What are Islamic terrorists trying to achieve?

I’ve put this in GQ because I’m hoping that there is a factual answer.

Their methods seem to consist solely of blowing up people fairly indiscriminately. If they are trying to rid the world of ‘infidels’, it’s going to take them a very long time. If they are trying to garner publicity for their cause: that they are certainly doing. It may persuade some to support their aims, but overwhelmingly I’d say that the response has been more negative than positive. Acts of violence aren’t very descriptive: they don’t seem to publicly state what their intentions are; what they either expect or hope the rest of the world to understand from them. There’s no publicity campaign to persuade us to support them.

I don’t even know if they feel that they are achieving their goals - whatever they are.

Their goal is not to kill all Westerners, which as you say would take a very long time with their current methods. Their goal is rather, in the case of Al Qaeda, to:

http://www.fas.org/irp/world/para/ladin.htm

From Bin Laden:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/1585636.stm

That’s just one group, of course. wiki has an overview of Islamic terrorism and the jihad mentality as a whole. with motivations such as;

Many of them are just impressionable people trying to attain self importance.

Unfortunately the charismatic people they’ve come into contact with have made them believe that their importance lies in Jihad.

I don’t believe for an instant that the people at the top of the Terrorism leadership are in it for religious reasons. These people are in it for purely selfish reasons - to boost their egos by “leading” the impressionable desperate people of the world. Being from a religion founded in war makes it a little easier to claim war is something holy.

In many cases, they see their actions as retaliation and revenge. In their eyes, they have suffered attacks by others who indulge in the killing of innocent people, and they are exacting a just revenge by justifiable means. In other words, a terrorist attack is sometimes not part of a grand design so much as a show of defiance and strength, intending to convey the message that ‘As you kill one of us, so shall we kill one or more of you’.

It is always worth remembering that labels are subjective. One and the same person can be described as a terrorist, a freedom fighter, a comrade in arms, a hero, a leader in the resistance movement, a son, a father or a soldier for peace.

It is also worth remembering that just because one person professes to articulate the views of a given group or organisation, it is not necessarily the case that other members of that group would agree with them. Even within a given group, sect, organisation, cell, army or whatever, there are oftne diverse views concerning motivation, rationale, purpose, goals, aims, objectives and so on.

not everyone who signs up as a terrorist immediately goes and blows himself up. Likewise, not everyone who signs up as a soldier immediately goes and gets killed on IED or in battle against terrorists.

My point is, from the standpoint of the rank-and-file, you can think of it as a job. A dangerous job, a job that may eventually involve either high risk activities (fighting) or even suicide missions, but that’s all in the future (and hey, heaven awaits). In the meantime, you sign up and all of a sudden you have got stuff to do. You have got friends and coworkers. You have a purpose in life. Maybe you even get money (not much for a Westerner, but for an unemployed guy from Mideast, you don’t need much).

The above might not apply to the “human missiles” like Palestinian suicide bombers, many of whom have blown themselves up shortly after being recruited. But for the real terrorists who are using them, they are just that, a cheap, stupid walking missile.

As for the larger purpose of terrorism as a form of jihad, I think there are various motivations. The motivation that IMHO has the biggest practical significance is not Bin Laden’s geopolitical theorizing but rather the assertion of the rights and privileges of Muslim minorities in Europe. The samurai asserted their rights and privileges against Japanese peasants by killing them for various slights. A minority of Muslims in Europe, with tacit support from the majority, is likewise terrorizing the majority around them to send a message that they are not to be messed with and that the government better run in circles around them to keep them happy, protect their sensitivities etc. That may suck for the individual terrorists involved (they may get imprisoned or killed) but it might be thought by big chunks of the community that it is for their collective good. Remember, no matter how many Pakistani men end up in British prisons for terrorism, there are many more Pakistanis waiting to immigrate, and what matters the most to the community is making sure that this process continues without a hitch. And so it will, because who wants to be the guy opposed to Muslim immigration? Some high profile opponents have already been killed, one of them in the Netherlands.

Oh, and another thing. We believe that Western armies and weapons can vanquish Muslims easily in conflict because that’s what our current strategic analysis indicates. Many/most Muslims believe that a number of hadiths have promised Muslims military victory over everybody else shortly before the end of the world. So for them this is like the Christian expectation of the Return of Jesus. Just like many Christians may be preparing for persecution of Christians, Rapture and similar, so many Muslims may be preparing for (and indeed beginning) that last war against the infidels. Just because the infidels are really strong now means nothing because if Allah has promised victory, Allah will deliver.

Not to derail this into Great Debates land, but you’ve just accurately described the course of Christianity for about a millenium or so. And they sure as shit, at least ostensibly, believed that it was done for religious ends.

Now, to answer the OP:

1 part political strife with the current power system in the Middle East - i.e. dislike for their own leaders
a dash of personal ego
few cups of good ol hatred of the Jews spawned by their being forcibly kicked out of modern-day Israel by the British/Americans
couple of pounds of distaste for what they view as US Imperialism in this region (brought about by oil) as either defiling their lands as per Islamic thought, or as a simple power grab that can’t be fought against by conventional means

and you’ve got what amounts to most of the “problem” the Arabic/Islamic Middle east has. Thus, the solution, to them, would be:

Getting rid of Israel, but understanding the practical impossiblity of this, they would settle for some sort of comprehensive peace plan with Israel
Ensuring that the United States/United Kingdom no longer affects policy in this region of the world
Being in power themselves, possibly to continue to spread their religious/social views throughout the middle east
It’s basic power imbalance and corresponding struggle for power stuff. It’s just got the patina of religion.

Well, first of all, there’s not a single goal of “Islamic terrorists”. It’s like asking what the goal of SDMB posters is – some of us are here to get help with questions we have, some like to show off how smart we are, some like to know we’re fighting ignorance, some like the semi-anonymous human interaction, and most of us have a mix of all of these goals. In any group, there are at least as many goals as there are human beings, especially as “Islamic terrorist” isn’t a single perfectly-disciplined organization.

For instance, in Iraq, many “Islamic terrorists” are trying to terrorize other Muslim residents of Iraq in order to garner power for their faction/gang/extended family/whatever. In Afghanistan, for some “drug lord” is a pretty good description of what they’re trying to do. Others are just fighting back against a foreign invader, just like we taught them when the Ruskies were the foreign invader. In Sri Lanka, the Muslims in the Tigers were trying to fight (along with Tamils of other religions) the marginalization of their ethnic group by the majority, with perhaps a goal of an independent Tamil state (the group they were fighting were mostly Buddhist, by the way).

Bin Laden’s stated goal was first to force US troops (and any other foreign troops) out of the holy lands of Saudi Arabia, and on a larger scale to piss off US and Europe so much that they’d start a war with the Muslim world, believing that it would spur recruits to Islam and lead to loss of power for the West. [Hmmm, still a ways to go on the first, but got to give him props for making a lot of progress on getting the U.S. moving on the second. ]

Might be a bit obvious but part of the goal is religious, so its partly a matter of faith rather than realistic, measurable and achievable outcomes.

Which means they will warp things to say they’re really working when they arent and that things are 'progressing when they arent, etc.

Otara