The end of another Al-Qaeda chapter
The death of Hamza bin Laden has lent a huge blow to attempts to revive Al-Qaeda as a global terrorist group. One of the world’s most wanted global terrorists, he was dealing with various militant factions as the de facto head of the group that his father, Osama bin Laden, had formed. Under him, Al-Qaeda had shown signs of revitalization in some regions.
Hamza was reportedly killed by a CIA drone strike at least six weeks ago somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and the news was confirmed by President Trump last weekend.
“The loss of Hamza bin Laden not only deprives Al-Qaeda of important leadership skills and the symbolic connection to his father, but undermines important operational activities of the group," Trump said in a statement.
Bin Laden’s death may have brought an end to a dark chapter, but the extremist ideology he espoused continues to threaten global security. The younger bin Laden arrived on the scene in 2015 vowing to take his father’s mission forward. He put out audio and video messages calling for attacks on the United States and other countries to avenge his father's killing by US Special Forces in Pakistan in May 2011.
Hamza was the 15th of Osama bin Laden's 20 children. He was not in the compound with his parents during the US raid, and was thought to be about 30 years old at the time of his death. His rise to power in Al-Qaeda’s leadership hierarchy us credited to his late father, but also to his own charismatic personality. He was his father's favorite son, very popular with the rank and file of the group and viewed as its eventual heir.
Hamza was also projected as a symbol of Al-Qaeda’s new generation of leaders. He had appeared in the group’s videos since he was a teenager, and during his stay in Iran after 9/11, he was mentored by Abu Al-Khayr Al-Masri, one of Al-Qaeda’s top leaders. Ayman Al-Zawahri, the Al-Qaeda chief, had praised him in a 2015 video that appeared on extremist websites, and called him a “lion from the den of Al-Qaeda.”
Hamza’s killing along the Afghan-Pakistan borders highlights the presence of the militant franchise in the region.
In February 2019, the US government put a $1 million bounty on Hamza’s head, saying the man sometimes dubbed the "crown prince of jihad" was "emerging as a leader in the Al-Qaeda franchise." He along with his half-brother Saad, were put on the US sanctions list as a "designated global terrorist" and Saudi Arabia had revoked his citizenship.
Hamza’s killing along the Afghan-Pakistan borders highlights the presence of the militant franchise in the region. While the Middle East has become the main center of militant war, the unstable situation in Afghanistan, despite US efforts, continues to provide the proscribed group a favorable ground to re-group. Operating for a long time from its bases in Pakistan’s tribal territories, Al-Qaeda rebuilt its support base in Eastern Afghanistan and recruited new foot soldiers.
Substantially weakened by the loss of Osama bin Laden and many of its other senior leaders killed in CIA drone strikes or currently in US custody, Al-Qaeda found it extremely tough to operate in the region. Meanwhile, the group was overshadowed by Daesh, and its increasingly fragmented and tired leadership was hardly a match for the well-oiled fighting machinery of the new global terror outfit.
Pakistan’s military operation in North Waziristan, which was considered a major Al-Qaeda base in the region, also dealt a huge blow to the militant outfit.
Al-Zawahiri announced in 2015 the creation of a new Al-Qaeda franchise under the banner of Qaidat Al-Jihad in an attempt to bolster his organization’s presence in South Asia. Over the years, the group’s presence in Pakistan has been transformed, with local militant commanders replacing the original leadership nucleus after older members died or were arrested by Pakistani security agencies.
The new generation of Al-Qaeda commanders mostly comes from the ranks of outlawed Pakistani militant groups and from Islamic political parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami. The group seems to have regrouped in the border areas with the support of some factions within both the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, particularly the Haqqani network. The most lethal of the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqanis, have been closely associated with Al-Qaeda.
Hamza was reportedly killed because American forces have intensified attacks on suspected militant sanctuaries in Afghanistan. And he was reportedly planning a spectacular militant attack in various countries to announce Al-Qaeda’s revival. Before he could implement his plan however, he was killed and his death may send Al-Qaeda into further disarray.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.