U.S. officials claim that Hamza bin Laden, a favorite son of his father Osama and possible future leader of al-Qaida, was killed sometime in the last two years, with the U.S. role in his death not specified. When al-Qaida loses a potential leader, it is right to celebrate and to consider what is next for the group. Hamza’s rise, however, was a reflection of al-Qaida’s weakness, and with his death it is important to recognize what he was—and what he wasn’t—to the terrorist group.
Hamza never made his mark as an important al-Qaida leader in his own right. Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and terrorism expert who wrote an excellent profile of Hamza, relates that Hamza spent much of his youth and early adulthood hiding out in Iran after al-Qaida was ousted from Afghanistan after 9/11. Iranian authorities held Hamza and other al-Qaida members as possible bargaining chips with the United States or to be released when the time was right. Hamza then returned to Pakistan in 2010, hiding out there and narrowly avoiding being killed in 2011, when U.S. Navy SEALS raided his father’s compound in Abbottabad. After several years of quiet, Hamza emerged in al-Qaida audio and video tapes, calling for attacks on the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other traditional targets. Al-Qaida appeared to be grooming him to be a leading spokesman, relying on his family pedigree to attract attention, and perhaps even considering him as a potential heir to Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian jihadi who has headed the group since 2011.
The possible elevation of Hamza, however, shows al-Qaida’s weakness today. Hamza himself neither fought in the front lines like his father nor ran a major clandestine network as did Zawahiri. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the legendary founder of al-Qaida in Iraq, became a jihadi superstar because of his willingness to lead the fight against U.S. forces and the Shiite government of Iraq. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also fought, and he had scholarly credentials to boot. Hamza, in contrast, had only a name. That name was respected and had cachet even among Islamic State followers, but for a movement comprised primarily of young men seeking action, the lack of jihadi experience was a grave weakness. Hamza’s time in Iran was also a negative. Sunni jihadis typically despise Iran, and while al-Qaida’s approach to the Shiite powerhouse has been pragmatic, the Islamic State has blasted al-Qaida for its relationship.
Indeed, Hamza’s possible elevation was a sign of al-Qaida’s many problems and the group’s desperate need to regain its momentum. The core group around Zawahiri has not launched a major terrorist attack in the West in over a decade. This is a startling weakness for a group that prides itself on leading the struggle against America and its allies. When the Syrian war broke out, recruits flocked to the Islamic State, with al-Qaida and its supporters in Syria playing second fiddle.
U.S. counterterrorism deserves credit for many of al-Qaida’s problems. The U.S. role in Hamza’s death is not clear right now, but the U.S. mix of drone strikes and a broad intelligence service campaign have put intense pressure on al-Qaida and its networks. These means have kept al-Qaida leaders like Zawahiri in hiding and disrupted its recruitment and communications. To its credit, the group has endured, but it remains mired in its rivalry with the Islamic State and unable to lead the broader jihadi movement.
Under these trying circumstances, al-Qaida has relied heavily on its affiliates in the Maghreb, Yemen, India, and other regions to keep operations going. In so doing, it struggled to keep the jihadi movement as a whole focused on the United States and the West in general. Hamza’s repeated rhetoric that the U.S. was the focus was part of an attempt to find a big name to make the anti-U.S. message stand out to young radicals around the world who might otherwise be more attracted to the more pressing causes in their countries and regions. Al-Qaida, however, has struggled to maintain the support of some of its affiliates. Some, like al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, remain loyal and robust, while others, like its vital branch in Syria, have rejected Zawahiri’s leadership.
Hamza’s death is a blow to al-Qaida’s attempts to regain its momentum and restore its position as leader of the global jihadi cause. More important, it illustrates al-Qaida’s many problems and the successes, however incomplete, of U.S. counterterrorism.