“We are the people destined to redeem humanity and we have done nothing for a thousand years.”

These words, part of a sermon by a Palestinian cleric, came to me over the Net a couple years ago. My first response was, “Thanks for the offer, but we’ll pass.” Then a chill. This was no offer. Nor was it mere self-castigation. This was part of a statement of deadly, implacable intent. There are people in this world who believe it, literally, and are prepared to destroy, kill, and die to bring about their concept of redemption.

Religious fanaticism is, of course, no new thing. No one holds a monopoly on it. Most often, it’s merely annoying. But when it merges with economic and cultural despair, it metastasizes. How might these words sound to a young Palestinian pondering his future and his family’s past? To a young Egyptian or Algerian despising the pornographic westernization of his country and the trashing of traditional culture and values? To a young Pakistani or Indonesian or Kazakh or Bahrani with scant regard for his national governance and elites? To a young Afghani or Iranian knowing nothing of the world beyond his village and his faith?

We know how those words sound to us. We hear their sum in two Arabic syllables: Jihad. Holy War. We’ve seen the results – the Iranian hostage humiliation, Pan Am 103, the World Trade Center, the Khobar Towers, the African embassy bombings, the USS Cole, a hundred other incidents major and minor. We hear about it daily, in dispatches from trials, in the Osama bin Ladin Chronicles, in government announcements of plots pre-empted and conspiracies still active, and in the never-ending slaughters overseas. It’s going to go on. And it’s going to get worse.

This is the first of two columns on an emerging clear and present danger. The first calls this peril by its proper, if still somewhat awkward name. The second looks at what the Bush administration might do to deal with it.

Before naming the peril, it’s vital to be clear who the enemy is not.

The enemy is not Islam, a great and in many ways a gracious faith. Nor is the enemy the vast majority of the world’s billion or so Muslims, most of whom would probably be happy to live in peace, improve their fortunes, and enjoy their lives. Still, a column of this nature inevitably attracts accusations (some carefully orchestrated) of prejudice, bigotry, or worse. To that I can only answer, when people say they intend to hurt and kill and destroy you, and have acted upon that intent for decades, best you take them seriously, and at their word.

But who are they? The answer is, they are the world’s first “virtual nation,” perhaps best called “Jihadistan.” They recognize no borders save those of the Umma, the Islamic world; some still see Spain as occupied land. They recognize no governments save those which follow Shar’ia, the Islamic law; they reserve their greatest scorn for “secular” Arab states that allow the West to defile their territory and their morals. And they recognize no truths save their own.

Jihadistan already controls a number of national governments: Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Sudan. They also operate a number of sub-national and trans-national organizations, from Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad to bin Ladin’s Al Qaeda, and more. They ally as convenient with non-Islamic terrorist and criminal organizations. They receive “payments” from the more “secular” Islamic states. They get their arms and other tools, computers especially, from wherever they can, including nations which wish to undercut the United States, (China, for example) from those who swap goodies for peace, (Greece, for example) or who simply want the business.

What is the actual extent of Jihadistan? Geographically, it runs eastward from North Africa almost to Australia; northward into central Asia and China; and (via the Islamic Diaspora) westward to urban enclaves in Europe and North America.

Of what is Jihadistan capable?

Forget for a moment what they have done, and would like to do, to us. Just consider what has become known as the “arc of terror” from the Maghrib to Indonesia. There’s a civil war in Algeria that’s claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. What if the fundamentalists win? What would a single bullet to the brain of Hosni Mubarak do to Egyptian politics? Does anybody really believe that a Palestinian state (which as a matter of simple justice ought to exist) will happily bed down with Israel? How stable are the thrones of Morocco and Jordan, or the de facto monarchy of Syria? Who will succeed Saddam Hussein? Can the Iran of the ayatollahs ever mellow? How long can the Gulf states, wealthy but weak and repressive, endure? To the east, there’s Pakistan, with its Islamic Bomb and its Kashmiri claims. Islamic movements, probably bin Ladin-backed, are also active in the Philippines and Indonesia.

In Chechnya and the Asian sections of the former USSR, a half dozen Islamic insurrections, mostly Taliban-inspired and supported, flare and wane. And in China – yes, China – occasional Islamic uprisings are followed by mass imprisonments and executions.

Now, Jihadistan may not pose a mortal danger by the standards of the Axis or the old USSR. But it would be a grievous mistake to believe that it poses no danger at all . . . or that trials and treaties, press releases, self-righteous rhetoric, and an occasional symbolic retaliation, can deter them, protect us, or keep Jihadistan from sparking something far larger, and far worse.

Next: Dealing with Jihadistan.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.