For America’s 16 intelligence agencies, employing some 100,000 spies and analysts with a budget of $50 billion, it is almost mission impossible to figure out what terrorists and would-be terrorists are up to in cyberspace.

The Internet is an electronic jungle but also a global environment where al-Qaida operatives and sympathizers can operate with impunity. The ‘Net also serves as radio-cum-TV station for would-be terrorists who can watch suicide bomb attacks as videoed by insurgents, beheadings in gory color and download a two-volume Sabotage Handbook online.

Google, like the National Security Agency, can sift through a gazillion documents in less than a second but that doesn’t begin to tell you how a radical imam in a rundown Muslim suburb of Paris, or another imam in northern Nigeria, has recruited an impressionable teenager for the higher cause of jihad (which should be renamed unholy war). Nor does it tell you how and when this youngster left for Yemen, where al-Qaida operatives taught him how to bring down an airliner with a hard-to-detect, easily concealable, lethal chemical cocktail.

Hundreds of LOCs (Library of Congress with its 40 million volumes, 130 million documents, 10,000 new items arriving daily and 525 miles of shelf space) move on millions of ether infobahns in less than a day. Born in this humongous mix, long before Sept. 11, 2001, was a virtual electronic caliphate, or a global radical Muslim community whose main enemy is the United States and its Israeli ally, whose principal objective is to push back the frontiers of Islam by crushing Muslim governments and denying the Palestinians the right of statehood.

The caliphate is a unique global entity that would unite all Muslims under the rule of the caliph. Shiite and Sunni Muslims presumably would spend decades fighting over an appropriate caliph who would then rule over a global dictatorship with an advisory Shura, or the Muslim equivalent of a College of Cardinals. Pie in the Muslim sky, but all too real on the Internet, and pretty heady stuff and certainly more exciting than the drab existence of looking for jobs that are not available.

The electronic caliphate’s Web sites, chat rooms, blogs, message boards and instant messaging, with seemingly innocuous coded messages, coupled with state-of-the-art encryption devices and techniques, all reflect a sizable number of computer engineers and scientists at the service of al-Qaida and transnational terrorism.

Al-Qaida’s breeding grounds stretch from the madrassas — Koranic schools for the poor — of Mindanao in the Philippines to identical madrassas in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Yemen, Somalia and suburban slums all over Western Europe. But the exciting vision of fighting for Islam against Christian and Jewish heathens also ensnares middle- and upper-class misfits who are either bored or in rebellion against their parents’ capitalist values. That’s clearly how the prominent Nigerian banker’s son, who almost caused a major disaster on a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, got radicalized and joined al-Qaida in Yemen as a suicide volunteer.

One of Europe’s best intelligence services — the Dutch AIVD — concluded years ago that radical Islam in the Netherlands encompasses a multitude of movements, organizations and groups that sympathize with militant Islam. AIVD has identified 20 different Islamist groups. And their lingua franca is the Internet.

British authorities have verified that as many as 3,000 veterans of al-Qaida training camps over the years, in Afghanistan prior to Sept. 11, in Pakistan’s tribal areas after Sept. 11, were born and raised in the United Kingdom. British polls also showed that about 100,000 British Muslims, mostly from Pakistani families, were in favor of the July 7, 2005, subway and bus attacks in London. Some 200 embryonic plots trailed by Britain’s internal intelligence service MI5 tracked back to Pakistani Britons, mostly well-educated youth from middle-class families.

Following Sept. 11, in the early 2000s, France’s internal intelligence services — the DST and the RG — estimated that 40 percent of the imams in France’s 1,000 principal mosques — all told there are more than 1,500 — had no religious training and simply picked up the content of their Friday sermons from pro-al-Qaida Web sites.

Imbibing from the same electronic fountain of hate was Maj. Nidal Hassan, the 39-year-old U.S. Army psychiatrist who on Nov. 5 killed 13, including 11 U.S. soldiers, and wounded 30, at Fort Hood, Texas. He was proselytized on the Internet by a U.S.-born Yemeni cleric who had left the United States and moved to Yemen — now far more important, along with Somalia, across the Gulf of Aden, than Afghanistan.

Barack Obama was against the Iraq war from Day 1. But he couldn’t also be against Afghanistan and expect to be elected U.S. president. He would have been denounced as a pacifist afraid to fight America’s self-avowed enemies. Nor could he expect to be re-elected to a second term if he lost what is now his war. First he ordered 17,000 additional troops for Afghanistan in February, and now 30,000, at a cost of $1 million per soldier per year. Why? Because that’s where al-Qaida is located, we are told. Al-Qaida left Afghanistan years ago and is now scattered in Pakistan’s tribal areas, in Karachi, a port city of 18 million, in Yemen and Somalia — and all over the Internet.

Meanwhile, the Taliban insurgency has created a shadow “government in waiting” with Cabinet ministers and provincial and district governors in 33 out of 34 provinces, waiting for NATO and U.S. forces to fall victim to the Vietnam syndrome. CENTCOM Commander Gen. David H. Petraeus says we should be prepared to fight as long as it takes to defeat the Taliban’s guerrilla insurgency. The history of insurgencies since World War II is of little comfort to those who say “as long as it takes.”

Moderate Arab leaders from Morocco in North Africa to Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, interviewed by this reporter, invariably come up with the same wet-finger-to-the-wind stats: No more than 1 percent of their populations are religious extremists, and 10 percent fundamentalist, essentially in sympathy with the extremists’ agenda. Extrapolating these figures on the global scale of 1.3 billion Muslims, we get 13 million extremists and 130 million sympathizers. That should provide intelligence and security services and Special Operations decades of derring-do — Green Berets, Rangers, SEALs — not infantrymen lugging 120 pounds up and down Afghan mountains where eyes are only for where you put your combat boot next.

Arnaud de Borchgrave, a member of the Atlantic Council, is editor-at-large at UPI and the Washington Times.  This essay was syndicated by UPI