Al Qaeda has stepped out of the shadow of the Islamic State (ISIS), promoting its brand of terror with a new leader and a comprehensive list of attack priorities.
Hamza Bin Laden, Osama Bin Laden’s son and heir, released a 10-minute video called, “Advice for Martyrdom-Seekers in the West,” on May 14 at an opportune time for Al Qaeda after months of media coverage of the ever-shrinking ISIS hold in Syria and Iraq.
Whether the video catalyzed attacks in Manchester or London is unknown, but it’s expected to ratchet up the frequency of so-called lone wolf or inspired attacks in the West in coming weeks. Understanding this video and analyzing Hamza’s messages are key to countering the threats coming from the Al Qaeda, particularly at a time when Al Qaeda has been rebranding itself and widening its network among Salafist jihadi rings.
Hamza, born in 1984, is considered by core Al Qaeda cadre as the “Crown Prince of Terror” based on the letters confiscated from the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound. Apparently, Osama was preparing Hamza to be his heir following the death of Hamza’s older brother, Saad, in 2009 by a US drone strike. Clearly, step by step, Hamza is being prepared for the job. According to Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and expert on Al Qaeda, Hamza is "a poster kid for the Al Qaeda … and for members of Al Qaeda, who were indoctrinated with these propaganda videos, he means a lot to them.”
Current Al Qaeda leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, formally anointed Hamza as an official member of the terrorist group on August 14, 2015, in an audio message in which Hamza Bin Laden called for attacks in Western capitals, including lone-wolf attacks against the US, French and Israeli targets. In another July 9 2016 Al Qaeda video, "We Are All Osama," Hamza threatened the US by promising revenge. warning Americans "we will continue striking you and targeting you in your country and abroad in response to your oppression of the people of Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and the rest of the Muslim lands that did not survive your oppression. The US Department of State designated Hamza Bin Laden as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist on January 5, 2017.
Hamza’s new video, “Advice for Martyrdom-Seekers in the West,” is critically important for several reasons, foremost of which is the way it showcases previous, legendary Al Qaeda attacks which are considered extremely successful by the terrorist group. Second, Hamza pointedly gives explicit references to Al Qaeda’s core ideology and its literature by frequently citing the Quran and Hadiths, thus paving a concrete ideological groundwork for future attacks. Furthermore, Hamza encouraged the Al Qaeda base to carry out attacks for the reasons he lists in an effort to justify violence and terror. He continued by listing the possible targets deemed as having priority by the terrorist organization, and finished the video by emphasizing the importance of conveying the Al Qaeda’s global message.
The video starts by honoring Al Qaeda legends which carried out critical attacks in the past by providing related background videos. They include Sayyid Nosair, an American of Egyptian descent, convicted of links to the New York City landmark bomb plot and who was accused but acquitted of the assassination of Meir Kahane, a Jewish right-wing Israeli politician on November 5, 1990; Sulaiman Khater, an Egyptian terrorist who shot dead seven Israeli tourists in Sinai, Egypt in 1985 whom Zawahiri praised as "an example to follow for the zealous and free in the Egyptianarmy;” Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; Arid Uka, an Albanian terrorist who shot and killed two US airmen at Frankfurt Airport in 2011; Ayman Hassan, who killed Israeli soldiers and civilians; Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale who were murderers of Fusilier Lee Rigby, British Army soldier, on May 22, 2013, in London; and Mohammed Bouyeri, the Moroccan-Dutch terrorist who killed the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh in 2004.
Bin Laden gave special attention to Mevlut Mert Altintas, who shot and killed the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, in front of cameras at an art exhibit on December 19, 2016, in Ankara, Turkey. Fully one-third of Bin Laden’s video is dedicated to special effects and edited videos and the verbatim speech of Altintas.
