By Ali Soufan
September 7, 2017
Osama bin Laden and Hamza bin Laden
Abstract: Hamza bin Ladin was among his
father’s favourite sons, and he has always been among the most consistently
fervent of his siblings in his support for violent jihad. Now in his late 20s,
Hamza is being prepared for a leadership role in the organization his father
founded. As a member of the bin Ladin dynasty, Hamza is likely to be perceived
favourably by the Jihadi rank-and-file. With the Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’
apparently on the verge of collapse, Hamza is now the figure best placed to
reunify the global Jihadi movement.
One day in early November 2001, on a
hillside south of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Usama bin Ladin bade farewell to
three of his young sons.1 a In the shade of an olive tree, he handed each boy a
misbaha—a set of prayer beads symbolizing the 99 names of God in classical
Arabic—and instructed them to keep the faith. The scene was an emotional one.
“It was as if we pulled out our livers and left them there,” one of the boys
would later recall in a letter to his father.2 Having taken his leave, bin
Ladin disappeared into the mountains, bound for a familiar redoubt known as the
Black Cave, or Tora Bora in the local Pashto dialect.
The three boys who received the prayer
beads that day would face three very different destinies. One, Bakr (also known
as Ladin), would distance himself from al-Qa`ida, both geographically and
ideologically. Another, Khalid, would die protecting his father at their
compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011. The third, Hamza, would vanish
for years before re-emerging in 2015 as the most likely candidate to reunite a
fractured Jihadi movement and lead al-Qa`ida to a future still more violent
than its past.
Groomed to Lead
Despite al-Qa`ida’s generally dim view of
women, it appears that Usama bin Ladin respected and valued each of his wives.
But he was surely familiar with the Qur’an’s warning that, “Try as you may, you
cannot treat all your wives impartially.” It was well known that bin Ladin had
a favorite. This was Hamza bin Ladin’s mother, Khairia Sabar, a child
psychologist from the respected al-Hindi family of Saudi Arabia. The pair had
been introduced when Saad, one of bin Ladin’s sons by his first wife, Najwa
al-Ghanem, had attended Khairia’s clinic to receive therapy for a mental
disorder.3 Khairia was single, in her mid-30s, and in fragile health—an
unpropitious situation for a woman in a conservative kingdom where teenage
brides are far from uncommon. Bin Ladin, by contrast, was seven years younger,
the son of a billionaire, and already making a name for himself as a fundraiser
for the mujahideen struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Moreover, by
this time, bin Ladin already had two wives. But Najwa, the first of them,
encouraged him to pursue Khairia, believing that having someone with her
training permanently on hand would help her son Saad and his brothers and
sisters, some of whom also suffered from developmental disorders.4
Not surprisingly given Khairia’s age and
state of health, she and bin Ladin struggled to conceive. Over the first three
years of their marriage, as bin Ladin moved back and forth between Saudi Arabia
and the theatre of war in Afghanistan, she endured miscarriage after
miscarriage. During this time, bin Ladin added a fourth wife to the
family—another highly educated Saudi woman, Siham Sabar.5 Then, in 1989, both
Siham and Khairia bore him sons. Siham’s was called Khalid, a name that in
Arabic means “eternal.” Khairia’s boy was named Hamza, meaning “steadfast.”
Thenceforward, in accordance with ancient Arab custom, Khairia became known by
the honorific Umm Hamza, the Mother of Hamza. The boy would remain her only
child by bin Ladin, but that fact has by no means diminished either Hamza’s
importance or Khairia’s.
In 1991, reeling from a series of bloody
embarrassments in Afghanistan and dismayed by the Saudi government’s increasing
hostility toward him, bin Ladin moved al-Qa`ida’s base of operations to Sudan,
just across the Red Sea from his home city of Jeddah. Among bin Ladin’s inner
circle of top lieutenants and their families, Umm Hamza soon developed a
reputation for level-headedness and wise counsel. As bin Ladin’s longtime
bodyguard Abu Jandal put it, she was “respected by absolutely everyone.”6 In
Sudan, Khairia set up an informal school to teach the wives and children of
al-Qa`ida members about Islamic theology, gave advice on religious matters, and
from time to time even offered marriage counselling. At a time when al-Qa`ida
could easily have disintegrated under the weight of its forced exile and bin
Ladin’s growing fear of arrest or assassination, Khairia’s calm and optimistic
influence played an important role in holding the organization together.
