The killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 gave a whole new dynamic to the public narrative on Al Qaeda and its influence in the Middle East and the West. While some argue that Al Qaeda finds itself weakened and fragmented at a time when its ideology becomes increasingly irrelevant in the political movements of the Middle East, recent attempted attacks, such as the failed bombing of Bonn Train Station in December 2012, may paint a different picture. For German Home Secretary Hans-Peter Friedrich '[the attack] underscores our assumption that Germany is situated at the centre of the jihadist terrorism'. At closer investigation, this statement exemplifies the underlying generalisations driving the current political discourse and policy-making process, possibly making counterterrorism policies less effective and at worst even glorifying violence in the minds of would-be terrorists.
Arguably, in order to effectively target the threat emerging from jihadist terrorism, one needs to be clear about how this threat is understood, i.e. who the jihadists are and what they aim to achieve. Al Qaeda has long been considered the driver of the global jihadist movement, attempting to spread Islam in one fundamental understanding, based on Islamic, or sharia law, by engaging in a holy war against the infidels. However, in recent years, the organisation has become more fragmented and franchised, leaving its leadership scattered. This fragmentation questions the coherence of Al Qaeda's ideology and motives. Identifying these motives, however, is a crucial step in understanding its strategy, assessing its strengths and capabilities, pinpointing its weaknesses and, most importantly, evaluating its relevance on the global political stage. Such an assessment becomes increasingly important against the background of the Arab Spring and the rearrangement of political power in the Middle East.
Therefore, the present paper seeks to answer the question: what are the aims of Al Qaeda? The paper argues that, as Al Qaeda becomes increasingly fragmented and loses control over its regional branches, its self-proclaimed aims merely function as a veil to disguise its internal inconsistency and lack of political and strategic aims. The paper first provides a common starting point by defining the core terminology and introducing Al Qaeda's history and structural development. Second, the organisation's self-proclaimed aims are identified by analysing statements by Al Qaeda's arguably most influential personalities, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Third, these self-proclaimed aims are tested against the contemporary political and security reality and the findings evaluated.
Definitions and Context
Before introducing the history and structure of Al Qaeda, a few definitions need to be made. Considering that core terminologies, such as Islamism, fundamentalism, or jihadism are widely used, but are open to (mis)interpretation and can mean something entirely different in various contexts, the following section outlines how such terminology is understood here.
The present paper considers Islamism as the return to the fundamental principles of Islam, rooted in sharia law and the unmediated interpretation of the religious texts. Seen as an antidote to Western values and influences, its advocates, among them Sayyid Qutb who greatly influenced Osama bin Laden, propagate the imposition of sharia law through state institutions, i.e. argue for the creation of an Islamic state with the Muslim community, the ummah, at its core. Nonetheless, Islamists, including Salafis, 'ulamas, or Sufis, cannot be understood as one homogenous entity. Most importantly, they disagree on the use of violence and the understanding of jihad.
In its most spiritual meaning, jihad stands for the internal struggle against sin and the struggle for a life in accordance with the moral code of Islam. This internal struggle is also referred to as the 'greater jihad'. In turn, the 'lesser jihad', or defensive jihad, refers to the external fight against outside forces in times when the ummah is under threat, in which case the use of violence can be legitimate. Based on these assumptions, jihad is a duty. This duty can be collective or personal and directed against the 'near' or the 'far' enemy, i.e. local or international. It is at this point at which the difference between Islamists and what Roy calls 'neofundamentalists' becomes particularly striking. He, among others, argues that Osama bin Laden and his followers have internationalised and 'deterritorialised' the concept of jihad from its cultural setting which also includes complete disregard of the ethnic divisions between Shias and Sunnis within the ummah. Moreover, they propagated jihad as a personal duty, blurring the line between defensive and offensive. Eugen & Zaman point out 'Bin Laden embraces a global jihad that essentially collapses distinctions between national and international, offensive and defensive fighting, enemies at home and those from afar'. Against this background, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden's deputy and arguably the new leader of Al Qaeda, defines jihad as 'an ideological struggle for survival - a war with no truce'. It becomes evident that the word jihad as such is widely contested within the Muslim community and interpreted to its extreme by Al Qaeda and its followers.
