In the 1980s, the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, with its thousands of Arab fighters financed by the US and others, also served as a potent rallying point for would-be martyrs. Not only was Al Qaeda - "the base" in Arabic - created from among these fighters, but clandestine videos of brave Mujahideen attacks were spread around the world.
Today, videos and messages of support for Islamist fighters spread much faster. Insurgent in "martyrdom operations" appear on websites within days of attacks in Iraq, and the latest calls to carry jihad to Western capitals from the likes of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's No. 2 and Al Qaeda's chief ideologue, spread around the globe within minutes.
"Whatever framework we use to talk about Iraq - take Afghanistan for instance - it's whatever happened there, but on steroids,'' says Toby Craig Jones, a political scientist and analyst of events in Saudi Arabia for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. "It seems to be proceeding much more quickly this time."
To be sure, the vast majority of Muslims are as horrified by such attacks as anyone else, and a growing number of Muslim scholars are speaking out against the methods and motives the global jihadis. But Islamist terrorism has never been a widespread phenomenon. "If we're talking about percentages, maybe the supporters of global jihad are only 1 percent of the Muslim world,'' says Paz.
A Saudi ideologue who goes by the handle "Lewis Attiyatullah" online and with whom Paz held an e-mail correspondence with until Lewis apparently went underground, spelled out what Al Qaeda and its ideological allies see as the benefits of the US presence in Iraq in an open letter to Tony Blair first published in April 2004.