These referenced names are accompanied by an audio track of chanting and related silhouette videos in the background, as the title enters briefly and the video starts with reference to “Sheikh Hamza Osama Bin Laden” on the left side of the screen, citing regular spiritual praises while showing a screen grab from FOX News about the attack by US Army Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people and injured 22 others in the Fort Hood, Texas mass shooting rampage on November 5, 2009. Hamza continues by addressing and greeting the “valiant heroes of Islam … in America, the West and in occupied Palestine …” and goes on to explaine the purpose of the video by stating “this is a legacy (will or advice) for anyone who intends to carry out a martyrdom operation.”
Hamza’s narrative continues with ample reference to scripture by encouraging attackers in the West to “purify their intentions” and reminding them that “help comes from Allah” as long as the future attackers’ intentions are pure. He provided diverse supporting religious arguments with reference to Salafist literature to increase the morale of the potential suicide attackers. Hamza gives Salafist reasoning for terrorist attacks by asking his followers to “Trust in Allah and do not fear …, ask your Lord for success, increase your remembrance of Allah; there is no help or power except from Allah.” Hamza justifies violence by referencing scripture and relies on Salafist teachings in an effort to persuade the Al Qaeda base that what they are doing is right based on Al Qaeda’s version of Salafist ideology.
Hamza continues by referencing the current conflict zones in the Middle East in an effort to explain Al Qaeda’s terror by citing worldly reasoning familiar to Arab tribal culture: “take your revenge for the sake of your religion, for your Prophet (peace be upon him), for the children of Al Sham, for the widows of Palestine, for the honorable women of Iraq, for the orphans of Afghanistan and with that get accepted to the highest grade (and gardens) of the paradise.”
After explaining why Al Qaeda members need to take their revenge, Hamza then explained to potential Al Qaeda supporters in the West how to carry out their attacks, priorities for their attention, how they should choose their targets and what kind of weapons they should use. He asked his followers to “accomplish your goals with utmost secrecy. Attain the highest level of perfection in your actions, exercise utmost care and cautionand prepare diligently to inflict crippling losses on those who have disbelieved.” Hamza also requested possible attackers to benefit from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine for their deeds and actions. He went on to ask future Al Qaeda jihadists to precisely and impeccably choose their targets to inflict the most damage. “Choose your weapons professionally. You don’t have to use a military weapon. If you can reach a gun, it is the best, if not, there are many other options.”
After providing tactics, he encouraged his followers to “follow the footsteps of the previous martyrdom-seekers before you. Continue from where they left.” Important to note is that he explained how effective one-person operations in the West have outweighed in impact numerous operations in the East. The implication should be grasped by security planners in Europe: expect more attacks in the EU zone or the United States. Hamza, in order to emphasize the importance of the attacks in West, states Al Qaeda followers who already live in the West don’t need to migrate because carrying out attacks on Jews and Crusaders where they live in the West is more worrisome and severe for the enemy.
After underlining and highlighting the importance of jihad in the West and providing the ideological reasoning for the attacks, Hamza prioritized the types of targets as follows:
- Transgressors against its religion and prophet;
- Look out for Jewish interests;
- If not available, target the American interests;
- If not available, target the NATO countries’ interests; and
- If not available, target Russian interests, as they had forgotten what they tasted in Chechnya and Afghanistan.
He then continued by strongly advising his followers to convey a clear message to the media and to explain the reasons behind their attacks by stating “it is absolutely imperative that people should understand the objective of your operation.”
He again listed the messages Al Qaeda has emphasized, and urged the importance of conveying the following messages to the West:
- Our religion and our prophet are the red lines. (Remember Charlie Hebdo?);
- Palestine is a cause of our Islamic Ummah. Hence, anyone who supports Jewish occupiers shall never dream of peace;
- Sham is a cause of our Islamic Ummah, where our people are facing genocide;
- Anyone involved in operations against our people or aid to Bashar [Al Assad] and his allies shall not escape punishment;
- Our holy lands (Mecca and Medina) are occupied. We shall continue to target the occupiers until they withdraw their forces from the Arabian Peninsula; and
- Our airspace is violated; our wealth and resources are expropriated. Thus we shall deal with you reciprocally until you stop interfering in our affairs.