Having very briefly sketched out the different ideological strands and debates on the concept of jihad, the history of Al Qaeda is introduced in the following section.
History of Al Qaeda
Al Qaeda is a complex construct that was created by Saudi born Osama bin Laden and emerged out of different local groupings with distinct fundamentalist beliefs. It was founded in the late 1980s, but is understood to have developed out of the jihadist understanding of Abdullah Azzam who perceived jihad as a local undertaking to protect the ummah. This became particularly relevant during the Afghan-Soviet war in the late 1980s when the mujahedeen, the jihadist fighters, were targeting the Soviet invasion. Al Qaeda has oftentimes been described as a product of this Afghan jihad, which was framed as a milestone in the victory of the wider jihad and is said to have greatly influenced Bin Laden. At that time, this glorious picture of jihad was able to manifest itself, as the international community tolerated it in the fight against communism. Coupled with increased US military presence on Middle Eastern soil during the 1990s, the jihadist narrative of the aggressive West flourished, placing the discourse of the clash of civilisations at its core.
During the mid-1990s, Al Qaeda began to emerge as a transnational, mainly Sunni and ethnically Arab group around Bin Laden who had been expelled from Saudi Arabia and Sudan due to his radical beliefs and consequently found a safe haven in Afghanistan. In 1996, he joined forces with the Taliban and established the so-called 'World Islamic Front for the Fighting against Jews and Crusaders' in 1998, which provided a unifying element to local jihadist groups, such as al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and was widely considered as the official launch of a global jihad against the infidels. The fight was gradually taken to the periphery of the community. The results of the international community's lack of interest in the local jihads and the widespread attraction of Bin Laden's narratives are mirrored in the events of 9/11.
What followed these attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by the US and its allies can mainly be described as a further internationalisation of Al Qaeda through mergers with various local groups: the end of the Iraqi war and its aftermath between 2003 and 2006 saw the emergence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen), Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (North Africa). These mergers not only functioned as 'force multipliers', but also meant that Al Qaeda became increasingly detached from a certain territory. It can be observed that over the last few years this deterritorialisation of its ideology coupled with the technological advances of globalisation westernised Al Qaeda's supporters, even to the extent that they can increasingly be found among Western citizens. In order to establish the wider significance of these developments and dynamics, and to understand to what extent these characteristics influence Al Qaeda's goals and aims, its internal structure needs to be considered.
Structure of Al Qaeda
Scholars tend to disagree on the specific structure of Al Qaeda, including its core and its regional components. While some perceive it as a loose network of groups and individuals that do not even necessarily share the same concern for its ideology, some are convinced that it still operates along strict hierarchical lines. Nonetheless, there is wide agreement on the Al Qaeda's structure in its early days.
During the 1990s, Al Qaeda was able to gradually establish a strong centralised infrastructure that mirrored personal ties and solidarity among its most senior leaders, and was able to manifest itself over time in the safe space provided by the Taliban. While there are other important elements next to Al Qaeda core, such as its logistical networks or local and regional affiliates, the focus here is placed on the former, mainly due to its undeniable significance in the spread of radical jihadist ideology. Gunaratna & Oreg have argued that Al Qaeda core is characterised by a corporate-like centralised structure. Alongside the leader and his deputy, who without much doubt could have been Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri until May 2011, there are a number of committees and councils responsible for different areas of action. Out of the seven that could have been identified, four seem to be of utmost importance in the contemporary debate. While Al Qaeda's decisions are taken by the Command Council, consisting of its most senior leaders, its media and propaganda strategy is under the responsibility of the Media Committee, which had been chaired by al-Zawahiri at one point in time. It closely cooperates with the organisation's Political Committee, spreading its political ideology and coordinating with other jihadist groups. Considering Al Qaeda claims to speak for the whole of the Muslim ummah, its Religious Committee is assigned to oversee the organisation's compliance with Islamic law and to issue fatwas (religious rulings), arguably in order to claim some form of religious authority.
