July 13, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Next Bin Ladin
Five years after the killing of Usama bin Ladin, his son Hamza appears to be assuming the symbolic mantle of al-Qaeda leadership. In an audio recording released on July 9, Hamza bin Ladin delivered a very bin Ladin-esque statement, complete with soaring oratory and a unifying message. It was also typically violent; Hamza vowed revenge against the United States for the killing of his father, the leader of the global jihadist movement, and the man whom he may be well-positioned to replace.
Believed to be 25 years old, Hamza is the physical extension of bin Ladinism, having spent his entire life surrounded by al-Qaeda. In his message, he boasted that the group now has more members than at any time since its founding, and has spread to more countries. Al-Qaeda's affiliates have thrived in recent years, planting in failed and collapsing states. Their strategy of local immersion and cooperation mirrors that of Usama bin Ladin, who feared division and internal strife among jihadists as much as he feared the militaries of the West.
It is unknown how much of a role Hamza currently occupies in al-Qaeda, but it appears—particularly when his audio messages are examined not just in the context of his father's, but in contrast to those of current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri—that he may take his father’s place as leader of al-Qaeda. His recent statement touched on issues the elder bin Ladin consistently mentioned, such as Palestine, the threat of the Crusaders, and the need for unity. Beyond the title of Hamza’s message—‘We Are All Usama’—he mimicked his father’s oratory style, further embodying the bin Ladin legacy.
Two days after the release of Hamza bin Ladin’s message, Zawahiri released his own message, providing a very clear contrast. Whereas both Usama bin Ladin and his son Hamza are charismatic and effective orators, Zawahiri is a scold, in both tone and substance. In his July 11 message, Zawahiri gets mired in the details of rebel infighting in Syria and accuses Saudi Arabia of plotting to divide the rebels and the jihadist movement. Using terms like ‘hotel strugglers’ to demean rebel leaders he deems too removed from the Syrian fight, Zawahiri stands in stark contrast to Usama bin Ladin.
In many ways, Zawahiri is better suited to the position of an organizational number two, or the Executive Officer (XO) in a military outfit. Whereas the commanding officer’s responsibilities include leadership and inspiration, the XO’s role is that of a disciplinarian tasked with the day-to-day operations—a role that does not require much charisma. Zawahiri was never a unifying leader; his tenure witnessed the emergence and rise of the so-called Islamic State, over which al-Qaeda never had much control. If Hamza does assume a role as the symbolic leader of al-Qaeda, the group will once again have a bin Ladin at its head who is a skilled orator and unifying figure. Organizationally, al-Qaeda is as strong as it has ever been; having the son of Usama bin Ladin as its leader would make it all the more dangerous.
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