US President Donald Trump on Saturday confirmed that Hamza bin Laden, the son and designated heir of Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, was killed in a counter-terrorism operation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
US media reported more than a month ago, citing intelligence officials, that the younger Bin Laden had been killed sometime in the last two years in an operation that involved the United States.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said last month that it was “his understanding” that Bin Laden, who was thought to be about 30, was dead.
But Trump had not publicly confirmed the news until Saturday — three days after the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks by Al-Qaeda, and a week after Trump’s surprise announcement that a planned secret meeting with Taliban leaders at the Camp David presidential retreat had fallen through.
“Hamza bin Laden, the high-ranking al-Qaeda member and son of Osama bin Laden, was killed in a United States counterterrorism operation in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region,” Trump said in a brief statement issued by the White House.
“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.”
The statement did not specify the timing of the operation, how his long-rumored death had been confirmed, or even specifically in which country it occurred.
US Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, welcomed the development, saying on Twitter that it sent “a strong signal that America never forgets and we will go wherever the terrorists take us to protect our homeland.”
Hamza, the 15th of Osama bin Laden’s 20 children and a son of his third wife, was “emerging as a leader in the Al-Qaeda franchise,” the State Department said in announcing a one million dollar bounty on his head in February 2019.
It said Hamza was married to a daughter of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, a senior Al-Qaeda leader indicted by a US federal grand jury in 1998 for his role in the bombings that year of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya — attacks overseen by the senior Bin Laden.
Sometimes dubbed the “crown prince of jihad,” Hamza had issued calls for attacks on the United States and other countries, especially to avenge his father’s killing by US forces in Pakistan in May 2011, the department said.
That work helped him attract a new generation of followers to the extremist group that carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks, which left nearly 3,000 dead.
Colin Clarke, an analyst with the Rand Corporation and the Soufan Center think tanks, said he was “still skeptical he had a major role operationally.”
“But obviously he’s got the DNA — the Bin Laden name,” he told AFP.
Al-Qaeda has yet to confirm the US announcement.
Barak Mendelsohn, a political science professor and terror specialist at Haverford College, called it “surprising” that so long after Hamza’s death was first reported, “Al-Qaeda has yet to release a formal announcement with details about how he died, and a eulogy.”
Osama bin Laden’s death and the rise of the more virulent Islamic State group saw Al-Qaeda lose currency with younger jihadists. But the proliferation of associated jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere has underscored its continuing potency.
In 2017, Hamza was placed on the US terror blacklist, seen as a potent future figurehead for the group then led by Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Clarke said the younger bin Laden’s death might open the way for the rise in Al-Qaeda of younger and even more radical leaders.
“The unknown actually is what’s more dangerous,” he said.
Just this week, Al-Qaeda’s small Syrian affiliate Hurras al-Din released a message calling the group “a producer of leaders” and saying it is used to overcoming the loss of its chiefs, Mendelsohn pointed out.
“The reality is that while Hamza was being groomed as a potential replacement for al-Zawahiri, the group could never focus on grooming only one potential heir,” he said.
“They cannot predict who will actually be alive when al-Zawahiri departs the scene.”
Image: FEDERATION FOR DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES/AFP/File / Handout This still image of Al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden’s son Hamza bin Laden — released by the CIA in November 2017 — was taken from his wedding video, apparently filmed in Iran