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A nation must think before it acts.
This piece builds upon articles that I wrote on Hamza bin Laden at the Soufan Center and Foreign Policy on August 1, 2019.
Several unnamed U.S. government officials recently leaked the news that Hamza bin Laden, the son of al-Qaeda founder and its longtime leader Osama bin Laden, has been killed. Details surrounding Hamza’s death have been murky, although it now appears that the United States played a role in the operation that killed the younger bin Laden. President Donald Trump has so far declined to comment, other than to say that “Hamza bin Laden was very threatening to our country and you can’t do that.” It remains unknown where Hamza bin Laden was killed, with various reports over the past several years suggesting that he was in hiding in one of several countries—Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Syria. Given that the U.S. has publicly acknowledged a role in his death, it seems unlikely that he was killed in Iran. Available information suggests that he was killed in a U.S. airstrike, possibly in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) border region and that it happened at some point during the Trump administration. It has also been reported that Hamza met with al-Qaeda’s current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri somewhere near the AFPAK border at some point within the past two years. While it is impossible to know what was discussed, it does seem that Hamza was being cultivated by Zawahiri to assume a leadership position within the organization at some point in the future.
His death was apparently discussed in calls between al-Qaeda leaders that were intercepted by U.S. intelligence. There was debate among the militants as to whether al-Qaeda should release an official martyrdom statement, and because no such announcement ever surfaced, terrorism analysts remain skeptical that Hamza has actually been killed. An unnamed U.S. official speculated that al-Qaeda declined to make a formal announcement of Hamza’s death because the group feared it would damage fundraising efforts. Indeed, there have been numerous cases where terrorists have been pronounced killed, only to have these allegations proven false when the militants later resurface on audio or video tape. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and senior al-Qaeda operative Mokhtar bel Mokhtar are just two terrorist leaders whose deaths have been falsely reported numerous times.
Even within the counter-terrorism community, there is a legitimate debate over exactly how much, if at all, the death of Hamza bin Laden matters. To those who find his death as nothing more than symbolic, they cite his lack of operational experience and the fact that he was just 13 years old when he was forced into hiding in Iran following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. So while he has the pedigree of an al-Qaeda jihadist, he is far from a veteran operative and is completely unproven on the battlefield. As terrorism expert Daniel Byman has correctly observed, Hamza “neither fought in the front lines like his father nor ran a major clandestine network as did Zawahiri.”
But even though Hamza was relatively untested and inexperienced, his death is more significant than some would like to admit. Since 2015, he has assumed a more prominent posture in al-Qaeda’s propaganda, in which he threatened American, French, and Israeli interests throughout the world. The following year, he continued to be highlighted in al-Qaeda’s propaganda, threatening Americans and the government in Saudi Arabia. Over the past two years, Hamza’s messages encouraged jihadists to attack the West, while also calling for the violent overthrow of the current Saudi regime. After being eclipsed by the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, al-Qaeda undertook a strategy of “quietly and patiently rebuilding,” and focusing more on grassroots efforts to acquire political legitimacy in Syria and Yemen than on conducting spectacular attacks in the West. Successful terrorist groups are adept at learning and transmitting lessons throughout their organizations, and al-Qaeda seemed intent on rebounding from its secondary status, which it is well positioned to do after the collapse of the caliphate.
The death of Hamza could very well impact al-Qaeda at a strategic level. Given his importance to the group’s brand, the loss off Hamza will be a blow to al-Qaeda’s ability to recruit new and especially younger militants. This matters a great deal because the younger generation of jihadists have come of age in an era when the Islamic State, not al-Qaeda, has been the most dominant entity in the broader jihadist universe. And though he lacked the operational experience of al-Qaeda leaders like Saif al-Adel, a longtime veteran jihadist who has ties to the group’s founding in the late 1980s, Hamza boasted family connections that went beyond his father—he was the son-in-law of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, aka Abu Muhammad al-Masri, the Egyptian al-Qaeda veteran wanted for his role in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings.
Hamza was also thought to be a more gifted orator than Zawahiri, whose lengthy sermons are often delivered as monotone lectures. Writing in 2016, Brian Michael Jenkins observed that “al Qaeda’s central command has been reduced to exhorting others to fight.” If this is true, Hamza’s death is an even greater loss for al-Qaeda than most initially thought, since propaganda has become so central to the group’s raison d’etre. Al-Qaeda has always been acutely aware of the importance of the information environment and nowhere is this more evident than in the captured correspondence between Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s former leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in which the former admonished the latter and reminded him that “more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.” While al-Qaeda has been producing media since its inception, over the years, its presentation has grown more nuanced and Zawahiri prizes the “jihadi information media” as an indispensable element of al-Qaeda’s war against the United States. To keep pace with technology and media savvy groups like IS, al-Qaeda will be forced to recruit younger members who have experience in social media, publication, graphic design, and other emerging technologies poised to become more prominent in the future.
If his death is ultimately confirmed, it comes at a time when Hamza’s position within al-Qaeda was being elevated. Last February, the State Department places a $1 million bounty on his head through its Rewards for Justice program. Hamza has been groomed to lead al-Qaeda since he was a young man, anointed the group’s leader-in-waiting and poised to resurrect the organization and lead it into its third decade. In many ways, Hamza served as the generational link between the old guard and the current organization—his transitional leadership to the next generation could have served as a potential unifier for the global jihadist movement. Without him to rely upon, al-Qaeda will struggle to find a suitable replacement with the same credibility and name recognition of its founder’s scion.
Without Hamza waiting in the wings, it is unclear who will replace Zawahiri once he is killed, captured, or dies of natural causes. He is thought to be close to 70 years old and has been on the run and in hiding for the past 20 years. Without a charismatic figure to take the helm, what remains of al-Qaeda central could be eclipsed by one of al-Qaeda’s franchise or affiliate groups in North Africa or the Arabian peninsula.