If indeed Hamza Bin Laden is dead, the succession battle within Al Qaeda could get muddled.
By Kabir Taneja*
Reports appearing in American media suggest that Osama Bin Laden’s son, Hamza Bin Laden, was killed some time over the past two years. However, further details remain elusive as no official statements by US intelligence agencies, State Department or the Pentagon followed to neither confirm nor deny the reports.
Hamza Bin Laden is believed to have been born in 1986 (although some accounts put his birth year as 1989), and the few pictures of his currently in circulation are from video grabs found from Osama Bin Laden’s (OBL) lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan where he was killed in a US Navy SEAL raid in 2011. One of the photos is allegedly from his wedding to a daughter of Mohammed Atta, one of the ringleaders of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Hamza’s death has created a lot of debate, on what it means for Al Qaeda, which up until 2014 was the world’s most dangerous terror group. If either of Hamza’s birth years is correct, that puts his age between the late 20s and early 30s. Over the past years, his name has appeared sporadically in Al Qaeda propaganda. In the May issue of Al Qaeda’s Nawa-i-Afghan magazine, an article attributed to Hamza saw him praising his father for reviving jihad, and asked others to join and avenge his death at hands of the US.
Amidst all this kerfuffle, why the death of Hamza is relevant is important. Many reports and analysts alike suggest that he was possibly being groomed to take over the reigns of Al Qaeda, and become a successor to the group’s current chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. While this remains a contested hypothesis, with Al Qaeda being led by multiple top-level leaders, it could show that the US has been committed to end the dynastic trail of the Bin Laden name which could be a binding force and act as a renewed call to strengthen the group amongst the younger generation of Muslims.
Over the past five years, Al Qaeda has battled for its relevance against ISIS, or the so-called Islamic State, the group that was once known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became what Osama Bin Laden was to the world in the wake of 9/11. During this period, Al Qaeda played second fiddle, losing out momentum, territory, and ideological space to ISIS’s idea of khilafat (caliphate), which the group briefly managed to create territorially in Syria and Iraq. While Al Qaeda’s call for violence has largely been against the US and Israel, younger extremists since the death of OBL gravitated towards ISIS, with their well produced propaganda videos, magazines, nasheed’s with modern music beats and so on rendering Al Qaida’s ‘old men lecturing to a camera’ outreach almost obsolete.
However, longevity, structure and foundational grounding still remain in Al Qaeda’s favor. If ISIS was the Formula 1 of jihad, Al Qaeda is in it for a long drawn game of chess. Diplomats back in 2014 during the rise of ISIS did not see the group and its caliphate standing much of a chance against air campaigns and Western supported and led military actions, unlike Al Qaeda, which has had decades of experience on survivability, alliances and honing loyalty.
Al Qaeda has been trying to regain its narrative back, with the loss of the Islamic State and ISIS on the back foot as a group. In July, the United Nations Security Council Al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee report noted that the group remained “resilient, although the health and longevity of its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and how the succession will work remains in doubt.”
The report also noted that the group remains relatively safe in Afghanistan, with the backing of the Taliban, and continues to closely cooperate with the likes of Pakistani military backed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Also last month, Zawahiri in a video release called for ‘unrelenting blows’ against the Indian Army in Kashmir, and claimed that the Kashmir conflict is not regional or a standalone crisis but is part of the global Muslim community’s jihad against a vast array of forces. Zawahiri, despite Al Qaeda’s claimed close quarters with LeT, also criticised Pakistan for playing a double game in the state and not representing the fight for Islam and Muslims. In May, Al Qaeda in India Subcontinent (AQIS) chief, Zakir Musa was announced killed in an encounter. Al Qaeda, as far as Kashmir goes, has held a stronger narrative in the state than ISIS, despite both groups as of today not having any actual space worth noting in the conflict.
“Al Qaeda continues to cooperate closely with Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network. Al Qaeda members continue to function routinely as military and religious instructors for the Taliban,” the report added.
News relating to Hamza also comes at an interesting juncture when the US is in official talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, to come to an agreement where the 18 years long war in the country could come to a significantly compromised end in the Taliban’s favour. US President Donald Trump seems steadfast in his efforts to withdraw the US military from the country before the 2020 elections, come what may in the future of Afghanistan. For this, Washington needs the help of Pakistan which was not only instrumental in the creation of the Taliban along with the US but still draws significant clout with the group and uses it to get its way with Washington DC. Hamza was known to have been moving around the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and this is where he is supposed to have been killed.
If indeed Hamza Bin Laden is dead, the succession battle within Al Qaeda could get muddled. The dynastic name would have carried significant weight, and another Bin Laden leading the helm would have been difficult to counter for others vying to replace a reportedly ailing Zawahiri. However, a successful, young Bin Laden gaining the backing of Zawahiri as the next heir could have been a potent force, with bringing back that family name which held the mantle of being the single biggest global brand of Islamist terror.