Nevertheless, this centralised structure has been severely pressured by international counterterrorism efforts that have explicitly targeted its leaders who are said to have lost their former influence. Increasingly decentralised, Al Qaeda is doubted to possess the same strength now as it did in the early 2000s. It might be more appropriate to consider it as a franchise, providing local groups with a brand under which they can operate and from which they can draw the attraction they need for local recruitment, mainly among members of lower social classes. While Bergen speaks of a 'multinational holding company' disguising its criminal intentions, Roy highlights the importance of 'sub-contractors', such as the Jayash-e-Muhammad, operating largely in Indonesia, which is responsible for the killing of David Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter. These rather loose, 'metastasizing' structures make it difficult for state authorities not only to target Al Qaeda most strategically, but also make it difficult to identify its aims and strategies. This, however, becomes increasingly important if one is to understand the dynamics of contemporary jihadist terrorism and its wider implications, particularly in light of the Arab Spring.
Therefore, it can be said that Al Qaeda might be organised according to a strict centralised structure at its core around the personality of al-Zawahiri, but as its regional franchises gain autonomy this centralised chain of command might have lost its ability to reach out to its branches and affiliates. These underlying dynamics provide the frame in which Al Qaeda's self-proclaimed aims need to be placed.
The following section of the paper analyses statements by Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri in order to identify these aims before they can be tested against the structural reality outlined above.
Al Qaeda's Self-Proclaimed Aims
The present section sets out to identify the self-proclaimed aims of Al Qaeda, but before going into detail a brief note on the methodology is necessary. As above, a selection of direct statements by Bin Laden and his successor al-Zawahiri from 1997 to approximately 2006 is analysed. Due to limited and restricted accessibility, statements from later years can only be considered and assessed through secondary literature. In order to effectively analyse these statements, this section first identifies the main aims, then analyses how they are voiced and which discursive tools are used in the process, and ultimately makes an assessment of the underlying reasons.
Three primary objectives reoccur in a majority of the statements by Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri: (1) the establishment of the Islamic state, or the caliphate, based on sharia law, (2) the reclaiming of Islamic territory from 'occupation' by outside forces, and (3) the overthrow of moderate Muslim governments cooperating with the West. These aims became most prominent in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In 1997, Bin Laden stated that he aimed to restore the Islamic caliphate by fighting those who 'worship the God of the White House', and who have 'committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous, and criminal ...' in areas such as Palestine or Iraq. Here, he clearly indicates that his main concern lies with the far enemy. One year later, in his 'Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places' he makes clear that 'expel[ling] the enemy ... out of the country is a primary duty', which should force Muslims 'to ignore the minor differences among themselves' in order protect the Muslim ummah and Islam and such. At that time, Western civilians, however, were 'not targeted in [their] plan'. This had changed by early 2001, when al-Zawahiri published his book Knights under the Prophet's Banner and propagated that in order to restore the caliphate, 'greatest damage and ... maximum causalities' needed to be brought to the US and its allies.
In 2004, al-Zawahiri underlines that these overall goals have not changed despite the fact that strategies and targets might have been adjusted. In his eyes, the incontestable primary goal is the establishment of the 'Quran-[b]ased [a]uthority to [g]overn' followed by full control over the Muslim regions and what he calls the '[l]iberation of the [h]uman [b]eing', i.e. the end of autocratic moderate Muslim governments. Nonetheless, one needs to be cautious not to draw any erroneous conclusions from these statements. The 'liberation of the human being' should not be understood as an advocacy of Islamic democracy or monarchy, as these systems would not be designed according to sharia law.
