It was reported by NBC News on 31 July, relying on “three U.S. officials” who described “intelligence” that the United States had received, that Hamza bin Laden, the son of Al-Qaeda founder Osama, had been killed. An analytical dispute is ongoing over the impact Hamza’s demise would have on Al-Qaeda.
Is Hamza Dead?
The evidence that Hamza is dead is sketchy, and the initial evidence was downright dubious. NBC’s original report said, “It is unclear if the U.S. has confirmed his death”. A U.S. official speaking to The Wall Street Journal said that Hamza’s “death appears to have taken place some time ago … but [was] only confirmed by U.S. intelligence agencies in recent weeks”, and even he added that “details are uncertain”.
None of the initial reporting indicated when Hamza was killed or by whom. The nearest any got to defining a timeframe was within “the last two years”, presumed to mean at some point since his last appearance in Al-Qaeda’s propaganda, in March 2018, inciting rebellion in Saudi Arabia.
Added to this lack of detail, there was reason to doubt that Hamza had been killed since it is highly unusual for Al-Qaeda not to eulogize a fallen leader, and as yet, there has been no death notice for Hamza from Al-Qaeda.
A subsequent report in The New York Times provides information that makes it more likely Hamza is deceased, though it remains far from certain. An American official says that Hamza died in Afghanistan in December 2017 after being wounded in an airstrike—possibly the one that killed Hamza’s young son, Osama, in the summer of 2017.
Answering the question of why Al-Qaeda has not released a eulogy, a U.S. intelligence source says that “chatter” has been picked up where Al-Qaeda discusses the need to conceal Hamza’s demise in order that the organization can continue to fundraise off the Bin Laden name and use Hamza’s image to compete for the younger generation of jihadists against the Islamic State (ISIS).
A cover-up of this kind would not be unprecedented. The Taliban, whose leader Al-Qaeda is formally pledged to obey, hid the fact that the organization’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, had died in April 2013 for more than two years, until August 2015.
In late 2017, the U.S. allegedly detected a move by Hamza’s family from Pakistan to Iran, a country that has played a significant role in Hamza’s life and Al-Qaeda’s fortunes (about which more below).
Alongside the “chatter” about keeping Hamza’s death hidden, the family’s sudden move is considered by U.S. intelligence officials to be the strongest evidence of Hamza’s death. This is still quite weak—and it is competing with other reports from counter-terrorism officials, who told Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary that Hamza spent time in southern Afghanistan in January 2019.
Still, the timeline and data provided to the Times at least gives a plausible scenario of Hamza’s downfall. There are still large gaps in the story, but intelligence is not an exact science: it is making the best of the fragments of evidence available.
Hamza was born in 1989 to Khairia Saber, also known as “Um Hamza”, Osama bin Laden’s third and most domineering wife. Hamza was, as European Eye on Radicalization (EER) has previously documented, a favourite son of Osama’s, and his training in jihadism began early.
Al-Qaeda has a long relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran dating back to the early 1990s. After 9/11, when the U.S. intervened in Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban regime that harboured Al-Qaeda and refused to hand over Osama, Al-Qaeda’s relationship with Iran became crucial to Al-Qaeda’s survival. Many Al-Qaeda militants—including the entire military leadership of the terrorist group, much of its religious council, and most of the Bin Laden family (Hamza among them)—moved to Iran, where they were sheltered by Qassem Suleimani, the second-most powerful man in the country, the leader of the Quds Force within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
In their book, The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden, authors Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark explain that Al-Qaeda’s leaders in Iran, often described as being held under “house arrest”, were free enough that they could “stockpil[e] fissile material” and conduct terrorist operations abroad. Indeed, Al-Qaeda’s leadership was told directly that it could count on Suleimani’s support when these attacks coincided with Iranian interests. Such was the case in May 2003, for example, with the bombings in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
Hamza was being indoctrinated with Al-Qaeda’s ideology and prepared for a role in the organization by the elite of the jihadi universe who surrounded him in Iran. Sayf al-Adel, a senior Al-Qaeda military leader close to Suleimani, and Abu Muhammad al-Masri are the key duo who groomed Hamza. By the time Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, as The Exile lays out in some detail, Hamza had left Iran and was within days of joining his father at the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan where he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs.
Hamza re-appeared in the summer of 2015, giving a speech released by Al-Qaeda’s official propaganda outlets, vowing revenge against the West for their destruction of his father. Hamza has since then issued eleven audio statements, which have focused intently on challenging the Saudi monarchy’s legitimacy.
What Did Hamza Mean to Al-Qaeda?
The impact of Hamza’s demise is much contested.
In operational terms, there are conflicting accounts of what Hamza meant to Al-Qaeda. The outgoing Obama administration’s designation of Hamza as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in January 2017 referred generically to Hamza’s incitement of attacks against the West, and the American “Rewards for Justice” notice at the end of February 2019 spoke in similar terms. By contrast, when the United Nations imposed sanctions on Hamza at the same time as the “Rewards” notice, it referred to him as “the most probable successor of [Al-Qaeda leader Ayman] al-Zawahiri”. The U.N. sanctions committee that deals with Al-Qaeda is fed by the intelligence agencies of its member states, and for that reason has a mixed record of accuracy, mistakes, and misinformation.
At a more abstract—though no less important—level, as EER analysis has noted, Hamza offered Al-Qaeda a unifying figure and narrative, a return to the “glorious past” of the early 2000s after the challenges and divisions caused in the jihadi world by the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) over the last five years. Al-Qaeda evidently felt that building up the image of a Bin Laden in its ranks was helpful to the organization, and Hamza was the leader of the political offensive against the Saudi government.
Ultimately, how close Hamza was—or is—to being appointed to a leadership role, and whether he would ever be more than a figurehead, is unclear.
Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent, argued in late 2017 that “Hamza is being elevated to [Al-Qaeda’s] leadership”. Hamza “is the favorite son of the most famous jihadi in history”, Soufan wrote, “And in a culture where leadership typically descends through a bloodline, pedigree trumps experience. … Perhaps most importantly of all, Hamza clearly has Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership behind him.” Barbara Sude, a former Al-Qaeda analyst at the CIA, agrees with this assessment, saying Hamza was being groomed for a “prominent position” by Al-Zawahiri.
RAND analyst Colin Clarke has made the strongest case since the reports emerged that Hamza’s death would be “more than just a symbolic loss for Al-Qaeda”. The “death of the group’s heir apparent will be a devastating blow to the organization’s brand”, Clarke says, “and thus its ability to compete with the Islamic State” just at the moment Al-Qaeda was seeking to capitalize on the collapse of ISIS’s “caliphate”. Hamza’s “apparent death … raises even more questions for the future of Al-Qaeda”, Clarke concluded.
Katherine Zimmerman of the American Enterprise Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations’ terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, and Haverford College’s Al-Qaeda specialist Barak Mendelsohn told AFP that the impact of Hamza’s death, assuming it was true, would be much less.
Hamza had in many ways become “the senior leadership’s voice”, says Zimmerman, but there is no evidence he had migrated to a true leadership role. Mendelsohn agrees that Hamza had a “propaganda mission” for Al-Qaeda, with no evidence he was responsible for “significant operational tasks”.
Hoffman added that Hamza might have been useful in pulling away younger jihadists from ISIS, but in concrete terms: Al-Qaeda had weathered the loss of Osama, a hands-on manager and unrivalled messaging asset; it could survive the loss of his son.