Al Qaeda is all about symbolism, not reality. The basic idea that propels Islamic terrorists is the belief that Islam is under attack by infidels (non-Moslems). This assault comes in the form of ideas, including democracy, that are, or should be, abhorrent, to a true believer in Islam. The United States is considered the principal enemy, because America produces most of the video, audio, life-style and intellectual "attacks" that the Islamic radicals find so distasteful. At first, Islamic terrorists sought to overthrow the corrupt governments in existing Islamic nations, and create Islamic republics. All of these true Islamic nations would then unite to reconstitute the Caliphate that existed over a thousand years ago, the last (and only) time all Islamic countries were united. That unity didn't last because people, and countries, are different, and Islam was not enough to keep them all united. That has not changed.
But many Islamic terrorist leaders, like Osama bin Laden, concluded in the 1990s that it would be better to go after the United States, and the infidel West in general, first. The basic idea is to somehow force the West to get out of Islamic nations. Exactly how this would work is left vague. Many of the plans of Islamic terrorists get pretty murky if you try and look too far ahead. Taking on the West appears more as an act of despair. After all, Islamic radicals took control of Iran and Afghanistan, and brought nothing but misery. In actual fact, most Islamic terrorists are still trying to overthrow the existing governments in Islamic nations. International terrorism, against Western targets, was always a lot more difficult, and thus rather rare. But the September 11, 2001 attacks gave many Islamic terrorists the idea that they could actually bring down the West. The fact that there has not been another attack in the United States since 911, and only one in Western Europe, is often overlooked. Symbolism is powerful. If you can't deal with reality, call in al Jazeera and show them your best symbolism. This approach made al Qaeda stand out, even though it was but one of many Islamic radical organizations.
The battle against Moslem governments has not been going so well either. But this really doesnt matter, because Islamic terrorists have their hands full carrying out any attacks at all anywhere. The American invasion of Iraqi in 2003 enraged many Islamic radicals, and caused them to launch more attacks inside Islamic countries. The main result of this was to reveal how weak the Islamic terrorists actually were, how shallow their support was among Moslem populations, and how effective the governments in Moslem nations were in fighting back. The media likes to portray governments in Moslem nations as weak and getting weaker because of terrorist attacks. But the history of the Islamic world makes it clear that "Islamic Republics" are very much the exception, which various kinds of ruthless police states are very much the rule.
What the Islamic terrorists are really fighting for is a solution to the problems most Islamic nations face. Even with all the oil wealth, the Arab world has made little economic progress versus the infidels in the last half century. Most Moslems feel the problem is inefficient governments, and a society that does not place enough emphasis on the two elements that have fueled economic growth in the rest of the world; education and honest government. Those two items allow people to start new businesses, run them efficiently, and grow economically. Islamic terrorists believe the solution is honest government and scrupulous adherence to Sharia (Islamic law.) Unfortunately, there are no working examples of this, either currently or historically. But when youre on a Mission From God, you dont need a working example. Gods Word is enough.
The majority of Moslem scholars and clergy disagree with the Islamic terrorists. But even the scholars and clergy cannot reason with their fanatic foes. Its in the nature of radicalism, be it political or religious, that the less radical leaders are considered weaker, or even traitors to the Islamic cause. Thus you have a race among the Islamic radical clergy to be more radical than thou. This results in Islamic radical clergy in Western nations preaching of the need to turn their new homes into Islamic Republics. That means converting all the infidels, by force is necessary. This makes for great headlines, but it makes most Islamic clergy wince. Worse, speaking out against the Islamic radicals can be dangerous, especially for more mainstream Islamic clergy and scholars. Moderate, mainstream, Moslems have been murdered by Islamic radicals, even in Western nations, for speaking out against the radicals. That's one reason for calling these Islamic radicals, Islamic terrorists.
How does one defeat this Islamic terrorism? The simplest way is to bring good government and education to Moslem nations, and let them prosper. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein, easily the worst of a bad bunch of Moslem despots, and getting a democracy going in Iraq, is the Islamic radicals worst nightmare. It was always thought that Iraq would be one of the last nations to be overthrown by Islamic radicals. Thats because Saddam had built one of the most effective police states in the Moslem world. The problem there now is that the thugs, who made that police state work, are still in business. And just to show you how bizarre this whole business is, a year ago, the Saddam diehards and Islamic radicals joined forces in Iraq to try and prevent a democracy from being established. Both groups are natural enemies, and even if they forced coalition troops to leave, it would eventually have to come to a battle between Saddams secular thugs, and the Islamic radicals, to determine who would rule Iraq.
What we have here is sometimes called Islamofacism. Its an apt term, because the Islamic radicals are seeking radical, at-any-cost, solutions to social problems. This was the same attitude expressed by the fascist and communist radicals of a century ago. These maniacs gave us Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, plus many smaller satellite states that together caused several decades of violence that killed over 100 million people. Now theyre back. Actually, they never went away. Before we had secular fanatics like fascists and communist, we had centuries of religious wars that killed millions.
On the bright side, the Islamofacists are not nearly as well organized as the nazis or communists. The Islamic terrorists are more similar to the Anarchist movement of the 19th and early 20th century. These folks were secular, and believed government in general was the problem. Fortunately, their main targets were heads of state. Made great headlines, and the vast majority of people could just sit back and watch the bigwigs duck for cover. The anarchists never amounted to much, and only killed a few thousand people (including a U.S. president, and a Russian czar.) The anarchists sometimes got caught up in other peoples wars, and killed with enthusiasm, before the last of the old school ones were wiped out by the communists before World War II.
The problem with the anarchists, as well as the Islamic radicals, is that theres no way to make a deal with them. Worse, the Islamic radicals encourage violence against non-Moslems the world over. This has led to deaths in Africa, Europe and Asia. The Islamic radicals are not a powerful force, but they are deadly. If they had a nuke, there are many of them who would use it. And thats why they are terrifying.
Governments are going to chasing down Islamic terrorists for a generation, at least. The idea behind Islamic terrorism is an old one, and the social problems of Moslem nations won't be solved overnight, or even within a generation. The poverty, ignorance and corruption, more than Osama bin Laden, are the real enemy. But you can't even get at those without some cooperation from Moslem governments. Most of these governments are more interested in self-preservation, not reform. So the "war on terror" involves dealing with bureaucrats, as well as suicide bombers.