While no one has any precise numbers on the number of active Islamic terrorists there are out there, it appears (based on several surveys) that only a few percent of the Moslem population is willing to actively support this activity, and an even smaller fraction is stepping forward to actually carry out terror attacks. But with over a billion Moslems out there, that comes to over twenty million supporters and a few hundred thousand operators. Given the low state of education and initiative in the Moslem world, only a tiny percent of the willing terrorists are actually able to carry out any attacks. But this force of under a hundred thousand gunmen and bombers are what worries counter-terrorism officials world wide (inside and outside the Moslem world.)
The Islamic terrorists have been a major problem inside Moslem countries for the last three decades. Initially, and officially, the Islamic terrorists are mainly concerned with installing religious dictatorships in Moslem nations. This proved impossible to do, except in Afghanistan and Iran, because the existing secular government fought back brutally, and with great effect. Some government tried to meet the Islamic radicals half way. This worked for a while, in places like Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Sudan and Pakistan, but eventually the Islamic radicals made it clear they wanted full control, and there was much violence as the dispute was resolved. So far, the Islamic radicals have been defeated time and again. Those that survive these bloody bouts of terrorism, and counter-terrorism, flee to whichever nations will take them. Increasingly, this does not include any Islamic nations, and fewer of those in the West as well. It was after two decades of these defeats on their home ground that many Islamic terrorists decided to turn their attention to targets in non-Moslem (infidel) nations. There, they found the police less alert, and thanks to many new world-wide news networks, everyone back in the Islamic nations heard of these attacks, and were encouraged to join the cause of forming a world-wide Islamic state.
Syria, which has long had a policy of letting any Arab enter the country without a visa (as a way of encouraging one large Arab state), is reconsidering that policy. The open door, and long border with Iraq, has made Syria the main conduit for Islamic terrorists headed for Iraq. The Baath Party runs Syria. Baath operates a socialist police state operation similar in name and purpose to the one that ran Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Outfits like the Baath Party are considered major villains by Islamic radicals. But the Syrian Baath Party brutally crushed the local Islamic radicals in the 1980s. The surviving Islamic radicals have kept quiet, until now. Under pressure from the United States, Syria has tried to stop the flow of Islamic radicals through Syria, and the use of Syria as a base by Iraqi Baath Party members running terrorist campaigns against the new Iraqi government. This has led to battles between Syrian police and Islamic terrorists, and members of the old Iraqi Baath Party. Some of these gun battles involved what was described as former bodyguards of Saddam Hussein. The security force that guarded Saddam contained several thousand well paid, well armed and very loyal gunmen. Whenever terrorists are killed or arrested in Iraq, a few of these former bodyguards show up. Many of these guys are now hiding out in Syria.
Like Syria, Saudi Arabia was forced to deal with its local Islamic radicals once Iraq was invaded. This invasion infuriated the local Islamic radicals, for they have long preached that one of the worst things that can happen is for infidel troops to be in Moslem countries. So the Islamic radicals rushed to Iraq to fight the infidel invaders. So angry were the Islamic radicals of Saudi Arabia, that they began carrying out terrorist acts at home. This was in violation of the understanding with the Saudi government, and the government has struck back with great violence. Most of the Saudi Islamic radicals are now either dead, in prison, or in Iraq (or on their way there, via Syria). While Saudi Arabia shares a border with Iraq, its easier to get to terrorist bases in Iraq via Syria. If Syria begins to demand that visitors apply for a visa first, that may change. The background check required for a visa will reveal many Saudi, and other Arab, visitors to be of the Islamic radical persuasion.
Islamic radicalism is an old, old problem. It stems from the fact that Islam, if practiced according to the book, requires a religious dictatorship. But Moslems are not willing, and never have been, to be ruled by a bunch of clerics. At the same time, government in Moslem nations has often consisted of brutal and corrupt dictatorships, which made the idea of a religious dictatorship seem attractive to some. Being on a mission from God has a certain appeal as well. The big difference today is the use of Islamic terror against non-Moslems. This was al Qaedas innovation from the 1990s. The idea is to use the publicity, from spectacular terrorist attacks on vulnerable Western targets, to inspire more Moslems to join in the jihad against corrupt Moslem governments. But so far, this terror campaign has brought Western armies into Iraq and Afghanistan, and forced Moslem governments to crack down on Islamic radicals. In the past, individual Moslem nations crushed outbreaks of Islamic radicalism in a few years. This happened in Egypt and Syria. In other countries, it took a decade or more, like in Algeria. More tolerant nations, like Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, reached accommodations with the Islamic radicals, allowing them to operate, as long as they do not attack the local government that tolerates them.
But that all changed when the United States overthrew the Islamic government in Afghanistan, and then moved into Iraq to remove the secular (but tolerant of Islamic radicals) government of Saddam. Now all the old arrangements and accommodations with Islamic radicals are overthrown. Now its war, between the terrorists and those they would terrorize. The terrorists have no place to hide, and must either come out to fight, or get rounded up and arrested. A third option, which many have taken, is to give up Islamic radicalism.