TSC IntelBrief: Hamza bin Laden, al-Qaeda and Syria
Bottom Line Up Front
• On September 14, al-Qaeda released an audio message from Usama bin Laden’s son, Hamza.
• The message shows again how the war in Syria has become central to al-Qaeda’s future.
• By embracing the sectarian Shi’a-Sunni fight more than his father, Hamza bin Laden is trying to appeal to Islamic State followers.
• It is now clear one of Usama bin Laden’s favorite sons is becoming the voice and perhaps the leader of a strong al-Qaeda.
Three days after the 16th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the terrorist group founded by Usama bin Laden released an audio message from one of his favorite sons, Hamza. The message, entitled ‘The Cause of al-Sham (Syria) is the Cause of Islam’ makes clear how important al-Qaeda views the war in Syria. As the so-called Islamic State collapses under the weight of massive military pressure in Iraq and Syria and its own overreach, al-Qaeda is well positioned to remain a long-term influence in the many conflict zones it embeds in, and Syria most of all.
The audio message is the latest of several from Hamza that al-Qaeda has released since May 2015. In it, Hamza makes no group distinctions in the fight against the collective East/West enemy he says is propping up the Assad regime as he urges the rebels not to give up in what is easily their worst moment in the six-year war. He writes that the world is ‘stunned’ at their patience, and calls on the rebels not to accept any peace proposal other than victory for their cause, which he says is also al-Qaeda’s cause:
‘So do not waver, nor grieve. Do not accept half-baked solutions, nor stop mid-way in your path before you have reached your destination, for this will be nothing but a waste of your tremendous sacrifices and a premature termination of your brilliant revolution. Weigh your affairs in the scales of the Hereafter, your difficulties will seem trivial to you.’
Hamza has never strongly condemned or criticized the Islamic State in his public statements, even though he began his public role in al-Qaeda at the height of the split between the two terrorist groups. Like his father, Hamza avoids division and internecine conflict, saying that infighting is what their enemies want and try to create. However, Hamza differs from his father in one aspect; where Usama always tried to avoid sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’a, keeping his focus on the United States and regional governments he claimed were puppets of the West, Hamza appears to have taken up the sectarian call to a degree. While his earlier messages focused on the ‘Crusader and Jewish’ enemies, this latest message is about ‘International Crusader-Rafidhi aggression.’ (Rafidi is a derogatory term for the Shi’a.) He argues that while it might seem the U.S. and Russia are at odds in Syria, this is a deception:
‘The International System and the states of the West and the East that are fighting against you do so because you seek to establish a true Islamic government. They have divided the roles amongst themselves to deceive you. Do not obey them, for they are deceivers. Do not obey them, for they are criminals. Do not obey them, for they are insolent disbelievers who will break every oath and promise.’
Hamza calls Russia and the U.S ‘the pharaohs of the age’ and claims its shameful to appease or work with them, especially in Syria; a clear call for U.S.-supported rebels to reconsider their choices. While his focus is on Syria—where in places like Idlib, al-Qaeda is making a stand for a long-term presence—Hamza says the enemy is also on the march in Yemen and Iraq and elsewhere. For Hamza, the enemy’s target isn’t so much Syria as anywhere ‘Islam’ is being established; by which he means the violent ideology of bin Ladenism. For Hamza and therefore al-Qaeda, the enemy is a union of the U.S. and Russia with Shia’ proxies, Iran and the Assad regime: ‘the Crusader enemy along with its Rafidhi allies’. In releasing this message at a time when Syrian rebels are at their weakest and the Islamic State in a slow-motion collapse, al-Qaeda is positioning itself again as the steady patient vanguard of the global jihadist movement, with a son of Usama bin Laden at the forefront.
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