A new propaganda message featuring the son of Osama bin Laden could be evidence that the militant group is trying to rejuvenate its global appeal by using a new generation of the bin Laden family.
In a 10-minute audio message illustrated with videos of past terrorist attacks, Hamza bin Laden is heard calling on followers to attack Jews, Americans, Westerners and even Russians, in lone-wolf-style attacks, using whatever means are easily available.
“If you are able to pick up a firearm, well and good; if not, the options are many,” the voice says, in a video obtained by SITE Intelligence Group.
After a string of several such videos featuring him, experts say Hamza bin Laden’s profile within the terror group could be on the rise.
“He has been trying to copy his dad, the tone of his dad, and also to copy and repeat the messages and terminologies used by his dad in the past,” said Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who tracked al Qaeda.
“Hamza at this point is being prepared for senior leadership in al Qaeda, to play a role down the road in leading the organization, and probably in unifying the global jihadi movement.”
In a 2015 recording, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri introduced the younger bin Laden as one of al-Qaeda’s “lions.”
Hamza bin Laden is believed to be in his late 20s, and is familiar to militant audiences because as a boy he was featured in propaganda videos — holding his father’s automatic rifle, reciting a poem, or doing militant training with other boys.
“He had a lot of charisma, and he had enormous public-speaking abilities at a very young age,” said Soufan.
He studied al Qaeda’s militant ideology during house arrest in Iran after the 9/11 terror attacks, according to Soufan, and in one letter to his father, said he was “forged from steel,”and ready to “march with the armies of the Muajahadeen.”
Documents recovered after the American raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in 2011 show that Osama bin Laden wanted his son to join him, a US counterterrorism official said. But by the time of the raid, the two had not been reunited — although Hamza’s brother, Khalid, was at the compound, and was killed along with their father.
For an organization whose propaganda often has less flash than those of its rivals at ISIS, al Qaeda could gain some name recognition from Hamza bin Laden.
“He’s really stepping up to the plate as a new face of al Qaeda,” said terrorism analyst Peter Bergen.
But while al Qaeda has often been overshadowed by the brutality and shock value of ISIS, US officials say al Qaeda is still a potent and durable organization, even as it has become more dispersed throughout the Middle East.
Al Qaeda’s growth has been helped by the continuing upheaval and civil wars in places like Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Libya, according to National Counterterrorism Center director Nicholas Rasmussen. In a May 3 speech, he said the organization has become “a network of affiliates and veteran al Qaeda-trained leaders, who have spread out, in various parts of the world. This larger al Qaeda network has evolved, and proven resilient, despite a range of setbacks.”
And while the group is seen as competing with ISIS for recruits and resources, there is no guarantee that the rivalry could not be converted to reconciliation.
Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi told Reuters last month that there were talks between representatives of the leaders of the two groups. “There are discussions and dialogue between messengers representing [ISIS leader Abu Bakr al] Baghdadi, and representing Zawahiri,” he said.
One factor that could push ISIS toward reconciliation with al Qaeda could be its waning fortunes on the battlefield against coalition forces.
“As ISIS gets smaller, for ISIS it actually might be a good idea to ally with al Qaeda, which is now a pretty big organization in Syria,” says Bergen. “And unfortunately, that would be a pretty lethal combination.”