The Chosen One? Al-Qaeda's Next Leader Could Be Osama Bin Laden's Son Hamza

Hamza Bin Laden
Hamza bin Laden (center), a son of Osama bin Laden, sits between two Taliban fighters near Ghazni, Afghanistan, according to this still image from Al Jazeera TV, in 2001. Hamza Bin Laden, now Al-Qaeda’s apparent figurehead, has written of mourning the death of his eldest son, Osama, the grandson of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. Reuters/Al-Jazeera TV

One day before the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Al-Qaeda alerted the world that it would release four messages to coincide with the day the group became the most notorious jihadi group in the world. The post showed the Twin Towers in flames, and the silhouette of a plane approaching. But most interestingly, it depicted two figures in the wreckage of the towers. One is the group's late leader Osama Bin Laden, who masterminded the attack. The second? His son, Hamza bin Laden.

The jihadi's progeny, now in his late twenties, is heir apparent to the ageing leadership of the group that has gained fewer headlines while the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) formed its self-proclaimed caliphate across Iraq and Syria. Bin Laden is being now used as a potent propaganda tool. His name is instantly recognisable to people in the West, as well as the wider jihadi movement.

The U.S. has already designated Hamza as a "global terrorist," a British lawmaker called him the "Crown Prince of Terror," and Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri introduced him as a "lion from the den" in an August 2015 audio message. Now he is becoming a prominent feature of Al-Qaeda's propaganda output.

In May, Al-Qaeda's propaganda arm As Sahab released an English and Arabic language audio message from Hamza giving "advice" to "martyrdom seekers in the West." He evokes conflicts across the Middle East, particularly in support of Sunni Muslims in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to inspire supporters.

"Be perfect in your choice of targets, so that you may damage your enemies more," he said. "Be professional in your choice of weapons. It is not necessary that it should be a military tool. If you are able to pick a firearm, well and good; if not, the options are many."

Another key indicator that the group is looking to protect one of its prized assets is that it has never published an image of him as an adult. The group knows that Hamza would attract the attention of enemy militaries and become their target like his older brother Saad, killed in a 2009 U.S. airstrike in Pakistan, and his brother-in-law Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, one of the group's most senior leaders.

Hamza is one of more than a dozen children fathered by Osama Bin Laden, and it remains unclear why he seems set to succeed his father, although some have suggested he was one of Osama's favorite sons. His leadership qualities again are largely unknown but the draw of his name is likely enough for a group that has been overshadowed by ISIS for more than three years.

What is known is that Hamza was a feature of the group's propaganda videos when he was a child, and he grew up in both Sudan and Afghanistan, two countries where his father received sanctuary before U.S. special forces killed the jihadi leader in a 2011 raid on his Abottabad compound in Pakistan. Hamza grew up around his father and his associates, and his beliefs seem in line with Osama's radical views.

Hamza Bin Laden
Hamza bin Laden's face can be seen superimposed on one of the World Trade Center towers in a new Al-Qaeda release a day ahead of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda Media

Current Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is perceived in the West and among young jihadis as an ageing figurehead who lacks the draw of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or his predecessor Bin Laden. Hamza's output, because of his family lineage, already garners more attention than the leader of the group in the Western world. He has called for attacks on both "Jews" and "crusaders," but also ranked a list of priorities for the group and its followers, according to the Long War Journal.

In a May message, Hamza Bin Laden said fighters should target "everyone who transgresses against our pure Religion, or against our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him)," adding, "Next, look out for Jewish interests everywhere." But if the jihadi is not able to locate these, he should target "target American Crusaders." He also mentions Russia for its incursion into Afghanistan in the 1980s where it fought a protracted war against the Afghan Mujahideen, which included Osama Bin Laden. "Give Russia a pertinent reminder of the days of your predecessors," he said.

He also criticized the Saudi royal family, which is often accused of playing some role in the 9/11 attacks because of Bin Laden's Saudi nationality and intimate links to the country's ruling elite. Riyadh denies any role in the attacks.

"Our lands are occupied. The Land of the Two Sanctuaries [Saudi Arabia] is occupied," Hamza said. "We shall continue to target you until you withdraw your forces from the Arabian Peninsula and from every single land of Islam."

Osama bin Laden with Hamza Bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2001. Mir Hamid/Daily Dawn/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

The new mention of Hamza in Al-Qaeda's pre-9/11 message comes at a time when the group is looking to re-insert itself into the picture as ISIS suffers a series of battlefield defeats in Iraq and Syria, leaving it without the large tracts of land and resources it once held.

Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate the Nusra Front, now rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, has remained active and influential throughout the six-year Syrian war, and the group's most powerful arm, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, remains the greatest threat in the country. Its affiliate in the Sahel, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and its related offshoots, have also continued to attack civilians and authorities in North Africa.

On the anniversary of the day that his father did the most damage to America, his son looked best placed, in part because of the group's wishes, to stage a resurgence for Al-Qaeda on the world stage. As former FBI agent and Al-Qaeda expert Ali Soufan wrote in Newsweek in June: "Al-Qaeda once again has the means and the opportunity to attack. Hamza is just waiting for the right time."

Al-Qaeda has claimed few assaults on the West in recent years, bar the shooting attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in order to focus on its growth elsewhere in the world. That could change soon.