Regarding the discursive tools, it can be observed that Bin Laden's early statements are characterised by rather half-hearted nationalist references, which could arguably have supported the mobilisation of his movement in its early days. He mainly used religious imagery drawing on historical events, for instance by highlighting that harm is being brought to Islamic lands by the 'Zionist-Crusader alliance'. The conflict was thereby framed as a war against Islam and the narrative of the clash of civilisations was reinforced. While the nationalist rhetoric was abandoned, the religious-historic imagery is used in later statements, when, for instance, al-Zawahiri speaks of 'the tyrant of the new Crusade'. Though this special rhetoric is applied to support the proclaimed primary goals outlined above, a shift in strategy and therefore short-term objectives can be observed.
With the war in Afghanistan failing to mobilise the ummah for Bin Laden's cause, the war in Iraq becomes of central importance. It is then that Bin Laden directly addresses citizens of the West. He offers a 'truce' and threatens that in case of rejection he would bankrupt the United States. The disruption of economic infrastructures is a crucial component that subtly runs throughout al-Zawahiri's 2001 book and appears in one of his statements to the Western populations in 2005, when he predicts that 'your economy is ruined'. At the same time, a narrative of public support emerges. It is argued that the achievement of the proclaimed (and underlying) objectives needs the support of the wider Muslim public, which is particularly highlighted by al-Zawahiri in his letter to the late leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2005. Al-Zawahiri appeals to him not to target Shias despite the fact that they follow 'a school based on excess and falsehood'. Doing so would alienate 'the common folk' on whose support their jihad depends.
Therefore, it can be said that Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri attempted to adopt a more moderate tone in the aftermath of the Iraq war. As Bergen observes, they understood how to deliver a 'premodern message ... by postmodern means', i.e. how to exploit the advances in the communication technology to further their ends and spread their ideology among the masses. This also explains the internationalisation of their jihad and the sporadic focus on regional issues, such as the conflicts in Palestine or Chechnya. Given the recent events in the Middle East, these discursive shifts might become particularly purposeful. Zarate and Gordon argue that recent statements by al-Zawahiri show how Al Qaeda intends to take advantage of the situation in the Middle East by actively highlighting disillusionment and discontent within the Muslim community. In this regard, they argue, Al Qaeda attempts to reclaim the relevance of its ideology by propagating that the Muslims 'have won a battle' against the near enemy 'but [they] haven't won the war yet'. Thus, by arguing that the fight against the far enemy continues, Al Qaeda attempts to save its ideology from disappearing into irrelevance.
Drawing on the above, it can be summarised that the three main proclaimed aims (the establishment of the caliphate, the reclaiming of Islamic territory from outside forces and the overthrow of moderate Muslim governments cooperating with the West) seem to move into the background in the light of current political processes and now function as mere discursive acts with the purpose of wide mobilisation. To what extent this observation can be underlined by recent developments within Al Qaeda's structure and the environment it operates in, is discussed below.
Al Qaeda's Self-Proclaimed Aims in Context
Simply drawing conclusions about Al Qaeda's aims from the direct statements issued by Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri would not lead to adequate results, since their communications are laden with imagery that not only disguises their real interests, but also hides the fact that much of their propaganda is borrowed from a range of different Islamic scholars, such as Qutb or Azzam. Therefore, having established that Al Qaeda's three primary objectives are degraded to serve merely discursive means at which ends stand the survival of its ideology, the question arises whether this development is mirrored in its internal structural shifts and contemporary changes in its environment.
With regards to the organisation's internal structure, it has been observed that it is now as fragmented and as franchised as never before. Such decentralisation can be advantageous in that it extends Al Qaeda's ideology. However, decentralisation to such a degree entails that its ideology becomes overstretched to an extent where it is constantly reinterpreted and where it becomes close to irrelevant. The losses in the circles of Al Qaeda's leadership are said to enhance this development.
