Bin Laden son calls for at­tacks as al-Qaeda tries come­back

Hamza bin Laden, 28, could en­er­gize youths, ex­perts fear

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOBY WAR­RICK AND SOUAD MEKHEN­NET

The voice is that of a soft-spo­ken 28year-old, but the mes­sage is vin­tage Osama bin Laden, giv­ing or­ders to kill. When the au­dio record­ing be­gan turn­ing up on ji­hadist web­sites two weeks ago, it was as if the dead ter­ror­ist were chan­nel­ing him­self through his fa­vorite son.

“Pre­pare dili­gently to in­flict crip­pling losses on those who have dis­be­lieved,” Hamza bin Laden, scion of the Sept. 11, 2001, mas­ter­mind, says in a thin bari­tone that eerily echoes his fa­ther. “Fol­low in the foot­steps of mar­tyr­dom-seek­ers be­fore you.”

The record­ing, first aired May 13, is one in a string of re­cent pro­nounce­ments by the man who many ter­ror­ism ex­perts re­gard as the crown prince of al-Qaeda’s global net­work. Posted just two weeks be­fore Mon­day’s sui­cide bomb­ing in Manch­ester, Eng­land, the mes­sage in­cludes a spe­cific call for at­tacks on Euro­pean and North Amer­i­can cities to avenge the deaths of Syr­ian chil­dren killed in airstrikes.

The record­ing pro­vides fresh ev­i­dence of omi­nous changes un­der­way within the em­bat­tled or­ga­ni­za­tion that de­clared war against the West nearly two decades ago, ac­cord­ing to U.S., Euro­pean and Mid­dle East­ern in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials and ter­ror­ism

ex­perts. Dec­i­mated by U.S. mil­i­tary strikes and over­shad­owed for years by its ter­ror­ist ri­val, the Is­lamic State, al-Qaeda ap­pears to be sig­nal­ing the start of a vi­o­lent new chap­ter in the group’s his­tory, led by a new bin Laden — one who has vowed to seek re­venge for his fa­ther’s death.

En­cour­aged by the Is­lamic State’s set­backs in Iraq and Syria, al-Qaeda is mak­ing a play for the al­le­giance of the Is­lamic State’s dis­af­fected fol­low­ers as well as le­gions of sym­pa­thiz­ers around the world, an­a­lysts say. The pro­mo­tion of a youth­ful fig­ure­head with an iconic fam­ily name ap­pears to be a key ele­ment in a re­brand­ing ef­fort that in­cludes a shift to Is­lamic State-style ter­ror­ist at­tacks against ad­ver­saries across the Mid­dle East, Europe and North Amer­ica.

“Al-Qaeda is try­ing to use the mo­ment — [with] Daesh be­ing un­der at­tack — to of­fer ji­hadists a new al­ter­na­tive,” said a Mid­dle East­ern se­cu­rity of­fi­cial, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss coun­tert­er­ror­ism as­sess­ments and us­ing the Ara­bic acro­nym for the Is­lamic State. “And what could be more ef­fec­tive than a bin Laden?”

Hamza bin Laden is hardly new to the Is­lamist mil­i­tant world. His corona­tion as a ter­ror­ist fig­ure­head has been un­der­way since at least 2015, when long­time al-Qaeda leader Ay­man al-Zawahiri in­tro­duced him in a video mes­sage as a “lion from the den” of bin Laden’s ter­ror­ist net­work. But in re­cent months, he has been pro­moted as a ris­ing star on pro-alQaeda web­sites, with au­dio record­ings from him urg­ing fol­low­ers to carry out at­tacks or com­ment­ing on cur­rent events. Long­time ter­ror­ism an­a­lysts say the pro­mo­tion of Hamza bin Laden ap­pears cal­cu­lated to ap­peal to young Is­lamist mil­i­tants who still ad­mire Osama bin Laden but see al-Qaeda as out­dated or ir­rel­e­vant.

“Hamza is the most charis­matic and po­tent in­di­vid­ual in the next gen­er­a­tion of ji­hadis sim­ply be­cause of his lin­eage and his­tory,” said Bruce Riedel, who spent 30 years in the CIA and is now di­rec­tor of the Brook­ings In­stitu- tion’s In­tel­li­gence Project. “At a time when Zawahiri and al-Bagh­dadi seem to be fad­ing, Hamza is the heir ap­par­ent.” Abu Bakr alBagh­dadi is the Is­lamic State’s leader.

But Hamza bin Laden is not ad­vo­cat­ing his fa­ther’s style of ji­had. Osama bin Laden was no­to­ri­ous for his am­bi­tious, care­fully planned ter­ror­ist op­er­a­tions, di­rected by al-Qaeda’s gen­er­als and aimed at strate­gic tar­gets. His son, by con­trast, urges fol­low­ers to seize any op­por­tu­nity to strike at Jewish in­ter­ests, Amer­i­cans, Euro­peans and pro-Western Mus­lims, us­ing what­ever weapon hap­pens to be avail­able.

