Born into al-Qaida: Hamza bin Laden‘s rise to prominence

By JON GAMBRELL – Associated Press – Sunday, March 17, 2019

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Years after the death of his father at the hands of a U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan, now finds himself in the crosshairs of world powers.

In rapid succession in recent weeks, the U.S. put a bounty of up to $1 million on him; the U.N. Security Council named him to a global sanctions list, sparking a new Interpol notice for his arrest; and his home country of revealed it had revoked his citizenship.

Those measures suggest that international officials believe the now 30-year-old militant is an increasingly serious threat. He is not the head of but he has risen in prominence within the terror network his father founded, and the group may be grooming him to stand as a leader for a young generation of militants.

“ was destined to be in his father’s footsteps,” said , a former agent focused on counterterrorism who investigated ’s attack on the USS Cole. “He is poised to have a senior leadership role in .”

“There is probably other intelligence that indicates something’s happening and that’s what put this thing on the front burner,” he said.

Much remains unknown about Hamza – particularly, the key question of where he is – but his life has mirrored ’s path, moving quietly and steadily forward, outlasting its offshoot and rival, the Islamic State group.

Hamza ’s exact date of birth remains disputed, but most put it in 1989. That was a year of transition for his father, who had gained attention for his role in supplying money and arms to the mujahedeen fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

As the war wound down, Osama bin Laden would launch a new group that sought to leverage that global network for a broader jihad. They named it , or “the base” in Arabic.

Already, had met and married Khairiah Saber, a child psychologist from ’s port city of Jiddah. She gave birth to , their only child together, as took its first, tentative steps toward the Sept. 11 attacks.

“This boy has been living, breathing and experiencing the life since age zero,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow at Pembroke College at Oxford University who studies Hamza .

’s attacks against the U.S. began in earnest in 1998 with the dual bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. Its 2000 suicide attack against the USS Cole off Yemen killed at least 17 sailors.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001. The coordinated hijacking of four U.S. commercial flights killed nearly 3,000 people and prompted the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan seeking to topple ’s ally, the Taliban, and capture Osama bin Laden. The leader escaped, splitting from his family as he slipped into Pakistan. That was when , 12 at the time, saw his father for the last time – receiving a parting gift of prayer beads.

“It was as if we pulled out our livers and left them there,” he wrote of the separation.

He and his mother followed other members into Pakistan. From there, they crossed the border into Iran, where other leaders hid them in a series of safehouses, according to experts and analysis of documents seized after the U.S. Navy SEAL team raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Eventually, Iran put the members on its soil into custody, holding them reportedly on military bases or in other closed compounds.

His Iranian detention ended up keeping Hamza and the other members safe as the U.S. under Bush and later President Barack Obama waged a campaign of drone strikes targeting militants across the Mideast. ’s half brother Saad escaped Iranian custody and made it to Pakistan, only to be immediately killed by an American strike in 2009.

During this time, married an supporter, a daughter of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, an Egyptian who the U.S. says helped plan the November 1998 embassy attacks. They had two children, Osama and Khairiah, named after his parents.

In March 2010, and others left Iranian custody. He went to Pakistan’s Waziristan province, where he asked for weapons training, according to a letter to the elder . His mother left for Abbottabad, joining her husband in his hideout

On May 2, 2011, the Navy SEAL team raided Abbottabad, killing Osama bin Laden and his son Khalid, as well as others. Saber and other wives living in the house were imprisoned. again disappeared.

In August 2015, a video emerged on jihadi websites of Ayman al-Zawahri, the current leader of , introducing “a lion from the den of ” – Hamza .

Since then, he has been featured in around a dozen messages, delivering speeches on everything from the war in Syria to Donald Trump’s visit to on his first foreign trip as U.S. president. His frequent messages have raised speculation that the terror group may be trying to plan for the future by putting forward a fresh face.

Still, what’s happening within remains a mystery. Hamza hasn’t been heard from since a message in March 2018, in which he threatened the rulers of .

“Will he be successful? We don’t know. Will he live long to do what his father was able to do? We have no idea. We might drone him tomorrow,” said , the former agent. “But this is the plan. This is what they wanted to do. This is what he is destined, I believe, to do from the beginning.”

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Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

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