By Daniel Levin
Six weeks after U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, Ayman al-Zawahiri was appointed the new Emir, or leader, of al-Qaeda. Six years later, the Egyptian still holds the same position at the helm of the organization.1 However, many experts believe that Osama had been grooming one of his sons, Hamza, to replace him as the leader of al-Qaeda. Hamza has recently garnered attention in the news, adding substance to these claims. Hamza’s appearances in al-Qaeda propaganda videos combined with declassified documents from Osama bin Laden’s home in Pakistan indicate the possibility of Hamza eventually replacing Zawahiri.
Zawahiri has been considered by many experts as well as members of his organization to be a less charismatic leader compared to Osama bin Laden. Raised in Egypt, Zawahiri began organizing local Islamic extremists at the age of 15. This group later formed into Egyptian Islamic Jihad, with Zawahiri assuming the leadership role. Despite holding this position, he was never thought to be a passionate leader. The Looming Tower– a celebrated Pulitzer Prize winning book on al-Qaeda and 9/11- describes one member of the group cautioning Zawahiri before he became the leader, saying, “if you are a member of any group, you cannot be the leader.” This same member also said that there was “something missing” in his character.2 Zawahiri is known to be a poor speaker, prone to divisiveness, and in general, lacking the same charisma that Osama bin Laden possessed. While Zawahiri has decades of experience in this field, he does not have the personality traits to be a popular public leader. These factors indicate the possibility of a new leader eventually taking Zawahiri’s role as Emir of al-Qaeda. Letters found in Osama bin Laden’s home in Abbottabad show strong evidence that the new leader may be Hamza bin Laden.
Hamza was born in 1989 and is the 11th child of Osama bin Laden. His mother, Khayriyah Saber, often referred to as “Umm Hamza” is Osama’s third wife. Hamza is believed to have married one of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s daughters, a practice frequently done to secure status within al-Qaeda. The letters show that Hamza and his mother moved to Iran shortly after the 9/11 attacks, where a special team accompanied them to groom Hamza into a future leader. He was taught military and leadership tactics as well as components of extremist ideology. This move carries great significance as Osama purposely decided to send Hamza and his mother to Iran while other members of Osama’s family stayed with him. Multiple letters reveal the strong bond that Hamza and Osama shared, often writing each other to express their longing to reunite. Mediators between Osama and his family in Iran, refused to send Hamza back to see his father, hinting at his future role in the organization.3 Since Hamza was viewed by some senior members of al-Qaeda as a future leader, he was likely considered too important to risk his life visiting his father.
On January 5th, 2017, The U.S. State Department labeled Hamza bin Laden as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT); Osama bin Laden was added to the same list in 1988. This classification prohibits U.S. persons from engaging in any transactions with persons on the list. The U.S. State Department justifies this action with Hamza’s appearance in al-Qaeda propaganda since August 2015.4 Thomas Joscelyn, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explains that Hamza has been featured in many al-Qaeda messages since his first appearance. Some messages call for terror attacks throughout the West, including the U.S.5
In 2015, before the Taliban had admitted that their first Emir, Mullah Omar, had died two years prior, Hamza swore allegiance to him. This action demonstrates the scope of Hamza’s influence within al-Qaeda, as other high-ranking members of the organization also pledged this same allegiance; including Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri. Hamza later honored the leaders of each of al-Qaeda’s regional branches, such as al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the al-Nusrah Front (today part of a coalition of groups called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), and others by formalizing their connection with al-Qaeda.6 In this recognition, Hamza demonstrated his clout within al-Qaeda, formally accepting these al-Qaeda branches into the larger organization. Al-Qaeda released a message in July 2016 titled “We are all Osama,” paying homage to Hamza’s father as well as demonstrating the continuation of his father’s organization. This message shows that al-Qaeda continues to find value in using the bin Laden brand name in its public image.7
Hamza recently shared a message in May 2017 calling to avenge the death of his father and for attacks around the world.8 Hamza delivered this message 11 days after the sixth anniversary of his father’s death, a symbolically significant date. Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent tasked with tracking al-Qaeda, stated that there were clear similarities between Osama and his son. Soufan continued by saying that Hamza has been trying to copy his father’s tone, messages and terminologies.9 This pattern emphasizes that both Hamza and al-Qaeda as a whole see significant benefits in using the bin Laden brand name and the concept of bin Laden-ism, the idea that the legacy of Osama bin Laden holds powerful influence over extremists and extremist groups. Additionally, it demonstrates that Hamza has the ability to invoke an emotional connection to current and future members of al-Qaeda using the prestige and familiarity of his father’s family name.
It is clear that Hamza has long been prepared to take over his father’s role. Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst and a Vice President at the New America Foundation, has argued that Hamza will not necessarily take over al-Qaeda soon, but there is evidence that he will play an important role in the organization going forward.10 Since Osama bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda has learned from its past mistakes and has expanded its role and influence in the world, developing more global branches and strengthening its ability to survive against efforts to combat the group.11 Today, al-Qaeda controls more territory, has more followers, and is arguably more capable than it was under Osama’s control.12 If Hamza takes over the organization, he will manage and propel forward a very powerful and dangerous group. He will be able to command al-Qaeda using his father’s legacy as a strong backing for his legitimacy. Leading the organization, Hamza can combine the efforts that Zawahiri has made with his father’s brand name to carry al-Qaeda into the future.
Bajoria, Jayshree, and Lee Hudson Teslik. 2017. “Profile: Ayman Al-Zawahiri”. Council On Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/profile-ayman-al-zawahiri
Wright, Lawrence. 2011. The Looming Tower.1st ed. New York: Vintage Books.
Al-Saleh, Huda. 2017. “From Iran To Al-Qaeda: How Hamza Bin Laden’S Future Was Secured”. English.Alarabiya.Net. https://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2016/10/04/From-Iran-to-al-Qaeda-How-Osama-bin-Laden-secured-son-s-future.html
“Executive Order 13224”. 2017. U.S. Department Of State. https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/122570.htm
Joscelyn, Thomas. 2017. “Osama Bin Laden’S Son Designated As A Terrorist By State Department”. FDD’s Long War Journal. http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/01/osama-bin-ladens-son-designated-as-a-terrorist-by-state-department.php
McConnell, Dugald, and Brian Todd. 2017. “Latest Al Qaeda Propaganda Highlights Bin Laden’s Son”. CNN.http://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/15/middleeast/al-qaeda-bin-laden-son/
McConnell, Dugald, and Brian Todd. 2017. “Is Bin Laden’s Son Being Groomed For Key Al Qaeda Role?”. CNN.http://edition.cnn.com/2016/05/13/world/bin-laden-son-al-qaeda/
Mendelsohn, Barak, and William McCants. 2017. “Experts Weigh In: What Is The Future Of Al-Qaida And The Islamic State? | Brookings Institution”. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2016/01/07/experts-weigh-in-what-is-the-future-of -al-qaida-and-the-islamic-state/
“Hamza Bin Laden, Son Of Osama, Appears Set To Become The New Face Of Al Qaeda”. 2017. 9News. http://www.9news.com.au/world/2017/05/17/15/29/hamza-bin-laden-son-of-osama-appears-set-to-become-the-new-face-of-al-qaeda