“It is not nec­es­sary that it should be a mil­i­tary tool,” he says in the May 13 record­ing. “If you are able to pick a firearm, well and good; if not, the op­tions are many.”

The face­less man

Strik­ingly, for a man who as­pires to be the ji­hadist world’s next rock star, Hamza bin Laden in­sists on keep­ing most of his per­sonal de­tails hid­den from pub­lic view. Even his face.

No con­firmed photographs ex­ist of the young ter­ror­ist since his boy­hood, when he was por­trayed mul­ti­ple times as an ador­ing son pos­ing with his fa­mous fa­ther. He is be­lieved to be mar­ried, with at least two chil­dren, and he lived for a time in the tribal re­gion of north­west­ern Pak­istan, although his where­abouts are un­known.

His re­fusal to al­low his im­age to be pub­lished may re­flect a well­founded con­cern about his per­sonal safety, but it com­pli­cates the mil­i­tants’ task of mak­ing him a ter­ror­ist icon, said Steven Stal­in­sky, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Mid­dle East Me­dia Re­search In­sti­tute, a Wash­ing­ton-based non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that mon­i­tors Is­lamist mil­i­tancy on so­cial me­dia.

“Peo­ple loyal to al-Qaeda and against the Is­lamic State are look­ing for in­spi­ra­tion, and they re­al­ize that he can pro­vide it,” Stal­in­sky said. “But for to­day’s youth, you need more than au­dio and an old pho­to­graph.”

What is known about Hamza bin Laden comes from his nu­mer­ous record­ings as well as in­tel­li­gence re­ports and scores of doc­u­ments seized dur­ing the 2011 raid by U.S. Navy SEALS on Osama bin Laden’s safe house in Ab­bot­tabad, Pak­istan. In­cluded in the doc­u­ment trove were per­sonal let­ters from Hamza to his fa­ther, as well as writ­ten in­struc­tions from the el­der bin Laden to his aides on how Hamza was to be ed­u­cated and pro­vided for.

The doc­u­ments re­veal a special bond be­tween Hamza bin Laden and his fa­ther that per­sisted de­spite long pe­ri­ods of sep­a­ra­tion. The 15th of Osama bin Laden’s es­ti­mated 20 chil­dren, Hamza was the only son born to the ter­ror­ist’s third wife, and by some ac­counts his fa­vorite, Khairiah Sabar, a Saudi woman whose fam­ily traces its lin­eage to the prophet Muham­mad.

He spent his early child­hood years with his par­ents, first in Saudi Ara­bia and later in Su­dan and Afghanistan, where his fa­ther be­gan to as­sem­ble the pieces of his world­wide ter­ror­ism net­work. A fam­ily friend who knew Hamza bin Laden as a child said he showed both prom­ise and early flashes of am­bi­tion.

“He was a very in­tel­li­gent and smart boy, very fond of horse­back like his fa­ther,” said the friend, a long­time as­so­ciate of the al-Qaeda net­work, con­tacted through a so­cial-me­dia chat ser­vice. “While his par­ents wanted him to stay away from bat­tle­fields, he had ar­gu­ments with them about it.”

Then came the 9/11 at­tacks, which brought the bin Ladens in­ter­na­tional no­to­ri­ety and made Hamza’s fa­ther the world’s most wanted man. As U.S.-backed Afghan mili­tias closed in on al-Qaeda’s moun­tain re­doubt at Tora Bora in east­ern Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden dis­patched sev­eral of his wives and chil­dren to Iran, be­liev­ing that the Is­lamic repub­lic’s lead­ers could of­fer pro­tec­tion from U.S. airstrikes.

Hamza rarely, if ever, saw his fa­ther af­ter that. He was still in Iran in his early 20s, liv­ing un­der a kind of house ar­rest, when he wrote a long mis­sive to his fa­ther com­plain­ing about his life “be­hind iron bars” and ex­press­ing a long­ing to join his fa­ther as a mu­jahid, or holy war­rior, in his fight against the West, ac­cord­ing to a copy of the let­ter found in bin Laden’s safe house.

“What truly makes me sad,” he wrote in 2009, “is the mu­jahideen le­gions have marched and I have not joined them.”

Iran al­lowed the bin Laden clan to leave the coun­try the fol­low­ing year, and by the time of the 2011 Navy SEAL raid, Hamza’s mother and other fam­ily mem­bers were liv­ing at the el­der ter­ror­ist’s Pak­istan hide­out. No­tably ab­sent from the Ab­bot­tabad com­pound was Hamza. On Osama bin Laden’s or­ders, aides had kept him in a sep­a­rate hide­out with the in­ten­tion of send­ing him to Qatar to be ed­u­cated, ac­cord­ing to U.S. and Pak­istani coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cials. Al­ready, the pa­tri­arch was be­gin­ning to see his son as a fu­ture al-Qaeda leader, judg­ing from the let­ters he wrote to his aides shortly be­fore his death.