Moreover, this highly franchised structure highlights and deepens the disagreement within Al Qaeda and within the community it claims to protect, making the identification and pursuit of clear goals almost impossible. Despite differences in identifying the enemy, exemplified by al-Zarqawi's attacks on Iraqi Shia Muslims, Islamic scholars, such as Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, tend to have a distinct opinion about jihad and its objectives as such. He states that 'authentic Islamic values reject this [jihad] and consider it terrorism, not martyrdom'. Instead, he argues, Bin Laden and his followers 'have tried to use jihad as a justification to use aggression against people and as a justification for brandishing their sword against the entire world'.
However, the internal disagreements are more wide-reaching. With the advance of globalisation Al Qaeda experiences both advantages and disadvantages. While it learned to use modern communications for its propagandist purposes, with Bergen calling Bin Laden the 'Pied Piper of jihad', its followers become increasingly Westernised and develop their own understanding of Islamism and jihad, partially clashing with the beliefs of Al Qaeda's first generation. The tension between tradition and modernism has become a decisive characteristic of the organisation. The collectivity of these internal tensions questions the extent to which Al Qaeda core and its committees are still able to control its franchises.Against this background, it is questionable whether, had the international community agreed to Bin Laden's offer of truce, he would have been in a position to ensure it.
Moreover, Al Qaeda has arguably ignored a number of strategic mistakes that have forced it to reconsider its objectives. While Al Qaeda's strategic focus is on the West, i.e. the far enemy, its political focus is on the Middle East, i.e. the near enemy. However, the recent uprisings in the Middle East have shown that this distinction is no longer appealing. Al Qaeda missed that the Arab Spring targeted the near enemy and called for democracy, not for the imposition of sharia law and the fight against the imperialist US. Ghosh agrees with this assumption and strikingly points out that what he calls the appeal of 'Bin Ladenism' has been destroyed from within. Thus, it can be argued that due to severe miscalculations, already evident in its early days, Al Qaeda positioned itself at the margins of the community it claimed to protect.
Drawing on the above findings and placing them in within the frame outlined here, Al Qaeda's primary aims seem to have shifted from spreading Islam in a broader sense to spreading its specific jihadist ideology among the wide masses by means of a 'sophisticated public relations and media campaign'. Thus, the imagery laden rhetoric swaying somewhere between religion and politics may be nothing more than an attempt to give an impression of a firm leadership at a time when it is in reality scattered, fragmented and severely irrelevant. The contemporary jihadist terrorism does not seem to seek a particular political purpose, but, as Ali and Post argue, is merely fighting a 'war of words', which make it more a security than a strategic concern.
This paper has argued that with Al Qaeda becoming increasingly fragmented and weakened, its proclaimed aims serve no other purpose than disguising its internal incoherence and lack of widely appealing political and strategic aims. As Roy has argued, '...with Bin Laden there is no negotiation. His aim is simply to destroy Babylon'. Therefore, the above indicates that the pursuit of the three primary objectives, (1) the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, (2) the reclaiming of Islamic territory from outside occupation and (3) the toppling of moderate Muslim governments, is put on hold while the focus shifts to political propaganda. In that regard, further research might be desirable in order to find out to what extent the threat emerging from Al Qaeda is merely an imagined one by the West and how the current political discourse based on generalisations, such as voiced by the German Home Secretary Friedrich, feed into this self-fulfilling prophecy and provide Al Qaeda with the attraction it needs to survive.
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 Here 'the West' is not perceived in its geographic meaning, but rather understood as an entity along the lines of liberal-democratic values.
 Ghosh, B. (2012); Zarate & Gordon (2011).
 Translated by author. Original in German: 'Er unterstreicht unsere Einschätzung, dass Deutschland im Fadenkreuz des dschihadistischen Terrorismus steht.' Taken from Die Zeit (15.12.2012). Friedrich ermahnt Bürger zur Wachsamkeit' From http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2012-12/bombe-bonn-terrorismus-friedrich/seite-1.
