Extremism exists in all cultures and religions, and some of the most brutal extremist acts have been perpetrated by atheist regimes, the classic example being Enver Hoxa’s Albania which officially made atheism state policy and many people were hanged for praying. Pol Pot is another example.
As in other religions, religious zealotry has existed among Muslims, yet it rarely resulted in mass violence. The only example that I can think of where extremists took up arms and succeeded is when Ibn Saud and his tribesmen took over what is now Saudi Arabia. But the House of Saud has also been friendly with the West, and the strict monotheists (“wahabis”) have never wanted to invade or take over other nations or to spread Islam by force outside of their own region. Saudis do finance Islamic projects to propagate Islam but that is through peaceful means.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA working with Pakistani intelligence ISI and funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, started the “Jihadi” movement in the border areas of Pakistan. Jihadi textbooks were prepared at the University of Nebraska and distributed in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan by the ISI. Religious extremists were used as “useful idiots” to get the Soviets out. It worked.
After Soviets left, Osama bin Ladin returned to his own native country, Saudi Arabia, and two things happened: 1). the US decided to establish permanent military bases in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War, and 2). Israeli brutalities against the Palestinians and the Lebanese continued unabated, with impunity. Bin Ladin realized that the Americans have no intention of ever leaving the Middle East, they have established full military control over Gulf countries, and they are hurting interests of Muslims by their actions or strategic non- actions, such as their refusal to condemn or pressure Israel. So his strategy was to use the same trick against the US as they themselves had used against the Soviets. The same team was selected. The strategy didn’t work this time for several reasons: 1). There was no super-power backing this time. 2). Afghans who had hosted the liberation movement had themselves become divided. 3). The Western Powers controlled the international media and the banking system. 4). The US forces were entrenched in too many Arab countries. 5). Unlike the Afghans, and contrary to American public opinion, the vast majority of Arabs do not normally stick their neck out unless they really have to, and they were afraid of Iraq-like chaos, and that’s something that Bin Ladin also alludes to in couple of his speeches.
So even though al-Qaida strategy has failed, the desire on the part of ordinary Arabs and Muslims to liberate their countries from Western hegemony has not ebbed. Hardly any Arab or Muslim believes that the US or Britain is fighting for ‘their’ freedom. They are the ones they need freedom from! To achieve their goal of having political and economic independence from the West, some Muslims have proposed uniting Muslims in some form or another, so that they would have the strength to stand up to Western imperialism. (Al-Qaida, by the way, never took that position). That was a mistake on the part of Arabs/ Muslims because Jewish lobbies immediately used the bogey of “global Jihad” for the establishment of a Caliphate to make a case that that is the root cause of terrorism-a demand that can never be met. The core political issues i.e., freedom for Palestinians and presence of US/British troops in the Middle East was then either ignored or quickly dismissed to perpetuate this myth.