WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump yesterday confirmed that Hamza bin Laden, the son and designated heir of Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, was killed in a counter-terrorism operation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. US media reported more than a month ago, citing intelligence officials, that the younger bin Laden had been killed sometime in the last two years in an operation that involved the United States. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said last month that it was “his understanding” that bin Laden was dead.

But Trump had not publicly confirmed the news until yesterday - three days after the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks by Al-Qaeda, and a week after Trump’s surprise announcement that a planned secret meeting with Taleban leaders at the Camp David presidential retreat had fallen through. “Hamza bin Laden, the high-ranking Al-Qaeda member and son of Osama bin Laden, was killed in a United States counterterrorism operation in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region,” Trump said in a brief statement issued by the White House.

“The loss of Hamza bin Laden not only deprives Al-Qaeda of important leadership skills and the symbolic connection to his father, but undermines important operational activities of the group.” The statement did not specify the timing of the operation, or how his death had been confirmed. Considerable uncertainty surrounded the details, with the White House only vaguely specifying the location of bin Laden’s long-rumored death.

The 15th of Osama bin Laden’s 20 children and a son of his third wife, Hamza - thought to be about 30 years old - was “emerging as a leader in the Al-Qaeda franchise,” the State Department said in announcing a $1 million bounty on his head in Feb 2019. The State Department said Hamza was married to a daughter of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, a senior Al-Qaeda leader indicted by a US federal grand jury in 1998 for his role in the bombings that year of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya - attacks overseen by the senior bin Laden.

Sometimes dubbed the “crown prince of jihad”, Hamza had issued calls for attacks on the United States and other countries, especially to avenge his father’s killing by US forces in Pakistan in May 2011, the department said. That work made him important in attracting a new generation of followers to the extremist group that carried out the Sept 11 attacks, which left nearly 3,000 dead. But Colin Clarke, an analyst with the Rand Corporation and the Soufan Center think tanks, said he was “still skeptical he had a major role operationally”. “But obviously he’s got the DNA - the bin Laden name,” he told AFP.

Clarke said he thought that with Al-Qaeda still active, “I think the administration is looking for some kind of momentum or victory.” Al-Qaeda had yet to confirm or comment on the US announcement. Osama bin Laden’s death and the rise of the more virulent Islamic State group saw Al-Qaeda lose currency with younger jihadists. But the proliferation of branches and associated jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere have underscored its continuing potency. 

Documents seized in the raid on his father’s house in Abbottabad, Pakistan suggested Hamza was being groomed as his heir. In 2017, Hamza was placed on the US terror blacklist, seen as a potent future figurehead for the group then led by Ayman Al-Zawahiri. But when reports of his death surfaced over the summer, some terrorism experts questioned his real importance.

Bruce Hoffman, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP at the time that Al-Qaeda had been slowly rebuilding under Zawahiri, aiming to fill the vacuum left by the disintegration of the Islamic State. “Al-Qaeda survived the death of his father,” he said. “I am sure that it can manage adequately and survive the death of his son.” Clarke said the younger bin Laden’s death might open the way for the rise in Al-Qaeda of younger and even more radical leaders. “The unknown actually is what’s more dangerous,” he said. – AFP