Hamza was seven years old when the regime
of Omar Bashir finally caved to international pressure and expelled al-Qa`ida
from Sudan. Bin Ladin and his entourage decamped to Afghanistan, where they
were offered safe haven first by local warlords and subsequently by the Taliban
movement, which overran most of the country within a few months of bin Ladin’s
arrival. Al-Qa`ida’s new hosts gave bin Ladin the choice of several desirable
residences, including a former royal palace. Characteristically, however, he
chose instead a base in the mountains near Jalalabad consisting of concrete
huts lacking power, water, and in many cases even doors.7 Bin Ladin eventually
moved to Tarnak Farms, a camp complex outside Kandahar with almost as little in
the way of creature comforts.8 Not everyone relishes this kind of austerity;
while bin Ladin was still in Sudan, his second wife, Khadija Sharif, had
divorced him, citing the hardships of life in a militant camp.9 His first wife,
Najwa, would finally leave him on the eve of 9/11.10 But Khairia and Siham—the
mothers of Hamza and Khalid, respectively—were ready to go through significant
privations for their husband, and both would be with him at the very end.
The Tehran Years
Afghanistan, Hamza emerged as one of bin Ladin’s favourite sons. Still not yet
a teenager, he appeared in propaganda videos alongside his father, underwent
assault training with al-Qa`ida fighters, and preached fiery sermons in a young
boy’s helium voice.11 In December 2000, aged 11, Hamza was chosen to recite a
poem at the wedding of his 15-year-old brother, Mohammed.12 His assured
performance transfixed the other guests; bin Ladin family members would talk
about it, and even have dreams about it, for years to come.13
But already, Hamza’s time with his father
was drawing to a close. On September 10, 2001, anticipating the backlash that
would follow his latest and most outrageous assault on the United States, bin
Ladin ordered his wives and their younger children out of his Kandahar
compound—a conspicuous target and one that had been bombed before—to seek
shelter in Jalalabad, 350 miles northeast. There, al-Qa`ida’s propagandists
shot one last video featuring Hamza, in which the boy can be seen reciting a
poem praising the bravery of Kabul’s Taliban defenders and handling wreckage
claimed to be from a downed U.S. helicopter.14
The video was, of course, a travesty. The
Taliban, far from mounting a stalwart defense, were already being routed up and
down the country, and the helicopter wreck, certainly not American, was most
likely that of a Soviet gunship shot down before Hamza was born, probably with
surface-to-air missiles supplied by the United States. As bin Ladin made ready
to ride south for his last stand at Tora Bora, he ordered his family east, over
the border into Pakistan.15 This decision made sense. Al-Qa`ida had found
shelter there during and immediately after the war against the Soviets, and
operatives like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had long lived with impunity in
Pakistani mega-cities like Karachi.
But 9/11 had changed this picture along
with everything else. General Pervez Musharraf responded to the attacks by
turning Pakistan into an enthusiastic supporter of the United States’ efforts against
al-Qa`ida and the Taliban. Faced with a rapidly narrowing range of risky
options, al-Qa`ida decided that its people, including bin Ladin’s family,
should leave Pakistan and seek refuge in the neighbouring country of Iran.
The world’s foremost Shi`a stronghold may
seem an odd destination for an organization populated by Sunni extremists, men
who pepper their public utterances with slurs against Shi`a Muslims, calling
them “rejectionists” and “apostates.” But in the fall of 2001, with support for
the United States at an all-time high, Iran suddenly became the one place in
the Muslim world where America’s writ could be counted upon not to run.
Inside Iran, Saif al-`Adl, a wily Egyptian
ex-soldier who had been a pivotal figure in al-Qa`ida since its inception,
oversaw a secret network of safe houses.16 In the beginning, it seemed as if
al-Qa`ida had found at least temporary sanctuary. But Hamza nevertheless chafed
against the constraints of this life in the shadows. In July 2002, he wrote a
poem to his father, bemoaning the “spheres of danger everywhere I look” and
asking, “What has happened for us to be chased by danger?”17 In his response,
bin Ladin did not sugar-coat matters for his 12-year-old son. “I can see only a
very steep path ahead,” he wrote. “A decade has gone by in vagrancy and travel,
and here we are in our tragedy… for how long will real men be in short
Further hardship lurked just over the
horizon. For if Hamza and his family thought they had evaded detection, they
were wrong. In fact, it seems that Iranian intelligence knew of al-Qa`ida’s
presence on the Islamic Republic’s soil right from the start. Around April
2003, the al-Qa`ida members in Iran realized they were being watched and began
to take steps to thwart Tehran’s monitoring. Fearing that al-Qa`ida might slip
through their fingers, the authorities initiated a dragnet that pulled in
practically every al-Qa`ida operative and family member in the country.19
For the next few years, Hamza and his
mother were held at a succession of military facilities in the Tehran area,
some cramped and dingy, others spacious and relatively comfortable, but always
separated from the outside world by high walls, razor wire, and surveillance
cameras.20 Despite their tribulations, Khairia remained adamant that her son
should receive the best possible education under the circumstances. Her own
pedagogic efforts continued, and to supplement these, she solicited a group of
bin Ladin’s top lieutenants being held in the same facility, including al-`Adl,
to educate Hamza in Qur’anic study, Islamic jurisprudence, and the Hadith
(alleged deeds and sayings of the prophet). Hamza is said to have become
learned in each of these subjects.21
Hamza matured in other ways, too. While
still in captivity, he married the daughter of one of his teachers, the
long-time al-Qa`ida military commander Abu Mohammed al-Masri.22 Hamza’s new
wife soon gave birth to a son and a daughter, whom they named respectively
Usama and Khairia.23 Hamza told the elder bin Ladin that “God created [my
children] to serve you.” And he longed to rejoin his father. “How many times,
from the depths of my heart, I wished to be beside you,” Hamza wrote in 2009.
