The ‘Emerging al-Qaeda Lion’ is No More: Hamza Bin Laden’s Demise is a Crucial Blow to al-Qaeda

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 8

On July 31, news of Hamza bin Laden’s death surfaced with only partial comment from U.S. intelligence officials and al-Qaeda media sources (Dawn [Karachi], August 1). The original report citing unnamed U.S. officials did not confirm the date, place or circumstances that led to the death of the chosen son of Osama bin Laden, who was touted as the “crown prince of jihad” and future leader of al-Qaeda. Despite the high level of esteem he held in the organization, no confirmation of Hamza bin Laden’s death has emerged from either al-Qaeda’s official media source As Sahab or even in pro-al-Qaeda social media channels in Telegram. Pro-al-Qaeda jihadist circles cautioned sympathizers to not take this news at face value, labelling it as disinformation from Western intelligence. Among the senior al-Qaeda backers who almost immediately questioned the news of Hamza’s death were al-Muhajir al-Khorasani and Shibl al-Aqida, who run an al-Qaeda propaganda channel on Telegram. They warned that the news could be fake and a ploy to find out the location of their “beloved” Hamza. The clerics urged pro-al-Qaeda jihadists not to discuss the matter online (Telegram Messaging Service in Arabic via BBC News Monitoring, August 1).

Subsequent reporting on his alleged death continued to be sketchy and superficial, including vague speculation he was killed in an airstrike in Afghanistan or Pakistan that took place sometime in the past couple of years.

While it has not been confirmed conclusively, the news of Hamza bin Laden’s untimely demise is widely considered to be a blow to the future of al-Qaeda. In addition, the news received a stamp of approval on August 22 when U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper seemingly confirmed Hamza bin Laden’s death by cryptically answering “That’s my understanding” when asked about it (New Arab, August 23). However, he refused to provide details, thereby leaving room for speculation over when and how Hamza died and, most importantly, what it means for al-Qaeda’s future.

Hamza, who was in his early 30s, stormed onto the jihadist scene with an audio message in August 2015 exhorting Muslim youth worldwide to join the jihadist movement and carry out lone wolf attacks against the United States and its allies (including the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia). He never shied away from expressing his wish to avenge his father’s death in his powerful audio messages. Between his first and last audio-visual appearance in March 2018, he delivered over ten such messages under the al-Qaeda banner, which often tagged him as an “emerging lion.”

In February 2019, the U.S. State Department placed a $1 million bounty on Hamza through its Rewards for Justice program (Reward for Justice, February 2019). Before, that in early January 2017, the State Department named him a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) for threatening terrorist attacks against U.S. interests (US State Department, January 5, 2017).

The Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor in February 2018 underscored that Hamza’s physical survival would be vital for further consolidation of al-Qaeda and only Hamza had the ability to unify the fractured jihadist movement under the banner of al-Qaeda (See MLM, March 8, 2018). If he was indeed killed in a U.S.-led airstrike—whether in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region or in Syria—his death certainly creates a roadblock to al-Qaeda’s plans for a smooth leadership transition from the old guard to the new generation. His death comes at a time when al-Qaeda is under an ailing and aging Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has been struggling to put on a strong face against its rival, Islamic State, and its sworn enemies, the United States and the wider Western world.

His “illustrious” father Osama and mother Khairiah Sabar groomed Hamza for leadership from childhood. Perhaps they sensed the charisma, caliber, and clout he could have in the future. The close aides of Osama bin Laden and the current al-Qaeda central leadership, especially Abu Khayr al-Masri, Saif al-Adel, Abu al-Ghaith, and Abu Mohammed al-Masri, also clandestinely supported Hamza’s elevation to the coveted leadership position (See MLM, March 8, 2018).

Indeed, within a short period, Hamza managed to arouse jihadist sentiments as an able propagandist through his intermittent speeches among the al-Qaeda rank and file, despite keeping a relatively low profile and his lack of battlefield or operational experience.  With Hamza’s reported death, al-Qaeda must be renewing its search for another charismatic young jihadist leader—albeit from the Arab world—to take the reins of one of the world’s most infamous jihadist franchises.  But it will be difficult to find a young leader matching Hamza’s jihadist lineage and, more importantly, his natural oratorical talents, through which he was able to inspire and connect with Muslim youth worldwide. His death at any time would certainly be disappointing and discouraging for al-Qaeda members, supporters, and sympathizers alike.