February 16, 2018 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 151

A Millennial Bin Laden Prepares To Take Over Al-Qaeda – And Possibly The Global Jihad Movement

February 16, 2018 | By Steven Stalinsky*
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 151

As the Islamic State caliphate disintegrates, and it is not known for sure whether its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is alive, dead, or deep underground like Osama bin Laden after 9/11 – or possibly in a Syrian hospital in "critical" condition, as was widely reported this week – there has been increased speculation about whether Hamza bin Laden, one of Osama's many sons and now nearly 30 years old, will take up the reins of the leadership of Al-Qaeda, and possibly of the global jihad movement.

Hamza has been described as "a young, popular, and capable leader who understands all the attraction and strengths of Daesh [ISIS], and [is] ready to press these advantages across the Al-Qaeda network."[1] According to one assessment, "if he is successful in growing the network, then we are likely to see a new phase of terrorist attacks in major Western cities, and he will use them as a way to raise his profile and announce the return of Al-Qaeda with a new leader."[2]

Such a move by Hamza seems to be a real possibility, as over the past year the U.S. government has taken a series of steps related to Hamza. This suggests that he is assuming a powerful position within the organization. First, on January 17, 2017, the State Department named him a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT), which "imposes sanctions on foreign persons determined to have committed, or pose a serious risk of committing, acts of terrorism that threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States." On November 1, the CIA released to the public nearly 470,000 additional files recovered in the May 2011 raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan; the one that got the most attention was Hamza's wedding video, with the first public images of him as an adult.

On January 6, 2018, a Telegram channel run by a self-described "supporter of Al-Qaeda" published a photograph of three of Osama bin Laden's sons, Hamza among them, in 2009 in Iran. The photo was taken just before the brothers left Iran,[3] where, just after 9/11, they, their siblings, and their mothers had been sent by the Al-Qaeda leadership to seek asylum.[4]

The following day, the Saudi Al-Arabiya TV website republished the photos with an article discussing Hamza's growing importance and added: "The images reveal the face of the heir to the Al-Qaeda leadership, amid the organization's keenness not to show Hamza's face."[5]

Osama bin Laden's sons in Iran, 2009; Hamza is on the left.

The same Al-Arabiya report referred to a document expressing Osama bin Laden's intention that his son Hamza would take over as leader of Al-Qaeda, and that several of his top deputies, including Atiyahtullah Al-Libi, Saif Al-Adl, Abu Hafs Al-Mauritani, and Abu Muhammad, would groom Hamza to inherit this leadership. Suleiman Abu Ghaith, Al-Qaeda spokesman and bin Laden's son-in-law, taught him public speaking, while Abu Mohammed Al-Masri taught him history.

A Review Of Hamza Bin Laden's Rise To Prominence Within Al-Qaeda, As Reflected In Video And Audio Messages Published By The Organization

Hamza's First Video In 2015: Al-Qaeda Hails "The Emerging Lion"

Hamza's messages have focused largely on the following main themes: He promotes targeting the U.S., including on U.S. soil, as well as Israel and Jewish interests worldwide; he favors overthrowing the Saudi royal family; and he calls for attacks against Western countries, including the UK, France, NATO countries, and Russia. Most significant are Hamza's appeals to "Muslim youth worldwide" – perhaps because Al-Qaeda is attempting to brand him as the group's young face, in light of criticism that sexagenarian Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri is not inspiring the younger generation of jihadis. If the ISIS leadership is being decimated, Hamza could indeed drive jihadi youth recruitment worldwide.

Hamza's succession was first put forth a month after his father was killed. A video posted in June 2011 on jihadi forums announced that he was the rightful heir to Osama bin Laden.[6] The video sparked an online dispute: Some Al-Qaeda activists online called it a fake, and others said that it was part of a cyber hacking attack.[7]

Hamza took a star turn when the Al-Qaeda media wing Al-Sahab released an audio message by him in August 2015, four years after his name was put forth as successor to his father. It is interesting to note that it referred to Hamza as the "emerging lion," and that Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri himself, who introduced the message, hailed him as the "lion of the Al-Qaeda organization."[8] This suggested that Hamza was at that time being groomed for a top position within Al-Qaeda, especially after most of its leadership had already been killed or imprisoned.