 Euben & Zaman (2009).
 Kiras (2011), p. 369.
 Euben & Zaman (2009), p. 10.
 Ibid., p. 12, 17; Roy (2004), p. 2.
 Euben & Zaman (2009), p. 43.
 Ali & Post (2006), p. 620; Ghosh (2012).
 Ali & Post (2006), p. 620.
 Bergen (2002), p. 19.
 Mendelsohn (2011), p. 35.; Ghosh (2012).
 Roy (2004), p. 2.
 Ibid.; p. 311; Gerges (2011), pp. 32-33.
 Euben & Zaman (2009), p. 41.
 p. 42.
 Aboul-Enein (2005), p. 83.
 Gerges (2011), p. 45.
 Euben & Zaman (2009), p. 425; Roy (2004), pp. 295-296.
 Gerges (2011), p. 34; Euben & Zaman (2009), p. 428.
 Roy (2004), p. 291.
 p. 293.
 p. 52; Gerges (2011), p. 29; Stern (2003), p. 32; Euben & Zaman (2009), p. 430.
 Gunaratna & Oreg (2010), pp. 1049-1050; Mendelsohn (2011), p. 32.
 Roy (2004), p. 312)
 Mendelsohn (2011), p. 33.
 p. 42.
 Roy (2004), p. 312.
 Gunaratna & Oreg (2010), p. 1043; Bergen (2002); Stern (2003), p. 27.; Blanchard (2011).
 Roy (2004), p. 294.
 Gunaratna & Oreg (2010), pp. 1055-1064.
 Gunaratna & Oreg (2010), p. 1056, 1063.
 p. 1062.
 p. 1064. As a matter of consistency, the other posts and committees include: the Secretary, the Military Committee, and the Security Committee.
 Stern (2003), p. 35.
 Euben & Zaman (2009), p. 425; Roy (2004), p. 46.
 Bergen (2002), p. 32; Roy (2004), p. 320.
 Zarate & Gordon (2011), p. 107.
 Lawrence (2005), p. 45, pp. 58-62.
 Bergen (2002), p. 28.
 p. 21.
 The Land of the Two Holy Places refers to Saudi Arabia being home to Mecca and Medina.
 Euben & Zaman (2009), p. 444.
 p. 443.
 Bergen (2002), p. 20.
 Euben & Zaman, p. 200; Aboul-Enein (2005), p. 84.
 Blanchard (2011; Kindle edition). The words are capitalised in the original.
 Euben & Zaman (2009), p. 436
 p. 21; Blanchard (2011; Kindle edition).
 Mansfield (2011), p. 19.
 Blanchard (2011; Kindle edition)
 Euben &Zaman (2009), p. 200; Mansfield (2011), p. 246.
 Mansfield (2011), p. 267.
 p. 268.
 Bergen (2002), p. 30; Mansfield (2011), pp. 115-116.
 Blanchard (2011; Kindle edition); Bergen (2002), p. 35.
 Zarate & Gordon (2011), p. 111.
 p. 112.
 Euben & Zaman (2009), p. 431.
 Mendelsohn (2011).
 Mendelsohn (2011), p. 46.
 Zarate & Gordon (2011), p. 109; Gerges (2011), p. 16.
 Euben & Zaman (2009), p. 405.
 p. 408.
 p. 425.
 Bergen (2002), p. 35.
 Roy (2004), p. 52.
 Bergen (2002), p. 29.
 Mendelsohn (2011), p. 43.
 Mendelsohn (2011), p. 40.
 Zarate & Gordon (2011), pp. 107-110.
 Ghosh (2012).
 Roy (2004), pp. 55-56.
 Blanchard (2011; Kindle edition).
 Gerges (2011), pp. 4-5.
 Ali & Post (2008), p. 618.
 Roy (2004), p. 57.
 p. 56.
 p. 325.