Last month, news media reported the death of Hamza bin Laden, the favorite son of the late al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, who was apparently willing to follow in his father’s footsteps. These reports cited several US officials who claimed that there was evidence confirming Hamza’s death. The New York Times reported, citing its sources, that the United States was involved in the operation and Hamza died in an air strike during the first years of the current presidential administration. And yet little is known about the circumstances surrounding the terrorist’s death.
If Hamza’s elimination proves true, it should rather be considered as a symbolic victory. Aged around 30, Hamza bin Laden was largely viewed as al-Qaeda’s emerging leader and was being prepared for this role for many years. Being young, charismatic and associated with the most famous man in terrorism, Hamza had all chances to become al-Qaeda’s new face.
More important, as the Soufan Group’s chief executive officer Ali Soufan put it, he could unite jihadis all over the world, something that would be pretty timely, given the fall of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate. While representing a jihadist group that is an ideological rival to ISIS, Hamza had never criticized Islamic State. In turn, ISIS propaganda attacked either al-Qaeda on the whole or its emir Ayman al-Zawahiri in particular, but not Hamza bin Laden.
At the same time, we should not overstate the symbolic value of Hamza’s death. His father, Osama bin Laden, had managed to earn the notorious reputation of being the world’s “terrorist number one.” And now, he remains a beloved figure among jihadists in all parts of the world, so it was quite logical that Hamza attempted to capitalize on his family name. That said, Hamza has become known not for his own deeds or achievements, nor did he fiught on the frontlines. If he headed al-Qaeda, he would more likely play a propaganda role or could be a propaganda tool in someone’s more competent hands.
And that seems to be the role he had been playing over the past years. In 2015, al-Qaeda released a propaganda audio message with Hamza bin Laden calling for jihadists to attack the United States and other countries. This was followed by a series of similar statements in 2016 and 2017. What is particularly worrying about these messages is the call to take the battlefield from the war zones in Muslim countries to the cities of Western states, Israel, and Russia. Worse still, Hamza stressed that successful attacks in the West would be more important than multiple operations in the East.
So does al-Qaeda still pose a threat to Europe and other Western countries?
“Whether or not the reported death of Hamza bin Laden is accurate, al-Qaeda remains a threat to the security of Europe,” said Mitchell Belfer, president of The Euro-Gulf Information Centre. “True, it lost a degree of Islamist appeal to its rival-cum-ally ISIS: its flash-and-bang tactics, that it held actual territory (the ultimate goal for both al-Qaeda and ISIS) and its cyber presence gave ISIS an edge. But al-Qaeda was never about a leadership cult or rapid growth and expansion. It relies on a hard core of fighters and financiers, and those remain intact.
“Also, al-Qaeda’s franchise system has proven formidable over time with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM) very operationally adept on their home territories and abroad. It should be remembered that Hamza bin Laden was still living in Iran – under the IRGC’s watchful eye – when AQAP successfully attacked Paris in the now infamous Charlie Hebdo massacre. Al-Qaeda is not a pyramid – it is diffused. While I doubt the news that Hamza bin Laden is indeed dead, I also don’t think he matters that much either way,” Belfer noted.
After the death of Osama bin Laden and the rise of ISIS, al-Qaeda mostly disappeared from headlines but was not eliminated as an organizing force of global jihad. Instead, it made rebuilding and reorganization its key policy, which has allowed the group to survive. Forging alliances with terrorist groups in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, al-Qaeda has created a global movement consisting of numerous franchises with a capacity to stage significant terror attacks. Al-Qaeda’s branches include AQIM in the Maghreb, AQAP in Yemen, AQIS in South Asia, JNIM in Mali and, al-Shabab in Somalia and East Africa. Another group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria, is also considered to be associated with al-Qaeda.
This dangerous global terror network is shifting its focus toward Western countries and soon may be ready to attack again. This was largely reflected in United Nations reports and statements made by European officials. So this year, Alex Younger, the head of the UK’s MI6, warned of al-Qaeda’s resurgence. “It is definitely not down and out,” he stressed. Last year, British Security Minister Ben Wallace said that the group could carry out attacks on passenger planes in European countries. “The aviation threat is real,” Wallace noted, adding that the group had already mastered new techniques.
Perhaps al-Qaeda deliberately avoided carrying out spectacular terrorist operations in non-Muslim countries, allowing Islamic State to be in the spotlight and become a prime target of Western military attacks. During that time, al-Qaeda was quietly strengthening its branches worldwide and now it seems to be able to fill the vacuum created after the fall of the caliphate.