In his message, Hamza called on Muslim youth worldwide, especially in the U.S. and the West, to join the jihad and to emulate the actions of lone-wolf attackers like Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, Toulouse attacker Muhammad Merah, and others. Hamza spoke of the need to focus on targeting the U.S. first and foremost, and urged his listeners to inflict "the highest number of painful attacks" on the U.S. in order to hasten its fall. He also called for harming Jewish interests everywhere.[9]

2016: Hamza's Messages Coming Out With Increasing Frequency, Showing He Is Not Deeply Underground And Is Able To Release Statements Quickly

The accelerating pace of the release of Hamza's messages, 10 so far, provide insight into what he and the Al-Qaeda leadership may be planning. In a message in a video released May 9, 2016, Hamza spoke of liberating Jerusalem by building a mighty army, the nucleus of which would be in Syria.[10] In his "We Are All Osama" message, dated July 9, 2016 and addressing the American people and threatening future attacks on U.S. soil, he stated: "We shall continue on this path and target you inside your country and outside it..."[11] Vowing to avenge his father's killing, he said: "If you think that the crime you perpetrated in Abbottabad has gone by with no reckoning – you are wrong. Yours is a harsh reckoning. We are a nation that does not rest over injustice... and you will attain the clear certainty that the imam [Osama bin Laden] and his companions have won. Praise Allah, our Islam is spreading, the force of the mujahideen is growing and the American empire is in defeat and plummeting."[12] In another message, released August 17, 2016, he called on the Saudi people to overthrow the Al-Saud royal family, and urged young Muslim men to join Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).[13]

2017-18: Hamza Continues To Address Muslim Youth, Including In The U.S.: Target Jewish Interests Worldwide, Americans, NATO Member States; Overthrow Saudi Royal Family

Hamza's audio messages have continued to directly address Muslim youth, including in the U.S., with instructions for carrying out terrorist attacks. A May 13, 2017 message advised "martyrdom seekers" living in the West on prioritizing their targets: first, anyone who insults Islam and Muhammad; then Jewish interests, Americans, NATO member states, and Russia. He instructs his audience: "Once you have selected your target, engage in its reconnaissance. Gather as much information about your target as possible, and adopt an appropriate cover for this work. Your reconnaissance should not arouse the least suspicion, so that you may silently observe the enemy's forces and its weak points. Know your target inside out, so that you may inflict damage far beyond anything the enemy has ever imagined... If Allah gives you the chance to overcome your enemy, make appropriate use of the element of surprise. Take lead in inflicting losses, attacking the jugular of the enemy and hitting its joints. The greatest gains are made in the opening salvo, so make best use of it..."[14]

In a May 19, 2017 message, released the day President Trump arrived for a visit in Saudi Arabia, he accused the Saudi royal family of betraying the Muslims and collaborating with the West.[15] In another, in a video released December 9, 2017, Hamza attacked the Saudi royal family for betraying the cause of Palestine, in response to President Trump's December 6 announcement that the U.S. was recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Saudi royal family, he said, should be deposed, and shari'a law should be instated in the Arabian Peninsula in its stead.[16]   Again on January 18, 2017, Hamza released his most recent statement to date which accused the founder of Saudi Arabia, the late King Abd Al-Aziz, of betraying the Muslims by signing a number of agreements with Britain which in turn enabled him to expand his influence, seize control of the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, and defeat his rivals.[17]

