Anonymous US intelligence sources said yesterday that they had received reliable information regarding the presumed death of Osama Bin Laden’s son, Hamza Bin Laden. Rumours – spread by the New York Times too – say the United States played an important role in the death of one of the key men in the Al-Qaeda chain of command. According to the latest news on Hamza Bin Laden, dating back to January 2019, his last position was in Kunar Province, on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Experts on jihadist terrorism have always had different views on the actual role of Osama bin Laden’s son within the organisation. Although Hamza was probably too young to take on the role of leader of Al-Qaeda in the short term, there is no denying that he played a leading role in terms of media exposure.
In August 2015, the current leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri, presented the first audio recording of Hamza Bin Laden, introducing him as a “lion” in defence of Islam (probably a reference to Hamza’s father’s first name, Osama, which means lion in Arabic).
In the following audio messages (about a dozen) released in recent years by the official media production house of Al-Qaeda, As-Sahab Media, the son of Osama Bin Laden was referred to as “al-Sheikh” (despite his young age), a title that is given only to the most authoritative members within the organisation. Therefore, if the news of his alleged death was confirmed, the operational capabilities of the group would remain almost unchanged, but there is no doubt Al-Qaeda might suffer significant reputational damage, especially for three reasons.
One of the last video released by As Sahab Media, Al Qaeda official media channel, featuring Hamza Bin Laden.
Hamza Bin Laden was the media figure Al-Qaeda had started using to revive the old rhetoric about hitting the far enemy. A strategy that Al-Qaeda had chosen to set aside in the last few years, while preferring the rhetoric about hitting the nearby enemy, or the apostate regimes that have betrayed the precepts of Islam. When he recalled his father’s attacks, Hamza called for a new wave of attacks in the West, hoping for lone wolf-style operations to hit the interests of the Crusader countries.
Given his origins, Hamza Bin Laden was also used to revive the Al-Qaeda brand in the Arabian peninsula, where the group has recently been pushed into the background due to the nationalities of his current leaders (most of whom are Jordanian and Egyptian).
Hamza Bin Laden is one of the few Al-Qaeda figures that have never been criticised by the group’s jihadist rival, the Islamic State, at a time when both organisations tend to attack each other both through the media and operationally.
A video released by Al Furqan Media Channel, an Islamic State media channel, entitled “Apologies Emir of Al Qaeda”, featuring the former spokesman Abu Mohammad al Adnani, announcing the definitive split between Al Qaeda and Islamic State.
To date, the US administration has not confirmed Hamza’s death, and details are still emerging. The deaths of key figures of international jihadism are always hard to confirm, because such information is highly confidential and because jihadist leaders usually go into hiding and very little is known about them. By way of example, the Afghan government and its allies found out about the death of Mullah Omar – the best-known leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – only in 2015, though Omar had died in 2013. In this case, the Taliban leaders hid the news to avoid internal disagreements within their ranks. More recently, in November 2018, the French government assumed a JNIM leader, Amadou Koufa, had been killed in an anti-terrorism operation in northern Mali. The news was also confirmed by the Malian army a few days later. In February 2019, Amadou Koufa appeared in a new video, calling the French liars for not telling the truth about his alleged death.
Faced with the facts, jihadist organisations usually make no secret of the deaths of their leaders. If confirmed, the news of Hamza’s presumed death could be covered by both the organisation and its branches, which could use the death of Osama Bin Laden’s son to further revive their rhetoric and show that the different regional branches of the group are united. Probably the death of Hamza Bin Laden could cause Al-Qaeda to face new internal problems among its different factions.