Is Hamza Bin Laden al-Qaeda's Next Leader?

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Is Hamza Bin Laden al-Qaeda’s Next Leader?

Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza bin Laden is gradually climbing the ranks of al-Qaeda hierarchy as the group ‘appears to be growing more ambitious’. Muna Habib in this article has profiled Hamza bin Laden and highlighted the rising suspicions regarding him in the US and the global intelligence community.

Years after the death of his father in a US Navy Seal raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Hamza bin Bin Laden has risen to prominence in the Islamist terrorist group, al-Qaeda; his name has recently been added to the United States FBI ‘seeking more information list’ (SMIL), for his terrorist activities.

An Increasing Security Threat

The FBI announcement comes after the US placed a bounty of up to USD 1 million on him in March 2019; the UN Security Council added his name to a global sanctions list, spurring a new Interpol notice for his arrest. Saudi Arabia, too, stripped him of his citizenship.

The recent steps indicate that international counter-terrorism officials think he is an increasing security threat.

Many believe the 30-year-old, though not al- Qaeda’s leader just yet, is being groomed by the group to become their leader. He has significant authority and following within the terrorist organisation that his father founded. In years passed, he has released audio and video messages calling on followers to attack the West to avenge his father’s killing.

“Something’s Happening”

“Hamza was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps,” said Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who focused on counterterrorism and al-Qaeda’s activities. “He is poised to have a senior leadership role in al-Qaeda.” Explained the sudden measures taken, Ali says there was probably some intelligence gathered that indicated ‘something’s happening’.

Other evidence also supports these measures. The latest US national intelligence report warned that senior al-Qaeda leaders are “strengthening the network’s global command structure and continuing to encourage attacks against the West and the United States.”

The UN also published a report on the threat of global terrorism, and said that al-Qaeda “appears to be growing more ambitious…it remains resilient and active in many regions and retains the ambition to project itself more internationally.”

The Last Time He Saw Osama

Hamza Bin Laden’s exact birth date remains unknown, but many believe the birth year to be 1989, as that was a year of transition for his father, who had gained prominence working with the United States in the 1980s, supplying arms, money and training to the mujahedeen fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

As the war with the Soviets neared a conclusion, his father Osama bin Laden launched a new group called al-Qaeda, meaning “the base” in Arabic.

By now Osama had met and married Hamza’s mother Khairiah Saber who gave birth to Hamza, their only child, as al-Qaeda readied itself for the September 11 attacks.

Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow at Pembroke College at Oxford University who studies Hamza bin Laden said, “This boy has been living, breathing and experiencing the al-Qaeda life since age zero.”

On September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda coordinated the hijacking of four US commercial flights that rammed into World Trade Centre and Pentagon, killing nearly 3000 people and instigated the US-led invasion of Afghanistan seeking to terminate al-Qaeda, and capture Osama bin Laden. However, Osama escaped into Pakistan. Hamza was 12 years old at the time and it would be the last time he would see his father.

Sanctuary In Iran

After September 11, 2001 Hamza and his mother were taken by other group members to Pakistan. From there they crossed the border into Iran, where other al-Qaeda members kept them hidden in safe-houses, according to experts who read the documents seized after the US Navy seals killed Hamza’s father in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011.

Iran eventually arrested the al-Qaeda members, held them in military houses or closed compounds. It was, in fact, the Iranian detention that saved Hamza, his mother and other group members from being killed in a US drone strike.

Hamza’s Marriage

Around this time, Hamza married the daughter of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, an Egyptian who had helped carry out the 1998 US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. The couple had two children, Osama and Khairiah, named after Hamza’s parents.

To Pakistan

According to a letter to his father Osama bin Laden, Hamza along with his mother and other members left Iran in March 2010; Hamza went to Pakistan’s Waziristan province, where he asked for weapons training. His mother travelled to Abbottabad to join her husband.

After the May 2, 2011 Navy Seal raid that killed his father and brother in Abbottabad, Hamza disappeared again.

‘A Lion From The Den Of Al-Qaeda’

Letters by Osama seized from his compound after his death indicated that he had been grooming Hamza to replace him as the leader of al-Qaeda.

According to Lina Khatib, head of Middle East and North Africa centre at Chatham House, “Al-Qaeda is more dependent now on having a strategic leader. This is helping Hamza bin Laden to gain support in his bid to replace his father as al-Qaeda’s leader,” she said.

In August 2015, a video emerged on jihadi websites featuring Ayman al-Zawahri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, introducing “a lion from the den of al-Qaeda” — Hamza bin Laden.

Since then, he has featured in almost a dozen al-Qaeda messages, delivering speeches on everything, from Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as US president to the war in Syria. His frequent messages have raised suspicion that al-Qaeda is preparing for another attack on the US or its Western allies.

Operating In Shadows

There is still no knowledge of where Hamza is; and the internal politics of al-Qaeda also remains a mystery. Hamza hasn’t been heard from since a message in March 2018, in which he threatened the rulers of Saudi Arabia after they stripped him of his nationality.

But will he succeed in his efforts to attack the West? “We have no idea. We might drone him tomorrow,” said Soufan, the former FBI agent. “But this is the plan. This is what they wanted to do. This is what he is destined, I believe, to do from the beginning.”

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Muna Habib

The author has worked at BBC and ITN in the past.

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