“I remember every smile that you smiled at me, every word that you spoke to me,
every look that you gave me.”24
Neither captivity nor fatherhood could dim
the desire to follow in his father’s footsteps, which Hamza had shown from a
precociously early age. On the contrary, as time went on, he grew ever more
desperate to re-enter the fray. His greatest frustration, he told his father in
a letter smuggled out to Abbottabad, was that “the mujahidin legions have
marched and I have not joined them.”25 But bin Ladin was determined to ensure a
different destiny for his favourite son.
With so many senior al-Qa`ida members in
custody, Iran possessed huge leverage over bin Ladin’s organization. By 2010,
however, al-Qa`ida had acquired a bargaining chip of its own in the shape of a
captive Iranian diplomat sold to them as a hostage by Pakistani tribal
elements.26 With the Haqqani Network acting as go-between, a prisoner swap was
arranged. In August 2010, at the beginning of Ramadan, Hamza was released along
with his mother, wife, and children.27 Two of his older brothers, Uthman and
Mohammed, soon followed along with their own families.28 All those released
made their way to Waziristan, where a sizable al-Qa`ida contingent lived under
the protection of various Pakistani militant groups.
The bin Ladin family was spread across
several countries. Abdullah, Usama’s eldest son, was living a “quiet life” as a
businessman in Saudi Arabia.29 Another son, Ladin, previously imprisoned in
Iran, had gone to stay with his grandmother’s side of family in Syria.30
Another, Omar, lived in Qatar for a time before moving to Saudi Arabia.31 Bin
Ladin therefore had a number of possible places to send family members freed
from Iran. He wanted his sons Uthman and Mohammed to stay in Pakistan, provided
a “safe place” could be found for them.32 His initial plan on hearing of
Hamza’s release was to try to have him sent to Qatar.33 Given that Hamza had
been imprisoned in Iran from around the age of 14, it would be “difficult [for
the United States or other countries] to indict him and to ask Qatar to
extradite him.”34 Moreover, in Qatar, the home of Al-Jazeera, Hamza would enjoy
relative freedom of speech, which he could exploit in order to act as a
spokesperson for bin Ladin’s brand of Islam, to “spread the Jihadi doctrine and
refute the wrong and the suspicions raised around jihad.”35 But Mahmud, bin
Ladin’s Libyan chief of staff—also known as Atiyya Abdul Rahman—balked at the
idea of Qatar as a destination, on the basis that the small Gulf state, a U.S.
ally, would hand Hamza over to the Americans.36 Ultimately, as will be seen,
bin Ladin followed Mahmud’s advice; but the suggestion that Hamza should act as
a mouthpiece for Jihadi dogma indicates that, despite their long separation,
the father had more than an inkling of his son’s rhetorical abilities.
In Abbottabad, five hundred miles northeast
of al-Qa`ida’s Waziristan powerbase, bin Ladin already had one grown son with
him—Khalid, the son of his fourth wife, Siham, born in the same year as Hamza.
Khalid served as the compound’s resident handyman and plumber.37 He also kept a
cow he had bought from a local farmer and, like all of the men around bin
Ladin, was prepared to defend his father with deadly force. Khalid was useful
to have around, to be sure, but hardly suited for leadership. Now, however,
three more adult sons hid in Waziristan, awaiting their father’s call: Uthman,
aged 27, Mohammed, 25, and Hamza, just 21.38 Bin Ladin made his choice. He
ordered Uthman and Mohammed to go to Peshawar, 100 miles from their father.
Khalid was to do the same, having been betrothed to a girl whose family lived
there.39 But Hamza was to come to Abbottabad as soon as he could safely do so.
As Khairia told him in a letter, “The father … asks God that he will benefit
from you … He has prepared a lot of work for you.”40
For a while, the portents seemed
encouraging. Siham, Khalid’s mother, told Hamza of a “very good” dream in which
“you were conducting Adhan [the Muslim call to prayer] from atop a very high
building, in the same voice in which you said, ‘Stay strong my father, for
heaven awaits us and victory is ours if God permits.’”41 This was a reference
to the poem that Hamza had recited at his brother Mohammed’s wedding more than
a decade previously.
