When New Mexico-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was targeted by a U.S. drone strike in 2011, one of terrorism’s most potent posthumous recruiters was killed.
Al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda recruiter and influencer, has been cited as an inspiration or his materials have been found in the possession of terrorists and wannabe jihadists who have claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda or ISIS, with high-profile attackers from Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen and Times Square attempted car bomber Faisal Shahzad among his fans.
His body of lectures and writings aren’t just found in the usual jihadist social media haunts, but can be found in Google Play apps and in major U.S. bookstores. Al-Awlaki lecture CDs are still a search result on Amazon, though “currently unavailable.”
One of terrorism’s greatest influencers hasn’t been alive for eight years, and despite some efforts to remove his content from websites al-Awlaki’s recruitment roster shows no sign of losing steam. “Greatest scholar of this generation,” crowed one Google user in the reviews of one al-Awlaki app — since removed from the Play store — that was rated “everyone,” included lectures such as “It’s a War Against Islam” and “Constants on the Path of Jihad,” and garnered 4.8 out of 5 stars from users.
Like al-Awlaki, killing Hamza bin Laden means he won’t be releasing fresh content or recruiting would-be jihadists based on current events. But like al-Awlaki, did bin Laden leave behind enough of a body of recruitment work to still be a major influencer in death for years to come? Instead of rendering him irrelevant, will death increase his reach and recruitment capability?
At the end of July, reports citing intelligence sources indicated that Osama bin Laden’s heir apparent had been killed, but would not say where or when he may have passed away or if the U.S. had a role in his death.
On Saturday, the White House released a statement attributed to President Trump confirming Hamza bin Laden “was killed in a United States counterterrorism operation in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region.”
“The loss of Hamza bin Ladin not only deprives al-Qa’ida of important leadership skills and the symbolic connection to his father, but undermines important operational activities of the group,” Trump’s statement added. “Hamza bin Ladin was responsible for planning and dealing with various terrorist groups.” The administration provided no further information, including whether the military or CIA conducted the strike; the time of his death is reportedly pegged as sometime within the past two years.
Al-Qaeda has not confirmed Hamza’s death nor memorialized him; the terror group acknowledged Osama’s death a few days after the highly publicized raid on his Abbottabad compound. Hamza was the 15th of Osama bin Laden’s 20 known children.
Hamza bin Laden, born to Osama bin Laden’s third wife, Khayriya Saber, around 1989 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, had a million-dollar bounty slapped on his head in March by the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program. He was officially designated a global terrorist in the final days of the Obama administration, as he was coming of age in al-Qaeda. He leaves behind at least two children, one named after Osama, by wife Maryam — a daughter of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, a high-ranking al-Qaeda official with a $10 million price on his head wanted in the 1998 American embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi.
With 68-year-old Ayman al-Zawahiri still at the helm of al-Qaeda, the young bin Laden’s role as an emerging leader — and the reason he was wanted by U.S. authorities for “his public declarations threatening the security of the United States” — appeared to be millennial outreach.
Hamza bin Laden issued his first message, an audio recording, in August 2015. He told the “youth of Islam” to take “a good example” from “the modern-day knights and lions of the likes of Nidal Hassan, Muhammad Merrah, Umar Farooq.”
“A single sincere operation from one knight amongst you, who chose a target well, and performed it well, will shake the roots of the major countries greatly. So imagine the impact of tens of operations,” Hamza bin Laden said, stressing that those drawn to jihad should be “targeting the Jewish and American interests in all of the inhabited lands in the world.”
He added that “what America and its allies fear the most is that we shift the battle from Kabul, Baghdad, and Gaza to Washington, London, Paris, and Tel Aviv, and that we transfer the battle to all of the interests of America, the Jews, and the West in the world.”
In May 2016, he issued an audio message saying that he hoped the Syrian revolution would spark jihad that would spread to Jerusalem and be a uniting force. “There is no longer an excuse for those who insist on division and dispute,” bin Laden said.