An audio message released September 14, 2017 featured Hamza appealing to Muslims everywhere to support jihad and the mujahideen in Syria. He also highlighted that Muslims – all Muslims – should work together to thwart the "international Crusader-Rafidhi [Shi'ite] aggression" against Sunnis.[18] Another message, released November 7, 2017, emphasized his father's role in igniting the spirit of jihad across the Muslim world. Noting the failure of the Arab Spring, he invited Muslims, especially young people, to prepare for a new wave of armed uprisings: "Rise in rebellion against oppression and tyranny, revolt against the agents of the Americans, initiate armed uprisings to overthrow them," he said. Highlighting the role of jihad in this planned uprising, he added: "The price of freedom is expensive, its bill exorbitant. Freedom cannot be earned with worthless pieces of paper cast inside a ballot box, nor by participation in polytheistic parliaments which legislate by man-made laws; it's earned with the ultimate generosity, selfless sacrifice... Jihad and martyrdom." He then called on Muslims to target Americans to avenge his father's killing: "I invite Muslims generally to take revenge [on] the Americans, the murderers of the Shaykh... specifically from those who participated in this heinous crime... "[19] In a December 9, 2017 audio message, he accused the Saudi royal family of betraying Palestine.[20] In his latest message, on January 18, 2018, he charged that the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abd Al-Aziz, had betrayed Muslims by signing agreements with Britain, meaning that he had sought "the support of polytheists against Muslims."[21]

Hamza's Possible Whereabouts Today

There has been sporadic information over the past few years on Hamza's whereabouts. It was rumored that he was behind the 2008 assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto – likely putting him in that region at that time. In her autobiography, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West (Simon and Schuster, 2008), completed days before she was killed and published two months posthumously, she wrote: "I was told by both the Musharraf regime and the foreign Muslim government that four suicide bomber squads would attempt to kill me. These included, the reports said ... Hamza bin Laden, a son of Osama bin Laden..."  

In a letter of unknown date that was found in 2012, Osama bin Laden wrote that he wanted Hamza sent to Peshawar, Pakistan. According to the January 7 Al-Arabiya report, bin Laden expressed his desire that Hamza, along with bin Laden's wife (and Hamza's mother) Khairiah Sabar,[22] come to stay with him in Abbottabad, after they left Iran in 2009. After they had been in Waziristan for a few months, bin Laden ordered Hamza to go to Balochistan, and from there to the Sindh region in Pakistan, until his arrival in Abbottabad could be secured. Hamza reportedly left Waziristan in 2010, according to the report.

Also, on December 31, 2017, jihadis online began sharing a letter by Hamza about the death of his 12-year old son Osama, which he referred to as "martyrdom," and a photograph of the boy.  "[W]hen he played with the children," he wrote, Osama "often acted out his martyr's death." According to the letter, this happened "on the land of Khorasan and Afghanistan" – a possible clue to Hamza's location.[23]

According to other media reports, Hamza went from Pakistan to Syria, and is being sought by British SAS troops. The London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which is close to many important jihadi elements, stated on October 11, 2017 that activists had been spreading news about the establishment of a new jihadi group in Syria, Ansar Al-Furqan Fi Bilad Al-Sham ("The Supporters of the Quran in Syria") supported by Al-Zawahiri, and that the newspaper had received unconfirmed news that Hamza is heading this new organization.[24]

The Future

For Hamza to take over Al-Qaeda, he will need more jihadi credentials than just his name. While it seems a real possibility that he could become the new leader of Al-Qaeda and global jihad, until he shows his face in a video and directly speaks to the jihadi world – or pulls off a successful large-scale terrorist attack – his influence and his following will be limited.

*Steven Stalinsky is Executive Director of The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).


[1] The Jordan Times, December 24, 2017.

[2] The Jordan Times, December 24, 2017.

[3] See MEMRI JTTM report Photographs of Osama Bin Laden's Sons in An Iranian Prison, January 8, 2018.

[4], May 6, 2017.

[5], January 7, 2018.

[11] See MEMRI JTTM report Hamza Bin Laden Vows Further Attacks Against The U.S., July 9. 2016.

[12] See MEMRI JTTM report Hamza Bin Laden Vows Further Attacks Against The U.S., July 9, 2016.

[16] See MEMRI JTTM report Hamza Bin Laden Accuses Saudi Royal Family Of Betraying Palestine, December 10, 2017.

[22], May 11, 2011.

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