After listing the messages he believed needed to be conveyed, Hamza talked about important tactics needed to be considered before and during any attacks. He said, for example, “Once you select your target, investigate carefully,” “gather as much as information you can and adopt appropriate cover to disguise yourself,” “know your target inside out, so that you may inflict damage far beyond anything the enemy has ever imagined,” “take care of yourself, take time to relax before the operation so that your performance is optimal and your alertness level high.”
As Hamza listed these qualities and tactics, the video screen shows the video recordings of a Turkish police officer murdering the Russian Ambassador to Turkey by citing “the lion, Mevlut Mert Altintas killed the Russian Ambassador to Turkey.” This segment showcases this attack and presented the attacker as a model for the rest of Al Qaeda’s members. Hamza continued to emphasize the qualities and tactics by stating, “make appropriate use of the element of surprise, take lead in inflicting losses;” “the most important gains are acquired in the first attempt of the attack;” “make sure of the best use of your weapons;” “having read these instructions, be self-assured, composed and hope for the best.”
Finally, at the end of his speech, Hamza asked his followers to “put your trust in Allah, be generous with your life (don’t think of saving yourself)” — basically asking future terrorists to commit suicide or consider dying during their attacks, as this life is not worth anything compared to the hereafter. He then prayed for the future attackers by invoking scripture: “May Allah give you victory, assist you, guide you,” "the final meeting is in the Paradise."
The video lasts 10 minutes and twelve seconds. It is professionally cut and edited. As it was released, it was translated into numerous languages and rereleased with embedded subtitles. Al Qaeda members shared this video via different social media platforms, particularly through their Telegram-application chat rooms and private channels. The video is still available on the internet, including YouTube and other social media platforms. One may assume all Al Qaeda supporters around the world have watched this video since it was narrated by Osama Bin Laden’s son, and conveys essential messages.
A reasonable conclusion is that Hamza is being fronted as the next world leader of Al Qaeda. Based on the sequence of the events — including Osama Bin Laden grooming Hamza as his heir, Ayman Al Zawahiri introducing him in a widely-spread video, and, finally by Hamza himself addressing Al Qaeda’s support base and followers, and asking them to carry out attacks in the West – it strongly indicates Hamza Bin Laden is being groomed for Al Qaeda leadership in the near future, at least after the death or retirement of Al Zawahiri. However, there is no doubt he already has an esteemed and respected position in the hierarchy of the terrorist organization. Undeniably, Hamza has the advantage of being the son of the founder of Al Qaeda, and through his father, unquestionable authority over the jihadist organization.
In his address, Hamza openly spoke to the Al Qaeda base without distinguishing sub-groups operating under Al Qaeda, which has become the world’s largest Salafist jihadi terrorist group, functioning as an umbrella tied to several regional Al Qaeda sub-groups and affiliates such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and to many other indirect affiliates including Fatah Al Islam, Turkistan Islamic Party and Jemaah Islamiyah. Additionally, organizations such as the Al Nusra Front, or Jabhat Al Nusra (formerly Al Qaeda in Syria or Al Qaeda in the Levant), or with its new name, “the Jabhat Fateh Al Sham,” a critical player in Syria, will also submit to the orders of Hamza, even if they claim they are distancing themselves from the Al Qaeda core, which is more like rebranding Al Qaeda in Syria and a tactic established for the aftermaths of the fight against ISIS.
Additionally, it is worth noting that Al Qaeda has been taking advantage of the attention and heat ISIS has drawn around the world and broadening its base around the globe without getting much attention and getting ready for the near future in the aftermath of ISIS’s defeat. There is no doubt that the Al Qaeda affiliates will also try to fill the space emptied by ISIS. It should also be expected that Al Qaeda most probably will invite and accept defecting ISIS fighters to its cadres.
