaeda activists were captured or killed. Most of the senior leadership, and over half the operatives, were put out of action.
But al Qaeda still had a base of support in the Persian Gulf. Much of the oil money had been wasted or stolen over the past half century. This was especially the case in Saudi Arabia, and many Saudis were angry with their government, but not capable or brave enough to do anything about it. Many wealthy Saudis donated money to al Qaeda, and many more young Saudis were willing to serve al Qaeda, to the death. After September 11, 2001, even with the fact that 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis, al Qaeda was left alone in Saudi Arabia. The understanding was that, if al Qaeda does not attack Saudi Arabia, the government would leave al Qaeda alone. This led to much friction with the United States, but the Saudis did not want to have terrorist bombs going off in their own back yard. The government had made a deal with the conservative clergy in the 1980s. The government would subsidize, and tolerate, Islamic radicals, as long as no attempt was made to overthrow the government, or upset public order.
Then the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. This upset everything. The Sunni rulers in the Persian Gulf did not care for Saddam Hussein, especially after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. A decade earlier, the Persian Gulf Arabs had cheered as Saddam invaded Iran, and then came up with over $100 billion to bail out Iraq when Iran counterattacked. Saddam was considered an unstable maniac. But he served the very essential function of keeping Iran out of the Persian Gulf. That was considered more important than the welfare of the Iraqi people. Besides, there are no democracies in Arabia, and no enthusiasm for it. Saddam was a cruel despot, and most Arab leaders could relate to that. Actually, Islamic conservatives consider democracy blasphemous, as only God can lead his people. To these zealots, the perfect government is one run by clerics, in the name of God. But only Iran and Afghanistan have been able to establish such religious dictatorships. The Afghan one failed when Afghans realized what they had got, and was destroyed with the help of 300 Americans on the ground, and a few dozen U.S. warplanes overhead, in late 2001. The Iranian tyrants have been more resourceful, and are hustling to get nuclear weapons, before their restless subjects overthrow them.
The war in Iraq attracted, as al Qaeda has now made public, at least 4,000 foreigners to fight for the cause of radical Islam. The actual number is probably closer to 10,000, because police in Moslem countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have noted the return of thousands of Islamic radicals from Iraq. Some are inflamed and still full of fight, and soon under arrest or observation. Most are disillusioned. What they saw in Iraq was mainly a struggle by the Sunni Arab minority to restore Saddam, or another Sunni Arab despot. The majority of Iraqis, even among the Sunni Arabs, did not want a return of the dictatorship. Yet this was what the al Qaeda volunteers were being asked to do. And the preferred method was bombing attacks that were killing more Iraqi civilians that police or foreign soldiers.
Meanwhile, al Qaeda has been trying to become a larger illusion, since efforts to become a larger organization have failed. Any Moslems, anywhere, with any kind of grievance, can get on the al Qaeda bandwagon and become part of something larger. That may not help your local cause much, it may even increase your chances of getting arrested or killed, but think of all the shared glory. Al Qaeda was now running a media circus, and anyone could join. So unhappy Moslem migrants in Europe, miffed at their inability to integrate in the local culture, declared that they were part of al Qaeda, and they were going to make Europe a Moslem state. Right.
In Africa and Asia, Moslems unhappy with their lack of economic progress compared to nearby Christians (who, for one thing, paid more attention to education), joined al Qaeda's call for war against the infidels. Meanwhile, acts of international terrorism stayed pretty much the same. Such acts went from 452 in 1985 to 104 in 2000. Major increases began in 2001, as al Qaeda made use of its Afghan bases to strike out. But the violence never returned to 1980s levels (when the terror was largely secular, and backed by the Soviet Union). In the first nine months of 2006, there have been 112 attacks.
Domestic terrorism, which is what is going on in Iraq, stayed steady at about 1,300 incidents a year from 1998 to 2001. It nearly doubled, to 2,362, in 2002, dropped to 1,625 in 2003, then went back over 2,000 in 2004 as the Iraqi Sunni Arabs began their fight to regain power. In this effort, they made a very deliberate alliance with al Qaeda. Both groups wanted Sunni Arabs to control Iraq, and both were willing to do anything to make that happen. This violence now accounts for about half the domestic terror on the planet. Oddly enough, this violence is not killing as many people as Saddam killed per year, in the past, when he was waging major campaigns against Kurds or Shia Arabs (who, together, comprise 80 percent of Iraq's population.) Iraq has always been a dangerous place. The difference this time, is that the battle is for the rule of law, not just to keep another tyrant in power.
Al Qaeda in Iraq recently announced that over 4,000 foreign jihadists had died in Iraq. Since 2003, al Qaeda has been obsessed with the fact that infidel troops were in Iraq. One of the primary goals of al Qaeda has always been to get all infidels out of the Middle East. Al Qaeda is not alone in this respect. Saudi Arabia, in the same religiously conservative spirit, long ago banned the practice of any other religion Saudi Arabia. And any Saudi who converts to another religion faces a death sentence. The main beef al Qaeda has with Saudi Arabia, and many other Moslems, is that Saudi Arabia is not conservative enough.