One of the sons of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is emerging as the new leader of the militant group, according to the State Department.
The United States is offering a reward for information on Hamza bin Laden, thought to be about 30-years-old and based near the Afghan-Pakistan border, of $1 million.
The State Department’s Counter-Terrorism Rewards Program posted the reward on its website late Thursday. “He has released audio and video messages on the Internet, calling on his followers to launch attacks against the United States and its Western allies, and he has threatened attacks against the United States in revenge for the May 2011 killing of his father by U.S. military forces,” the State Department said.
Hamza bin Laden is married to the daughter of Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker and a mastermind of al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Hamza’s father, Osama bin Laden, was killed by U.S. Navy Seals in Pakistan in 2011. According to letters found by the Navy Seals during the raid on his hideout in Pakistan, Hamza wrote to the Saudi-born al-Qaeda leader asking to be trained to follow him. The letters indicate Osama bin Laden was grooming Hamza to replace him.
Since Osama bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda has been led by Ayman al Zawahiri, a trained surgeon who was born in Egypt. It is not immediately clear why, if the State Department’s assessment is accurate, he is relinquishing power to Hamza bin Laden.
The United Nations Security Council added Hamza bin Laden to its sanctions list on Thursday, meaning that he is now subject to an assets freeze and travel ban.
Two years ago the CIA released a massive trove of files that were found on a computer in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Audio and video footage included with these documents appeared to indicate that Hamza bin Laden’s wedding was held in Iran, according to an analysis by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Michael Evanoff, an assistant secretary for diplomatic security at the State Department, said that while Hamza bin Laden is likely hiding near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan he may try to cross into Iran or even head toward south central Asia.
“He could be anywhere, though,” he said in a Thursday news briefing.
Osama bin Laden, the son of a Saudi construction and real estate development billionaire, is believed to have fathered at least 20 children from half a dozen wives and he himself was the 17th of 52 children. The letters uncovered in Pakistan after he was killed suggest that Hamza bin Laden may have been one of his favorites.
Al-Qaeda grew out of a resistance group in Afghanistan in the 1980s that was fighting the Soviet Union, which invaded the country in 1979. Osama bin Laden joined this group and then helped develop it with money and weapons supplied by the CIA. When the Soviet Union withdrew from the country in 1989, the U.S. government referred to these guerrilla fighters – mujahideen – as “freedom fighters.”
However, Osama bin Laden quickly became frustrated with what he viewed as a corrupt Saudi Arabian government and Middle East that was being undermined and denigrated by the United States’ presence in the region. Under his leadership, al-Qaeda expanded its focus to call for attacks on Americans, Jews and their allies.
Al-Qaeda bombed U.S. troops in Aden, Yemen, in 1992, shot down U.S. helicopters and killed American soldiers in Somalia in 1993, carried out the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing up to 300 people and injuring more than 5,000. In 2000, it conducted a suicide attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden, with an explosive-laden boat, killing 17 U.S. Navy sailors.
The four U.S. commercial jets that al-Qaeda members deliberately crashed on 9/11 – two into the World Trade Center in New York City, one into the Pentagon, and one into a field in Pennsylvania – took the lives of nearly 3,000 civilians, police and first responders. The dead included nationals from at least 77 countries.
The Islamic State militant group in recent years has overtaken al-Qaeda in terms of international attention, foreign recruits and the number of attacks on western targets.
According to the Global Terrorism Index 2018, compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace think tank, of the 18,814 deaths caused by terrorists around the world last year, well over half are attributed to just four groups: ISIS (Iraq and Syria), the Taliban (Afghanistan), Al-Shabaab (East Africa) and Boko Haram (Nigeria).
More: ISIS bride Hoda Muthana’s family files lawsuit against Trump
More: Told to leave, ISIS ‘caliphate’ holdouts in Syria stay devoted
Between 2015 and 2017, according to the index, 69 percent of terror-related deaths caused by al-Qaeda occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa. While historically the group has been most active in the Middle East, its focus has turned toward Africa in order to “seize on the power vacuum left by the Arab Spring (2010 democracy uprisings and anti-government protests),” according to the Institute for Economics and Peace.
But al-Qaeda remains a potent force, with upward of 30,000 active fighters in at least 17 countries. Together with its affiliates it is responsible for three of the world’s five
deadliest terrorist attacks in recorded history: the two attacks against the World Trade Center in 2001 and an Al-Shabaab car bombing in Mogadishu in 2017.
Nathan Sales, a counter-terrorism expert at the State Department, said it remains a problem for the West. “Al-Qaeda has been relatively quiet. This is a strategic pause, not a surrender,” he said in the briefing alongside Evanoff on Thursday. “Al-Qaeda is not stagnant. It’s rebuilding and it continues to threaten the United States and its allies … Make no mistake, al-Qaeda retains both the capability and the intent to hit us.”