Widely regarded as the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks against the U.S. in 2001, Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. military raid in his hideout in Pakistan’s Abbottabad in 2011, prompting his son, Hamza bin Laden, to threaten revenge against the U.S.
Ahead of the imminent fall of the so-called Islamic State, better known as ISIS, Hamza is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and spearhead the return of al-Qaeda. The group had fractured into different movements in the region over the past few years. Now as ISIS is falling and losing control of its territory in Iraq and the Levant, al-Qaeda shows signs it may soon rise again.
An Al-Qaeda Upbringing
Hamza grew up in the al-Qaeda camps in Sudan and Afghanistan and became involved in the group’s operations at a young age.
Hamza grew up in the al-Qaeda camps in Sudan and Afghanistan and became involved in the group’s operations at a young age. “He’s basically born right after al-Qaeda is founded, so his life is totally consumed in the establishment, the formation of al-Qaeda and the launching of its war against the West and America,” Thomas Joscelyn, of the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies said in an interview with the Associated Press.
Osama worried about Hamza’s future. He wanted him away from conflict zones and to pursue his studies, but Hamza chose to emulate his father, and undertook explosives training in Pakistan instead, according to Joscelyn.
Hamza was with his father in Afghanistan when Osama declared war against the U.S. in 1996. Following the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the family fled to Pakistan. Afterwards, Hamza and his mother reportedly spent years in Iran while the U.S military operation against al-Qaeda continued in Afghanistan.
As a teenager, Hamza appeared in a 2005 video that showed him engaging in an armed al-Qaeda assault on Pakistani security forces in the southern tribal area of Waziristan.
When he was 17, Hamza married the daughter of the lead hijacker in the 9/11 attacks, Mohammed Atta. “We’re not sure where he is, but it could be Afghanistan,” Ahmad al-Attas, Hamza’s uncle, told the Guardian.
Hamza was seen in Pakistan’s tribal belt in 2007, when Osama was the U.S.’ most wanted fugitive. The same year, Hamza’s name appeared in headlines across the world after al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the assassination of Pakistan’s first female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.
A few months before Osama’s death, al-Qaeda attempted to smuggle Hamza from the house where he had been held in Iran to reunite him with his father in Pakistan, according to CIA documents released in 2015. The documents also showed letters between Osama and a member of al-Qaeda called “Mahmud” talking about Hamza’s desire to play a key role in al-Qaeda.
In a letter dating back to 2010, Mahmud said that Hamza had become depressed. “He comes back to me asking me that he should be trained . . . . He does not want to be treated with favoritism because he is the son of ‘someone’ . . . . I promised him to plan some safe training for him: firing arms and various weapons,” Mahmud wrote.
Al-Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced that Hamza was an official member of the group in 2015.
Al-Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced that Hamza was an official member of the group in 2015. The same year, Hamza appeared in an online video, vowing to avenge his father’s killing and continue the fight against the U.S. in his name.
“If you think that your sinful crime that you committed in Abbottabad has passed without punishment, then you thought wrong,” Hamza said during a 21-minute speech, entitled “We are all Osama,” released by al-Qaeda. “We will continue . . . targeting you in your country and abroad in response to your oppression of the people . . . in Muslim lands . . . .”
In the midst of the Syrian crisis in 2016, Hamza was featured in an audio message, calling on militant Syrian jihadists to unite to “liberate Palestine.” In another audio message released in the same year, Hamza called on Saudi Arabian tribes to align with an al-Qaeda-linked group in Yemen to launch a war against Saudi Arabia.
Amid al-Qaeda’s waning influence and struggle to attract new fighters, Hamza’s messages have lent the group some youth appeal. Following Hamza’s increasing involvement with al-Qaeda, his family urged him, without success, to reconsider his decision to stand against the U.S. and not follow in his father’s footsteps.
In the first major step confirming Hamza’s status as a world threat, the U.S. named him a “global terrorist” in 2017, imposed sanctions and prohibited Americans from engaging in any transactions with him.
With ISIS now facing imminent collapse, a UN Security Council committee has called Hamza bin Laden “the most probable successor” to al-Qaeda, and the U.S. is predicting the resurgence of a regenerated version of al-Qaeda with Hamza at its helm.
The U.S. Department of State announced in February that it is offering a reward of up to $1 million for information leading to Hamza’s whereabouts.
The U.S. Department of State announced in February that it is offering a reward of up to $1 million for information leading to Hamza’s whereabouts. In addition, Saudi Arabia revoked Hamza’s citizenship as it did Osama’s in 1994. Finally, the United Nations Security Council added him to its sanctions list, subjecting him to an asset freeze and travel ban.
These moves, particularly the recent American reward offer, highlight al-Qaeda’s survival skills and the possibility of its revival, riding on the reputation Hamza inherited from his father. At present, Hamza, now age 29, is reportedly serving as deputy to al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri. Michael Evanoff, an assistant secretary for diplomatic security at the State Department, believes that Hamza is currently located near the Afghan-Pakistani border and it is possible that he might cross into Iran. He added that “he could be anywhere.”
Stateless, exiled, and living in hiding with Washington’s $1 million reward for information on his whereabouts hanging over his head, Hamza is now also faced with the threat of betrayal. Whether that bounty combined with Riyadh’s decision to revoke his citizenship will harden Hamza’s resolve and hasten al-Qaeda’s resurgence rather than help eradicate it is an open question.