“Hamza is one of the mu­jahideen, and he bears their thoughts and wor­ries,” Osama bin Laden wrote in one such let­ter. “And at the same time, he can in­ter­act with the [Mus­lim] na­tion.”

Ji­hadist roy­alty

Hamza bin Laden’s sense of per­sonal des­tiny only deep­ened with the death of his fa­ther and half brother Khalid at the hands of U.S. com­man­dos.

By 2015, when Zawahiri in­tro­duced Hamza to the world as an al-Qaeda “lion,” the then-26-yearold al­ready had the voice of a vet­eran Is­lamist mil­i­tant, urg­ing fol­low­ers in an au­dio record­ing to in­flict the “high­est num­ber of painful at­tacks” on Western cities, from Wash­ing­ton to Paris.

A year later, he de­liv­ered a more per­sonal mes­sage in­tended as a trib­ute to his dead fa­ther. Ti­tled “We are all Osama,” the 21-minute spo­ken es­say in­cluded a vow for vengeance.

“If you think that the crime you per­pe­trated in Ab­bot­tabad has gone by with no reck­on­ing, you are wrong,” he said. “Yours will be a harsh reck­on­ing. We are a na­tion that does not rest over injustice.”

Ter­ror­ism an­a­lysts have noted sev­eral re­cur­ring themes in Hamza bin Laden’s au­dio post­ings that dis­tin­guish his Is­lamist mil­i­tant phi­los­o­phy from the views ex­pressed by both his fa­ther and pu­ta­tive al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri. One dif­fer­ence: Un­like Zawahiri, Hamza bin Laden has es­chewed overt crit­i­cism of the Is­lamic State, per­haps to avoid an­tag­o­niz­ing any fol­low­ers of that ter­ror­ist group who might be in­clined to shift to al-Qaeda.

The bin Laden fam­ily friend sug­gested that the omis­sion is de­rid­ing, lib­er­ate, part of an ef­fort to po­si­tion Hamza bin Laden as a uni­fy­ing fig­ure for Is­lamist mil­i­tants. The as­so­ciate, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to com­ment freely, noted that Hamza bin Laden en­joys mul­ti­ple ad­van­tages in this re­gard, as he can claim to be both a de­scen­dant of the prophet as well a son of ji­hadist roy­alty.

“The cal­cu­la­tion is that it will be very dif­fi­cult for the Daesh lead­er­ship to de­nounce Hamza, given who he is,” the fam­ily friend said.

The other dis­tinc­tion is Hamza bin Laden’s per­sis­tent calls for self-di­rected, lone-wolf at­tacks against a wide ar­ray of tar­gets. Here, he ap­pears to be bor­row­ing di­rectly from the play­book of the Is­lamic State, which has fos­tered a kind of Every­man’s ji­had that does not de­pend on in­struc­tions or per­mis­sion from higher-ups. His In­ter­net post­ings have lauded Army psy­chi­a­trist and con­victed Fort Hood shooter Ni­dal Hasan, who mur­dered 13 peo­ple in a ram­page on the base in Texas in 2009; as well as the two Bri­tons of Nige­rian de­scent who hacked Bri­tish sol­dier Lee Rigby to death on a street out­side his Lon­don bar­racks in 2013.

None of those as­sailants were known al-Qaeda mem­bers. Yet, by ap­plaud­ing such at­tacks, Hamza bin Laden ap­pears to as­so­ciate him­self with a more ag­gres­sive style of ter­ror­ism that ap­peals to young Is­lamist mil­i­tants, an­a­lysts and ex­perts said. Such mes­sages also con­vey an im­pres­sion of a ter­ror­ist net­work that, while bat­tered, is far from de­feated, said Bruce Hoff­man, a for­mer U.S. ad­viser on coun­tert­er­ror­ism and di­rec­tor of Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity’s Cen­ter for Se­cu­rity Stud­ies.

“He brings as­sur­ance that, even though al-Qaeda has been ham­mered in re­cent years, it’s still in good hands, with a ju­nior bin Laden who is ide­ally sit­u­ated to carry on the strug­gle,” Hoff­man said. “Since a very young age, Hamza bin Laden wanted to fol­low in his fa­ther’s foot­steps. And from al-Qaeda’s per­spec­tive, now is the crit­i­cal time for him to come of age and as­sume the reins of author­ity.”

“It is not nec­es­sary [to have] a mil­i­tary tool.” Hamza bin Laden, urg­ing mil­i­tants to at­tack with any­thing avail­able

AL-JAZEERA VIA APTN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A boy said to be Hamza bin Laden, left, holds a piece of what alQaeda said was U.S. he­li­copter wreck­age in Afghanistan in 2001.

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