The CIA this week released 47,000 files captured during the 2011 raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It’s going to take a while for researchers to comb through the full trove, but one of the most intriguing tidbits to come out so far is a video of the wedding of Hamza Bin Laden, the first publically available image of the man believed to be Osama’s favorite son and a possible al-Qaida heir apparent:
The younger Bin Laden, who the U.S. designated as a “global terrorist” in January, has become a fixture in the terror network’s propaganda and may be in the process of being groomed for a senior role, just as al-Qaida—which has seen its influence wane in recent years—may be primed for a comeback.
Hamza is “now the figure best placed to reunify the global jihadi movement,” according to a September cover story by former FBI agent and analyst Ali Soufan, in the CTC Sentinel, published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
Hamza was born in 1989 in Saudi Arabia. His mother, Khairiah, a child psychologist from a prominent Saudi family, was Osama’s third wife and reportedly his favorite. He grew up in Sudan and then in Afghanistan, where Osama had been given refuge by the Taliban government, and Hamza often appeared in propaganda videos with his father when he was still a child. After 9/11, when the U.S. military toppled the Taliban, Osama fled to Pakistan while much of his family was sent to Iran. They spent a few years in hiding before they were picked up by authorities, and Hamza spent most of his adolescence in (relatively comfortable) custody. The wedding in the footage, to the daughter of another senior al-Qaida commander, was likely taken in Iran during this period, according to an analysis by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal. In 2008, Hamza and his family were released as part of a prisoner exchange for an Iranian diplomat captured in Pakistan. (One of the key points of interest of the new documents may be new details about the unlikely and at times mutually beneficial relationship between al-Qaida and Iran’s Shiite government over the years.)
Hamza made his way to Pakistan and hoped to reunite with his father and join his fight. “What truly makes me sad is the Mujahidin legions have marched and I have not joined them,” he wrote in one letter. A letter reportedly written by Osama describes his son as “very sweet and good.” According to previously released documents, Osama’s aides were looking for a way to reunite the two until a month before the Abbottabad raid. Most of the surviving Bin Laden family members were deported to Saudi Arabia the following year, but Hamza escaped custody and nothing was heard from him for the next few years.
Then in 2015, al-Qaida released an audiotape featuring Hamza praising al-Qaida and recent actions including the Boston Marathon bombing, and calling on supporters to “take the battlefield from Kabul, Baghdad, and Gaza to Washington, London, Paris, and Tel Aviv.”
Since then, he has released a series of messages, including one in 2016 in which he promised to avenge his father’s killing, saying that if Americans believed it had “passed without punishment, then you thought wrong.”
Hamza was labeled a shaykh by al-Qaida this year, indicating that he’s being groomed for a senior leadership role. U.S. counterterrorism officials have said that he’s unlikely to replace or succeed al-Qaida’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, but his family name undoubtedly makes him a powerful propaganda tool at a time when al-Qaida has been pushed to the margins of the global jihadi movement.
Al-Qaida has been in the wilderness for a few years, pummeled by the deaths of Bin Laden, the charismatic Yemeni-American propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, and many other senior leaders. For the past few years, its former offshoot-turned-rival ISIS has drawn most of the world’s attention and siphoned off many of its international supporters. But that also means ISIS has absorbed much of the attention of Western and local military campaigns, giving al-Qaida a chance to regroup. “I worry that al-Qaida has taken advantage of the past three or four years to very quietly rebuild while ISIS has preoccupied our attention,” Georgetown terrorism analyst Bruce Hoffman told the AP recently.
With ISIS’s “caliphate” now all but destroyed, its political project of building a territorial state to challenge existing powers in the Middle East could lose credibility as well. ISIS is likely to convert itself into a more traditionally guerilla movement, but al-Qaida has years more experience at that. Al-Qaida–linked groups have consolidated control over much of Syria’s Idlib province and will likely welcome fighters fleeing former ISIS territory with open arms. Bizarre as it may seem, some of these groups are renaming themselves in an attempt to rebrand as “moderate” groups in hopes of attracting foreign funding.
In addition to the other challenges it has faced, al-Qaida also may have been hampered by a lack of charismatic leadership. Zawahiri, a veteran 66-year-old Egyptian militant, may be an organizational mastermind but lacks Bin Laden’s charisma or legitimacy. As the Rand Corporation’s Seth Jones recently wrote, “Although it is unclear whether he will be charismatic enough, [Hamza’s] leadership could potentially help increase global support for the movement.”
Soufan also notes some interesting aspects of Hamza’s messaging. For one, unlike other al-Qaida leaders, he has never criticized ISIS, perhaps an effort to position himself as a unifying figure. (Though ISIS fighters oppose Zawahiri and al-Qaida in its current incarnation, they generally still revere Osama Bin Laden.) Also, Hamza often “directs followers not to travel to theaters of war within the Muslim world but instead to attack targets in the West and Russia.” He has promoted Inspire, the magazine published by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula whose instructional articles have served as a how-to guide for a number of attacks in Western countries. This could be an acknowledgement, by the possible future face of al-Qaida, that the next chapter of his movement likely looks more like the sort of “lone wolf” attack we saw this week in New York City than the highly organized terrorist plots that made his father infamous.