Osama bin Laden’s son was “responsible for planning and dealing with various terrorist groups,” Trump said in a statement released by the White House. His death is a blow to al-Qaeda’s leadership acumen, Trump said, and symbolic given the connection to his father, who was killed in a Navy SEAL raid on his Pakistani refuge in 2011.
Hamza’s death could have significant influence on al-Qaeda’s future. Unifying and young, and carrying the name of terrorist royalty, bin Laden lent his voice and face in messages calling for attacks worldwide. But relatively little is known about the 9/11 mastermind’s youngest son — not even his formal role in al-Qaeda or his age, which is believed to be around 30.
Some analysts say his role in al-Qaeda was overstated, with little evidence Hamza was particularly influential or on track to take the reins of the entire operation, said Peter Bergen, a vice president focused on international security at New America, a Washington think tank.
“Other than the president’s statement claiming an operational role, I have never seen any evidence of [Hamza] being involved in operations besides releasing audio and video tapes calling for violence,” Bergen told The Washington Post on Saturday.
While it is clear that bin Laden was being groomed for senior leadership at a time al-Qaeda is putting a young face forward, Bergen said, “the people who led the organization for a long time are still alive,” including Ayman al-Zawahiri, the 68-year old co-founder of al-Qaeda and the successor of Osama bin Laden.
Trump gave no further details about the operation that killed the younger bin Laden, and it is unclear when and where he was killed. No recordings featuring Hamza bin Laden have been released for several months, and al-Qaeda has not issued a formal announcement of his death, even though it is typical for the group to do so when leaders are killed.
U.S. officials for months have telegraphed the possibility of his death. In July, NBC reported it obtained intelligence he was killed.
Bergen said his own discussions on July 31 with people close to the bin Laden family indicated Hamza was already dead by then. Trump’s statement indicated he may have been killed in the tribal region of Pakistan by a drone strike similar to ones the CIA used to target other al-Qaeda leaders there, he said.
Hamza bin Laden was an appealing figure for a younger generation of Islamist militancy, terrorism experts have said, as al-Qaeda competes with the Islamic State for visibility and recruits.
He was “beloved” by the “global jihadi community” because he “stressed unity” in his speeches and never criticized the Islamic State, Rita Katz, a terrorism expert with the Search International Terrorist Entities Intelligence Group, said on Twitter in July, when public reports of his death began to circulate.
Though he was never given a formal title within the group, Katz wrote, his death would be a “major blow to the movement.” U.S. officials described him as an emerging al-Qaeda leader as recently as March.
Despite fighting between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Islamic State militants still view Osama bin Laden with high regard and maintained respect for his son Hamza.
“If he had a different last name, he would be less important,” Bergen said.
Documents recovered from the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, which included directions to aides on how to care for and educate his son, indicated plans to prepare him for senior militant leadership, though Bergen said it was unclear at what level. Hamza spent nearly a decade under house arrest in Iran, which would have stunted his growth and experience, Bergen said.
The State Department offered a $1 million reward for information about bin Laden’s son, saying he released audio and video messages that called on followers to “launch attacks against the United States” and threatened revenge for his father’s killing.
That figure may indicate a lower priority for U.S. officials than some acknowledge. His reward on the State Department’s page for other terrorist leaders and suspects is the lowest listed among bounties between $3 million and $25 million.
While Osama bin Laden favored large and intricate terrorism strikes, such as the 9/11 attacks, his son called for quick, spontaneous worldwide violence against Americans, Europeans, Jews and pro-Western Muslims using any weapon the militants could muster.
“If you are able to pick a firearm, well and good; if not, the options are many,” he said in a 2017 recording.
Al-Qaeda itself “is out of business,” Bergen said, while its affiliates are focused on local conflicts, like in Afghanistan and Syria, rather than on attacks in the West. Hamza’s death, then, “is one more nail in its collective coffin,” he said.
The Pentagon and U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, referred queries to the White House.
While Trump hailed the killing of Hamza bin Laden as a victorious moment, a resolution in the 18-year-old conflict in Afghanistan — where al-Qaeda was harbored by the Taliban — has proved to be elusive.
U.S. military activity in Afghanistan has focused on containing Taliban and Islamic State militants while peace negotiations and decisions on a U.S. troop withdrawal have sputtered along. Trump declared those peace talks “dead” on Monday.