A July 2016 speech from Hamza titled “We Are All Osama” made the usual calls for attacks on Western targets, invoking his father’s name to rally jihadists.
In 2017, Hamza encouraged Muslims to “return to jihad” as Osama “departed this world encouraging and inciting you to continue the journey of the revolutions, warning you against premature termination or diversion of these revolutions.”
“The Arab Spring revolutions bore the message of freedom and honor, but they did not possess a protective force or a sharp sword for their defense, and thus the enemies assailed it and derailed it from its path,” he said.
Thus, Hamza bin Laden continued, a new Arab Spring could be launched — focused on “agents of the Americans,” establishment of shariah law, and the battle against “subjugation to Western Crusader hegemony, widespread political and financial corruption, social injustice and moral decay.”
“The sincere people of authority and understanding among the Muslim masses must work to incite the masses and prepare them for an uprising,” he said. “They must spread awareness among them regarding the means for a successful uprising, its purpose and goals, which must from the very beginning be in conformity with the shariah of the wise one.”
While al-Qaeda has created some of the seminal manuals for “open-source jihad” — as they call lone terrorist actors — Hamza stressed the importance of young jihadists receiving at some point preparation “physically in the arts of military training and fighting.”
“This may be done by sending them in groups or individually to the theaters of jihad — the crucibles for the formation of men, the life springs of honor — so that they may engage in the necessary preparations and acquire sufficient experience before returning to the society,” he said, adding that “this must continue until the preparations are complete and the masses are ready for an uprising.”
Bin Laden appealed to those of a minimal skillset as well, telling would-be jihadists that “if you are able to pick up a firearm, well and good; if not, the options are many.”
He appealed to al-Qaeda followers to “seize the initiative” by “turning your back on the disbelievers and their allies and being on your guard against them… we must be proud of our religion and seek honor in jihad” while taking pride in “our enmity of America.”
“Let us be proud of the anger of the West and its hatred for us,” he said. “Let us be proud of the West’s profiling of us as ‘terrorists,’ for this is no allegation; it is a badge of honor.”
Again reaching out to youths, Hamza encouraged them to “make this your motto: Either Islam shall live honorably or we shall die.”
In late 2017, Hamza bin Laden called for terrorists to target the Navy SEALs who killed Osama at the Pakistan compound in 2011. “I invite Muslims generally to take revenge from the Americans, the murderers of the sheikh, specifically from those who participated in this heinous crime,” he said.
That call to arms concluded with “a few words of encouragement” from the al-Qaeda heir, delivered in verse: “Tell America that our swords / In the battleground only increase in their sharpness / They will remain unsheathed to decapitate you / In the hope of reward from the glorious Lord.”
Hamza also stressed that Muslims should follow in his father’s footsteps — and his own footsteps, for that matter — and “dedicate your youth to jihad.”
Even if a promising recruit — whether a first-generation jihadist or a legacy bearing a symbolic family name — is being groomed for a more prominent role within al-Qaeda, the terror organization always has a plan to move forward in the event of that person’s “martyrdom,” as they did after Osama’s death. That doesn’t just include operational contingency plans, but consideration of how that person’s “martyrdom” can be used to the terror group’s advantage in terms of recruitment and inspiration.
A critical component of al-Awlaki’s posthumous effectiveness has been his position as an imam — fans get drawn in under the guise of religious study, and bookstores apparently keep his “Allah is Preparing Us for Victory” in stock for the same reason — and his ability, as a paintball-playing natural-born U.S. citizen, to speak to Western potential recruits.
Hamza bin Laden acted more as a cheerleader for the cause, trying to rebrand “terrorist” as a “badge of honor” while inciting youths and admirers of his father to join jihad. If al-Qaeda acknowledges his death, they will likely keep pushing out Hamza bin Laden messages to that target audience, counting on his recruiting pitches to organically grow on social media — underscoring the need for al-Qaeda content to be removed online with the same urgency as ISIS videos.