As ever, security was the overriding
factor, and bin Ladin had already lost one son in Waziristan. Saad, a decade
older than Hamza, had been imprisoned in Iran alongside his brothers, but by
mid-August 2008, he had been set free (or had escaped, depending on which
account one believes).42 Like Hamza, he made his way to Waziristan. Saad,
characteristically, grew restless, perhaps as a result of the mental problems
treated by Khairia back in Jeddah. Whatever the cause, Saad apparently behaved
recklessly, showed his face once too often in public, and sometime in the first
half of 2009, was killed by a U.S. missile.43 Mahmud, bin Ladin’s chief of
staff, told his commander in a letter that “Saad died—peace be upon him—because
he was impatient.”44
“We pray to God to have mercy on Saad,” bin
Ladin wrote. “And may He reward us with a substitute.”45
For Hamza, Mahmud had nothing but praise.
“He is very sweet and good,” he told bin Ladin. “I see in him wisdom and
politeness. He does not want to be treated with favouritism because he is the
son of ‘someone.’”46
Eager as he was for Hamza to join him, bin
Ladin was not going to allow the younger son to meet the same fate as the
elder. He therefore issued operatives in Waziristan with strict instructions to
keep Hamza indoors unless absolutely necessary and insisted on personally
vetting the man assigned to guard his son.47 Under these strictures, which
Mahmud likened to a “prison,”48 Hamza—usually as patient and level-headed as
his mother—began to exhibit some of Saad’s petulance. Bin Ladin relented a
little, allowing Hamza to undergo shooting practice.49
Bin Ladin agonized over the decision to
bring his son to his side. On the one hand, Hamza was the heir presumptive—the
son of his favourite wife, charismatic and well-liked. He could be a great help
to the organization. On the other hand, bin Ladin’s own security situation,
already precarious to begin with, had recently become yet more delicate, for
the two Pakistani brothers who protected him and his family were dangerously
close to burning out from stress.50 One of them, Ahmed, had contracted a
serious illness that bin Ladin feared might relapse at any time.51 They could
hold out, bin Ladin estimated, at most another few months.52 Bin Ladin needed
to find replacements for the brothers as soon as possible, but his requirements
were exacting. In order to blend in, the new protectors would need to be
Pakistanis, fluent in local dialects. To avoid raising suspicions about the
unusual size of the compound, they would need to have large families. And, of
course, they would need to be absolutely trustworthy and relentlessly committed
to the cause.
Mahmud would have his work cut out
fulfilling such a tall order. In the meantime, however, bin Ladin finally
decided, despite the obvious danger, to have Hamza join him. By early April
2011, Mahmud had hatched a plan to make it happen. Hamza, with his wife and
children, travelled south, through the badlands of Baluchistan. This was a
roundabout route, to be sure, but it was safer than heading directly toward
Abbottabad over the Khyber mountain passes. Once in Baluchistan, the plan was
for Hamza’s party to rendezvous with Azmarai, one of al-Qa`ida’s most seasoned
and trusted fixers. Azmarai would arrange forward passage through Karachi and
then by air or train to Peshawar. There, Hamza would meet another al-Qa`ida
operative who would send him on to Abbottabad when the time was right. To ease
his brother through the inevitable checkpoints along the way, Khalid lent Hamza
his fake ID and driver’s license. By late April 2011, plans were afoot, and
Hamza waited only for a cloudy sky to speed him on his way. But it was not to
be. Within a few weeks, his father was dead.53 b
Hamza may have avoided death or capture in
Abbottabad by weeks or even days. His brother Khalid was not so lucky; he died
wielding an assault weapon in a futile attempt to defend his father against the
superior numbers, tactics, and technology of the U.S. Navy SEALs.54 Hamza’s
mother, Khairia, was taken into Pakistani custody in the early hours of May 2,
2011. Around a year later, she, Umm Khalid, and a dozen other bin Ladin family
members were deported to Saudi Arabia, where they live to this day in a
compound outside Jeddah under what their lawyer describes as “very tight
restrictions and security arrangements made by the Kingdom’s authorities,”
including a ban on speaking publicly about their time in Pakistan.55
Over the next four years, while Ayman
al-Zawahiri took over as permanent emir of al-Qa`ida, Syria and Iraq descended
into barbarism, and the Islamic State spun out of al-Qa`ida’s orbit, Hamza bin
Ladin remained silent. Then, out of the blue, in an audio message released in
August 2015, al-Zawahiri introduced “a lion from the den of al-Qa`ida”—a play
on the name Usama, which means “lion” in Arabic. The next voice on the tape was
that of Hamza.56 He hailed the “martyrdom” of his father and his brother
Khalid; praised al-Qa`ida’s leaders in Syria, Yemen, and North Africa; lauded
the attacks on Fort Hood and the Boston Marathon; and called for Jihadis to
“[t]ake the battlefield from Kabul, Baghdad, and Gaza to Washington, London,
Paris, and Tel Aviv.”
Further statements appeared in May, July,
and August 2016, prompting the U.S. State Department in January 2017 to place
Hamza on its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists.57 Two more
messages then emerged in May 2017.58
The theme of encouraging attacks on Jewish
and Western interests is one to which Hamza has returned again and again in his
messages. For example, the first of his May 2017 statements is entitled “Advice
for Martyrdom-Seekers in the West.” Over footage of the aftermath of the Fort
Hood massacre, a television reconstruction of events leading up to the 1993
World Trade Center bombing, and images connected with other attacks, Hamza
encouraged Jihadis all over the world to “Sell your soul cheaply for the
pleasure of [God]” and urged them to read Inspire magazine, the online
publication of al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that taught the Boston
bombers how to turn a pressure cooker into a weapon.59 A caption in the video
montage encourages “stabbing with knives and using vehicles and trucks” as an
alternative to guns and bombs.
Strikingly, Hamza directs followers not to
travel to theatres of war within the Muslim world, but instead to attack
targets in the West and Russia. “Perhaps you are longing for emigration,” he
says. “Perhaps you yearn for sacrifice in the battlefields. Know that
inflicting punishment on Jews and Crusaders where you are is more vexing and
severe for the enemy.” He urges “martyrs” that “the message you intend to
convey through your blessed operation must be explained unequivocally in the
media” and suggests talking points to align these explanations with al-Qa`ida’s
In the same statement, Hamza sets up a
hierarchy of targets to be attacked, starting with those who “transgress”
against Islam (such as the editors of the French satirical weekly Charlie
Hebdo), followed by Jewish interests, the United States, other NATO member
states, and, lastly, Russia.60 It is noteworthy that Hamza accords attacks on
Jewish interests a higher priority than those against Americans, whereas Usama
bin Ladin in his 1998 fatwa relating to “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders”
depicted them as coequal targets. This hierarchy may reflect Hamza’s renewed
emphasis on the Palestinian cause, dramatically stated in the title of his May
2016 statement, “Jerusalem Is a Bride and Our Blood Is Her Dowry.”61 However,
this should not be taken as evidence that al-Qa`ida is about to begin attacking
Israel directly. It should be recalled that Usama bin Ladin himself was quite
cynical about the matter, admitting privately to his lieutenants that
al-Qa`ida’s rhetoric about Palestine was no more than “noise” designed to drum
up popular support in the Arab world.62
In two of his statements, Hamza, like his
father before him, urges regime change in Saudi Arabia. The first, released in
August 2016, bemoans AQAP’s ouster the previous April from Mukalla in Yemen,
alleging that it was accomplished “with direct American participation.”63 (In
fact, Mukalla was liberated by a Saudi-led coalition of Arab forces.) The
second statement was released during U.S. President Donald Trump’s state visit
to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, although Hamza does not mention the trip in the
text itself.64 In the latter statement, Hamza reiterates his call for the
overthrow of the Saudi monarchy, claiming that the House of Saud has been doing
the bidding of foreigners ever since the Kingdom’s founder, Ibn Saud, received
British aid during World War I.
Hamza’s messages frequently repeat, almost
word-for-word, sentences uttered by the elder bin Ladin during al-Qa`ida’s
heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This tendency can be heard, for
example, in Hamza’s diatribes on the Palestinian Territories, on what he calls
the “occupation” of Saudi Arabia, and on the idea that the United States is
“stealing” the wealth of the Muslim world. (President Trump, no doubt
unwittingly, played into the last of these narrative strands on his visit to
Saudi Arabia, when he thanked King Salman for his “massive investment in
America, its industry, and its jobs” and boasted of a new arms deal that would
transfer a further $110 billion to U.S. companies.65) Hamza even makes an
effort to sound like his father, intoning his words with the same quiet intensity.
In his first statement, Hamza speaks of
“following my father” by pledging allegiance to the leader of the Taliban. This
is noteworthy in itself; whereas al-Qa`ida’s other senior leaders pledge bayat
to the emir of the organization (currently al-Zawahiri) who then swears fealty
to the Taliban on behalf of al-Qa`ida as a whole, Hamza gives his bayat
directly to the Taliban leader, suggesting that, as the heir to bin Ladin, he
belongs to a higher class. Other aspects of the statements confirm the impression
that Hamza is being elevated to leadership. In his earlier messages,
al-Qa`ida’s media arm referred to Hamza as a “Brother Mujahid,” a rank-and-file
designation. But beginning with his two statements released in May 2017, the
organization has started calling him “Sheikh,” a title reserved for its topmost
None of Hamza’s messages have been
accompanied by pictures of the man himself. In fact, the most recent known
images are still those of Hamza sifting through helicopter wreckage in the
weeks following 9/11, when he was just 12 years old; today, he would be 27 or
28. For a recent episode of 60 Minutes, CBS News commissioned a forensic
artist, Stephen Mancusi, to take images of Hamza in his boyhood and subject
them to an age-progression technique.66 The resulting portrait is of a young
man who looks unsettlingly like his father around the same age, when he was
raising money for the Afghan struggle against the Soviets. Another clue to
Hamza’s appearance may come from the fact that he seems to have borrowed his
half-brother Khalid’s Pakistani ID card for the abortive journey from
Waziristan to Abbottabad.67 Khalid, as depicted in grisly photographs of his
corpse lying on the stone floor of the Abbottabad house, shared his father’s
long, thin nose and full lips. If Hamza does indeed resemble his father, and is
willing in due time to show his face, no doubt the likeness will prove an asset
in rallying Jihadi support around al-Qa`ida.
When Hamza’s first statement came out in
August 2015, confidence in al-Zawahiri had reached an all-time low. It had just
emerged that Mullah Omar had died in 2013, a year before al-Zawahiri had
renewed al-Qa`ida’s bayat to the Taliban leader. In other words, either
al-Zawahiri had been unaware of Omar’s death—in which case he was too far out
of the loop to lead—or he had known about it all along and had intentionally
sworn allegiance to a dead man—a grave sin in al-Qa`ida’s brand of Islam. This
revelation brought dismay and ridicule from Jihadis all over the world, at a
time when the Islamic State was still capturing all the headlines and
attracting the lion’s share of recruits. Raising the profile of the heir to bin
Ladin was thus an inspired move on the part of al-Zawahiri and the other
al-Qa`ida top brass. But Hamza’s return will have far broader and longer-term
Future Standard Bearer of Global Jihad?
the Islamic State continues to crumble, many of its adherents will be looking
for new banners under which to fight. They are unlikely to pledge allegiance to
al-Zawahiri, whom they see as an interloper unworthy of bin Ladin’s legacy. It
would be an understatement to say that al-Zawahiri lacks the charisma of his
predecessor. Moreover, as an Egyptian, he will always struggle to inspire
loyalty among other Arabs, especially those from the Arabian Peninsula. Hamza,
by contrast, suffers from none of these handicaps. His family pedigree, not to
mention his dynastic marriage to the daughter of an al-Qa`ida charter member,
automatically entitles him to respect from every Jihadi who follows bin Ladin’s
ideology, which includes every Islamic State fighter. As a Saudi descended from
prominent families on both his father’s and his mother’s side, he is
well-placed to pull in large donations from patrons in the Gulf, particularly
at a time when sectarian fervor is running high in Saudi Arabia. It is
significant in this regard that Hamza has returned to his father’s rhetoric
castigating the House of Saud. As with bin Ladin’s 1996 declaration of jihad,
this is not just a political message; it is designed to inspire potential
One final aspect of Hamza’s messages is
noteworthy here. Unlike other leading al-Qa`ida figures, he has never once
explicitly criticized the Islamic State. True, he bemoans “strife” between the
various groups fighting in Iraq and Syria and calls repeatedly for unity among
Jihadis to face down what he describes as a “unified enemy” of “Crusaders,
Jews, Alawites, rejectionists, and apostate mercenaries.” But he carefully
avoids naming the self-styled caliphate or its leaders. The Islamic State, for
its part, reciprocates the favour; even as its propaganda castigates
al-Zawahiri as a traitor to the cause, it never directly references Hamza. It
is significant, too, that many Islamic State supporters who denounce
“al-Zawahiri’s al-Qa`ida” nevertheless profess admiration for Usama bin Ladin.c
This is the best evidence that Hamza could be a unifying figure.
It is true that Hamza has never fought on
the frontlines—something of which, as is seen in his letters to his father from
captivity, he himself is painfully aware. This distinguishes him from the elder
bin Ladin, whose warrior myth was built on his exploits against the Soviets in
Afghanistan in the 1980s. But it is not as much of a weakness as might be thought.
Hamza is not coming out of thin air; he is the favourite son of the most famous
jihadi in history. And in a culture where leadership typically descends through
a bloodline, pedigree trumps experience. Moreover, while Hamza has not actually
fought, he has been featured in al-Qa`ida propaganda from a very young age, in
videos that depict him as having been very close to his father. Perhaps most
importantly of all, Hamza clearly has al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership behind him.
During his Iranian captivity, Hamza received training from some of al-Qa`ida’s
top operatives, including al-`Adl and al-Masri.68 Both of these men are now
reportedly free and presumably available to give Hamza their counsel, something
bin Ladin himself lacked during the last nine years of his life.
Hamza’s ascendancy comes at a moment when
al-Qa`ida affiliates are growing in resources and influence across the Islamic
world. Al-Nusra, the Syrian franchise now nominally subsumed into Hayat Tahrir
al-Sham, may have more than 20,000 militants under its command.69 AQAP controls
or has a presence in large swathes of Yemen’s coastline and highway network.
Al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb recently concluded a merger with several other
factions, creating a Jihadi conglomerate whose constituent groups collectively
carried out over 250 attacks in 2016 alone.70 However, since AQAP’s threats
against U.S. embassies in 2013, these franchises have apparently not sought to
use their power to mount attacks against the West. While al-Zawahiri has mostly
limited himself to threatening the United States rhetorically, if Hamza takes
the reins, there is reason to think that could change, given that his messages
repeatedly call for more attacks on American soil, praising previous atrocities
like the Fort Hood massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing. As has been seen,
Hamza has turned to his father’s well-worn anti-American rhetoric, accusing the
United States of “occupying” the Arabian Peninsula and “stealing” Muslim
Many factors suggest that Hamza could be a
highly effective leader: his family pedigree, his dynastic marriage, his
longstanding Jihadi fervour and obvious charisma, and his closeness to
al-Qa`ida’s most senior operatives. It remains to be seen how, exactly, the
organization will make use of him, but it is clear that his star is on the
rise. That should worry policymakers in the West as well as in the Muslim
Ali Soufan is the chief executive officer of the Soufan Group. As an FBI
special agent, he served on the frontline against al-Qa`ida and became known as
a top counterterrorism operative and interrogator. His most recent book,
Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic
State, was published earlier this year
This article is adapted in part from the author’s most recent book, Anatomy of
Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State, which was
published earlier this year by W. W. Norton & Company.
[b] Azmarai (full name: Umar Siddique
Kathio Azmarai) was also known as Abdallah al-Sindhi. “Treasury Designates
Senior Al-Qa’ida Official and Terrorist Training Center Supporting Lashkar-E
Tayyiba and the Taliban,” United States Treasury Department, August 20, 2013.
[c] For example, the Islamic State’s
English-language propaganda magazine Dabiq referred to bin Ladin using the
honorific “Sheikh” and included photos of him. Dabiq, Issue 4, pp. 43-33. In
November 2014, the Islamic State released a video tracing its origins to bin
Ladin. Graeme Wood, “What ISIS really wants,” Atlantic, March 2015.
 Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, The
Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight
(London: Bloomsbury, 2017), pp. 57–59.
 “Letter from Hamzah to father dtd
July 2009,” in Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Bin Ladin’s
Bookshelf,” available at
https://www.dni.gov/index.php/features/bin-laden-s-bookshelf. (For ease of
reference, documents from this cache, seized from bin Ladin’s Abbottabad
compound in 2011, are referred to here by the exact name given to them on the
DNI website. Many are undated, and the naming is not systematic.)
 Scott-Clark and Levy, pp. 21–22. The
authors identify his illness as autism.
 Scott-Clark and Levy, p. 23.
 Ibid., p. 24.
 Nasser al-Bahri and Georges
Malbrunot, Guarding bin Laden: My life in al-Qaeda (London: Thin Man Press,
2013), chapter 15.
 Najwa bin Laden, Omar bin Laden, and
Jean Sasson, Growing Up bin Laden: Osama’s Wife and Son Take Us inside Their
Secret World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009), pp. 160–161.
 Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower:
Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (New York: Knopf, 2006), p. 247.
 Ibid., p. 120.
 Ibid., p. 281.
 “Hamza Bin Laden (the Son of Osama
bin Laden) Died with his Father [sic],” May 4, 2011. (Compilation of videos
 Wright, p. 334.
 “Letter from Abu Abdullah to his
mother,” in “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf.”
 Scott-Clark and Levy, p. 55.
 Ibid., p. 58.
 Ari Weisfuse, “Negotiating Oblivion:
Sayf al Adl: Al Qaeda’s Top Operative” (Senior Thesis, Brandeis University,
2014), pp. 69–70, available at
 Letter from Hamza bin Ladin to
Usama bin Ladin, June 2002, quoted in Peter Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know:
An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 371.
 Ibid., p. 371.
 “Record of Interview with Sulayman
Abu Ghayth,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, March 6, 2011, pp. 7–8; “Letter
dtd 13 Oct 2010,” in “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf.”
 Scott-Clark and Levy, footnote 65
on p. 395.
 “Letter dtd 13 Oct 2010,” in “Bin
 Dina Temple-Raston, “Key al-Qaida
Leader Owes Rise to Unlikely Ally: Iran,” National Public Radio, June 1, 2011.
 Vahid Brown, “Sayf al-Adl and
al-Qaida’s Historical Leadership,” Jihadica: Documenting the Global Jihad, May
18, 2011; “Letter to Um Abid al-Rahman,” in “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf;” “Letter
dtd 5 April 2011,” in “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf.”
 Scott-Clark and Levy, p. 371.
 Bin Laden, bin Laden, and Sasson,
 Letter from Osama bin Ladin to
Sheikh Mahmud, late May 2010, SOCOM-2012-0000019, p. 42.
 Bin Laden, bin Laden, and Sasson,
 Letter from Osama bin Ladin to
Sheikh Mahmud, p. 42.
 Ibid., p. 44.
 Ibid., p. 44.
 Ibid., p. 44.
 “Letter to Shaykh Abu Abdullah dtd
17 July 2010,” in “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf.”
 “Final Report,” Abbottabad
Commission, January 4, 2013, paragraphs. 31, 49, and 70.
 Scott-Clark and Levy, p. 371.
 “Letter to sons Uthman and
Muhammad,” “Letter dtd 16 December 2007,” and “Letter from Khalid to Abdullah
and Abu al-Harish,” all in “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf.”
 “Letter to son Hamzah,” in “Bin
 “Letter from Abu Abdullah to his
mother,” in “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf.”
 “Letter to wife,” in “Bin Ladin’s
Bookshelf;” “Interview with Abu Ghayth,” paragraph 11; Scott-Clark and Levy, p.
 “Letter dtd November 24 2010,” in
“Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf;” Mary Louise Kelly, “Bin Laden Son Reported Killed In
Pakistan,” National Public Radio, July 22, 2009.
 “Letter dtd November 24 2010,” in
“Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf.”
 “Letter to wife,” in “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf.”
 “Letter dtd November 24 2010,” in
“Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf.”
 Ibid.; “Letter to Shaykh Mahmud,”
in “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf.”
 “Letter dtd November 24 2010,” in
“Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf.”
 “Undated Letter 3,” in “Bin Ladin’s
 “Honorable brother,” in “Bin
 “Undated Letter 3,” in “Bin Ladin’s
 “Letter dtd 5 April 2011,” in “Bin
 Abbottabad Commission report,
paragraph 36; Phil Bronstein, “The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden… Is Screwed,”
Esquire, February 11, 2013.
 Tom Hussain, “Pakistan deports bin
Laden’s family to Saudi Arabia,” McClatchy Newspapers, April 17, 2012.
 Thomas Joscelyn, “Analysis: Osama
bin Laden’s Son Praises al Qaeda’s Branches in New Message,” Long War Journal,
August 17, 2015; “Osama bin Laden’s Son Urges Attacks on the West,” CNN, August
 “State Department Terrorist
Designation of Hamza bin Laden,” U.S. Department of State, January 5, 2017.
 “Hamzah Bin Usamah Bin Laden,”
Jihadology, August 14, 2015 – May 20, 2017.
 Thomas Jocelyn, “Hamza bin Laden
offers ‘advice for martyrdom seekers in the West,’” Long War Journal, May 13,
 “New video message from
al-Qa’idah’s Hamzah Bin Usamah Bin Laden: ‘Jerusalem Is a Bride and Our Blood
Is Her Dowery’,” Jihadology, May 9, 2016.
 For example, “Letter to Abu Basir,”
in “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf,” p. 25.
 Thomas Joscelyn, “Hamza bin Laden
calls for regime change in Saudi Arabia,” Long War Journal, August 18, 2016.
 Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda
criticizes Saudi relations with West during President Trump’s visit,” Long War
Journal, May 22, 2017.
 “President Trump’s Speech to Arab
Islamic American Summit,” Office of the White House Press Secretary, May 21,
 “What bin Laden Documents Reveal
About al-Qaeda,” CBS, May 14, 2017.
 “Letter to brother Hamzah,” in “Bin
Ladin’s Bookshelf;” Scott-Clark and Levy, p. 487.
 Eric Schmitt, “Al Qaeda Turns to
Syria, With a Plan to Challenge ISIS,” New York Times, May 15, 2016.
 Nazeer Rida, “Syria: Surfacing of
‘Hai’at Tahrir al-Sham’ Threatens Truce,” Asharq al-Awsat (English ed.),
January 30, 2017.
 Caleb Weiss, “Analysis: Merger of
al Qaeda groups threatens security in West Africa,” Long War Journal, March 18,