Enter Hamza bin Laden, primed for succession
Beirut- Amid strong indications that al-Qaeda is staging a major comeback, new leaders are vying to take command of the pioneering jihadist organisation and the front-runner seems to be Osama bin Laden’s supposed favourite son, Hamza.
Al-Qaeda’s ageing leadership is clearly promoting Hamza, in his late 20s and dubbed “the crown prince of terror” by British lawmakers, as the successor to his late father as it seeks to regain the primacy in the jihadist world that the Islamic State (ISIS) snatched in 2014.
“Hamza is the most charismatic and potent individual in the next generation of jihadis simply because of his lineage and history,” Bruce Riedel, a 30-year Central Intelligence Agency veteran, told the Washington Post.
Al-Qaeda’s current leader, the veteran Egyptian jihadist Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over after Osama bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALs in a raid on his Pakistani hideout in May 2011, is widely seen as a figurehead lacking his predecessor’s charisma and innovative operational zeal.
ISIS appears to be on its last legs militarily after a string of defeats and the loss of most of the territory it held in Syria and Iraq. Al-Qaeda seeks to harness ISIS’s legion of disaffected supporters and seasoned combat veterans and its propaganda is clearly aimed at winning them over as their organisation fragments.
“At a time when Zawahiri and [ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] seem to be fading, Hamza is the heir apparent,” said Riedel, who is director of the Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project in Washington.
Al-Qaeda’s leadership has released on supportive websites audio and video recordings of Hamza calling on followers to carry out lone-wolf attacks on civilian targets, ISIS’s signature tactic, using any means possible.
To mark the 16th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the group posted footage of the blazing Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York with images of Osama bin Laden and Hamza as a boy superimposed on the carnage.
Osama bin Laden initially favoured his elder son, Saad, as his successor but he was killed in a July 2009 US drone strike in Pakistan.
To protect Hamza, al-Qaeda has only released images of him as a boy and his current whereabouts are not publicly known. The United States has designated him a “global terrorist.”
Then on November 1, the CIA released a massive collection of documents and videos seized in the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011. An hour-long video of Hamza’s 2009 wedding in Iran showed him as a young adult.
His bride was the daughter of Abu Mohammed al-Masri, a long-time senior al-Qaeda commander who with Saif al-Adel and Abu Khayr al-Masri constituted the big three in the group’s Shura Council. These three men were the young Hamza’s mentors and teachers while all were held in Iran for several years.
Adel, a former colonel in the Egyptian army’s special forces and branded one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists, is said to have Hamza’s ear.
Abu Khayr al-Masri was reportedly killed in a US drone strike in Syria at the end of February.
“When ISIS finally crumbles … the spotlight will return to al-Qaeda,” cautioned Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-American veteran of the jihadist wars who has hunted down many of al-Qaeda’s heavyweights. “At that point, they will strike and strike hard.
“With bin Laden’s filial heir and ideological successors firmly back in the field and the group’s affiliates making territorial gains in Yemen and elsewhere, al-Qaeda once again has the means and the opportunity to attack.”
On November 7, al-Qaeda’s propaganda wing, As Sahab, released Hamza’s latest message, lionising his father and urging supporters to avenge his death at the hands of US Navy SEALs and the subsequent dumping of his body into the Indian Ocean.
Hamza called on young Muslims to unleash a new holy war against the United States and the West, taking his father’s example as an inspiration for “rising against tyrants.”
If he does come out on top, and it seems that is what will happen, it will have “potentially deadly consequences for the West and the rest of the world,” warned Soufan.
“Many factors suggest that Hamza could be a highly effective leader. His family pedigree, not to mention his dynastic marriage to the daughter of an al-Qaeda charter member, automatically entitles him to respect from every jihadi who follows bin Laden’s ideology,” he wrote in a September analysis published by the US Combating Terrorism Centre.
“His long-standing jihadi fervour and obvious charisma and his closeness to al-Qaeda’s most senior operatives, bolster his leadership qualities… That should worry policymakers in the West as well as in the Muslim world.”