Terrorist attacks upon the United States are not indiscriminate and done merely to kill, without any larger purpose. The very definition of terrorism is the use of violence and intimidation to compel the people and government of a country to make certain policy decisions. The objectives of groups such as Al Qaeda are quite clear. They seek to punish the United States and the West for perceived attacks upon Muslims worldwide, to secure control over the Middle East and its oil by forcing the withdrawal of Western military forces and cultural influences, and ultimately to establish Islam as the dominant force worldwide by undermining the Western institutions that restrict the ascendancy of radical Islam. These objectives have been clearly articulated in the published writings and recorded statements of the movement's leaders. In 1996, Osama Bin Laden issued a fatwa, or religious statement, declaring war against the United States. Later statements indicate that he has calculated the number of Muslim deaths due to American policies at 4 million and is willing to kill an equivalent number of Americans, including women and children, in order to achieve his vision.
For nearly 1000 years during the Middle Ages, Islam was the religion of a dynamic and growing world empire. Its followers controlled the entire region from southern Spain, throughout North Africa and the Middle East, into southeast Europe. But beginning in the Renaissance, the borders of Islam began to recede, culminating in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922. For much of the 20th century, the traditional centers of Islamic power in the Middle East were ruled by Western nations. When they achieved autonomy, the first governments were frequently handpicked and installed by Western leaders. Under foreign leadership and in their early years of sovereignty, many countries in the Middle East were poorly managed, with rampant corruption and vastly unequal distributions of wealth. Living conditions for most people deteriorated far below levels in the rest of the world and the former glory of Islam seemed very distant. Islamist ideology seeks to rectify this situation, to raise the quality of life for Muslims in accordance with Islamic laws and to punish those nations that have robbed Islam of its past successes. Of course, many Islamic nations were victimized by poor leadership and exploitative policies, but the current conditions of the Middle East and many developing nations worldwide result from a complex network of causes that cannot be attributed directly to a single factor.
As part of the return to Islam's historic political power, radical Islamists seek to establish control of the greater Middle East. They believe that it is necessary for the countries of the Middle East to be governed in accordance with their interpretations of Islam and sharia law. Certain realities of contemporary international politics are considered to be threats to their fundamentalist view of Islam. The presence of Western military forces is a primary cause of outrage and terrorists have launched attacks on American installations in Iraq and elsewhere in an effort to drive the United States and its allies from the region. Another objective is the erosion and destruction of local governments that have close ties to the West. Numerous attacks in Saudi Arabia and Egypt illustrate the willingness of Islamist terrorists to kill other members of their own religion in their zeal for punishing pro-Western or modern governments. And finally, a major element of the Islamist plan for consolidating control over the Middle East is the destruction of Israel, which represents a hated intrusion of religious outsiders and Western power upon sacred Muslim territory. Once the entire region has been remade according to radical Islamist principles, the stage will be set for the reestablishment of a caliphate, or multinational Islamic community under a single leader. Such a community would have the demographic and economic resources to become a major world power.
Radical Islamist ideology denies the validity of other world religions and is often used as justification for policies designed to undermine countries and groups not explicitly founded upon Islam. This process is not confined to the Middle East, but has begun to spread across the world. On several continents and in numerous countries, including the United States, an effort is being made to change traditional standards and twist existing political structures to make them more palatable to Islamic fundamentalists and Islamist radicals. This effort is often carried out within the sphere of legitimate social and political action, but sometimes metastasizes into violent terrorist attacks. For example, London has been home to a vibrant Muslim community for many years, thriving in the political and economic freedoms of the West. In recent years, however, members of this community have used their freedom of speech to advocate increasingly radical policies, hostile to established British institutions. The attacks upon London transit systems in July, 2005 represent the cumulative effect of years of ideological development. Elsewhere in Europe, governments are eyeing their Islamic populations warily. A very low birthrate in European communities combines with rapid immigration and growth in Muslim populations to make the Islamic minority an increasingly large and powerful constituency. In response, several countries, most notably France, have enacted legislation to encourage a blanket secularization of society and reduce the public visibility of any religion. Such policies have dubious effectiveness and are extremely unlikely to deter attacks such as those in London and Madrid or those that have been recently discovered in their planning stages in France.
Similarly, a movement exists in the United States to encourage social and political reforms to make American society more hospitable to fundamentalist Islam. Advocacy groups have been formed to prevent ostensible discrimination against Muslims. The United States has a strong history of religious freedom and there are numerous groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union that act as watchdogs against discrimination of all forms. However, some of these new anti-discrimination advocacy groups have had an extremely chilling impact upon free speech, as they can mobilize powerful resistance to any individual in a public forum who questions their motives.
Another threat to the United States comes from certain American Islamic religious leaders who teach an interpretation of Islam that is similar, and sometimes identical, to the radical Islamists. The United States has a much higher standard of free speech protection than most of the world and also fiercely protects individual privacy. Speech that simply condones or even advocates violence is often protected by American laws. Finally, there is a movement in Canada, only a few miles over the border from Michigan, to allow the local Muslim community to live under sharia laws, rather than Canadian laws. If this move was to succeed, two legal and judicial systems would exist, leading to the segregation of Canadian society and undermining the legitimacy of Canadian laws. These policies do not represent the mainstream of Islamic thought but do represent a strong effort by Islamists to erode the foundation of Western society and make radical Islam the dominant force worldwide.