Considering the fact that many ISIS fighters fleeing the battlefields of Syria do not have many options, joining Al Qaeda might become one of the viable considerations not only for ideological reasons but also to save their lives. There are rumors that AQ has already ordered its commanders to accept ISIS fighters (not senior level ISIS members or leadership) in an effort to increase their presence in the regions where they shelter and the number of the fighters they hold at bases.
There is no doubt that many Al Qaeda members and sympathizers will take this call seriously by attempting to carry out attacks. There will be two implications.
The first is Al Qaeda’s leadership is going to order the cells they control around the West to carry out attacks through an effort to prove Hamza Bin Laden’s orders are being followed. The second is the fact many individuals who believe in Al Qaeda or have ties to its ideology will feel called to carry out attacks based on the Salafist teachings. The first lesson Al Qaeda fighters or Salafist jihadi terrorists receive is, “to hear and obey,” and the second lesson they study is,“carrying out the orders of their leaders regardless of the conditions.” After combining these two principles, it is highly likely that there will be several new attacks attributed to Hamza Bin Laden.
Additionally, Hamza did not openly ask for suicide attacks, but rather asked his followers to consider their options by asking them to carry out attacks with weapons if possible as their first choice, therefore providing endless possibilities for his followers. Also, it is possible we may see some attacks which will be carried out without the central hierarchy of Al Qaeda. If the attackers cannot successfully convey their messages as Hamza asked, and if the perpetrators successfully hid their ties with any Al Qaeda affiliates, law enforcement and counterterrorism officials might have find it hard to tie some attacks to Al Qaeda.
Hamza clearly listed its enemies, however. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the West must consider the list seriously and prioritize protection of the listed targets. It is essential obvious targets be warned about the true nature of possible threats, and that local law enforcement establish communication mediums with possible targets in an effort to reduce risks or to reach out to each other as soon as possible when needed. While the target list might be wide, in most cases, local law enforcement and intelligence agencies can produce prioritized local threat lists — protection of those targets become more important, particularly in the upcoming days, weeks and months as the execution of possible attacks could start anytime based on what Hamza asked and prioritized.
Finally, security officials should note the video highlighted the assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey by Mevlut Mert Altintas, a Turkish police officer. The video segments dedicated to this assassination accounted for three minutes, one-third of the video.
Evidently, Al Qaeda gave great importance to this attack. We can also understand this by the fact that only Mevlut was referred to as the “lion” of Al Qaeda in the video, whereas all other attackers in the past were referred to with their names. Undoubtedly, the assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Ankara, and the assassin, have risen as stars of Al Qaeda’s legend.
Interestingly, the Turkish government furiously denied the involvement of Al Qaeda in this attack. The video though certainly refutes the regime’s denials and efforts to link Mevlut to other groups. It is also essential to acknowledge that, particularly after the July 2016 coup attempt, Al Qaeda and other Salafist-jihadi radical groups found refuge in the Turkish bureaucracy. For example, Nurettin Yildiz, a preacher known for his close ties with the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also had an association with the assassin, has a large base of supporters, most of whom are government officers.
Similarly, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), a Turkish NGO with close ties to Erdogan, has been linked to several Salafist jihadi groups. In fact, the IHH was investigated by the Turkish National Police because of its ties to Al Qaeda and because it was providing logistical support to Al Qaeda members in Syria. The police raided IHH warehouses in Kilis, Turkey during an operation in 2014. Consequently, the current presence of Al Qaeda in Turkey and Turkey’s somewhat favorable approach to this jihadi organization increases the risks, particularly towards European countries.
Ahmet S. Yayla, PhD, is an adjunct professor of criminology, law and society at George Mason University. He is also senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He formerly served as a professor and the chair of the sociology department at Harran University in Turkey, and also served as the chief of counterterrorism and operations department of the Turkish National Police in Sanliurfa between 2010 and 2013. He is the co-author of the newly released book, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate.