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Hamza bin Laden, son of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama, may be dead — or not

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Numerous outlets including NBC News, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal are reporting that Hamza bin Laden, the son and presumed heir of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, may have been killed, citing unnamed US intelligence officials.

“The officials would not provide details of how Hamza bin Laden died or if the U.S. played a role in his death,” notes NBC News, which first reported the death on Wednesday. “The death occurred some time in the past two years, said the officials, but confirmation came only recently.”

For most news events, independent reporting from three major media outlets would be enough to be reasonably sure that a story is true. But when it comes to the death of a senior terrorist leader, there’s reason to be skeptical.

We’ve been through this before

Just take the case of the notorious one-eyed Algerian terrorist and senior al-Qaeda operative Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who has been reported “killed” so many times — only to be discovered still alive shortly after — that his death has become a running joke among terrorism analysts.

Or take the case of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive leader of ISIS, who has been reported injured or killed numerous times. In 2015, the Guardian reported that Baghdadi had been grievously wounded in an airstrike and was no longer in control of the terror organization. A few months later, the New York Times reported that “rumors that he was killed or injured this year have been dispelled.”

In June 2017, Russia’s defense ministry said Baghdadi had been killed in an airstrike in Syria; the head of the defense committee in Russia’s upper parliamentary house is quoted as saying a week later that “this information is close to 100 percent,” according to Reuters, which also paraphrased him saying that “the defense ministry would not have released information about Baghdadi’s death if it believed it could be later proved incorrect.”

Baghdadi is, of course, still alive — just a few months ago, ISIS released a video in which the leader appeared in good health; he even explicitly mentioned several recent events, proving the video wasn’t made very long ago.

And then, of course, there’s the case of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who died in April 2013 — but whose death the Taliban leadership kept secret even from their own fighters for two more years, only finally admitting he was dead in 2015.

Why it’s so hard to know for sure if these guys are really dead

So what’s the deal? Are all of these reports just fake news? If by “fake news,” you mean “news outlets purposely publishing known lies,” then in nearly all of these cases, the answer is no, probably not.

To understand why these reports so often turn out to be false, you need to remember the kinds of environments these terrorist leaders are usually operating in: chaotic war zones like Syria, or the tribal areas on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border where the legitimate governments of both have little to no control and local warlords and militias reign supreme.

In those places, it’s not like you can just send a few police officers or government officials over to the local hospital morgue to identify a body and then hold a press conference to confirm that a terrorist leader has in fact been killed.

Instead, US intelligence officials have to rely on intercepted communications between terrorist operatives, often unreliable reports from other countries’ intelligence agencies, internet chatter, local media reports of airstrikes and bombings, and other sources to try to piece together an accurate picture of what’s going on.

And keep in mind that these terrorists are also some of the most hunted men in the world, and they know it. Which means that they are very, very careful to make sure their communications can’t be easily intercepted.

So the information intelligence agencies are working with is fragmented at best. And for journalists, who are yet another step removed from the raw intelligence, the picture can be even blurrier.

Even when the US is directly involved in the killing of a terrorist operative, as was the case with the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the public may never know all the details of exactly what happened.

That’s because the intelligence community may not want to disclose details of its operations that could potentially reveal classified sources and methods it used to find and kill the target, or because certain details (like exactly what was done with bin Laden’s body) may be seen as too politically sensitive to reveal right away.

If Hamza bin Laden is dead, it’s still not clear how much it even matters for al-Qaeda

None of this is to say for sure that Hamza bin Laden isn’t dead. These reports could very well prove accurate. But until we have an official, on-the-record confirmation from the US government or al-Qaeda (or, ideally, both), it’s good to remain a bit skeptical.

But let’s assume for a moment that he is dead. Who is he, exactly? And what would his death mean for al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that killed nearly 3,000 people on September 11, 2001?

In the years since 9/11, al-Qaeda’s power and influence has declined steadily as the US and its allies relentlessly hunted down its leaders, disrupted its finances, and foiled plot after plot. The death of Osama bin Laden, the group’s charismatic leader, in 2011, and the stunning rise of ISIS just a few years later turned the once-powerful terrorist juggernaut into yesterday’s news.

As I’ve written previously, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama’s second-in-command who assumed leadership of the organization when bin Laden died, has neither the charisma nor the jihadi warrior qualifications of his predecessor, and his lackluster leadership has further contributed to the decline in status of the al-Qaeda organization.

Many observers believed that Hamza, the young, millennial scion of the group’s founder, could be the answer to al-Qaeda’s prayers. Unlike Zawahiri, who is approaching his 70s, Hamza is only in his 30s (he’s thought to have been born in 1989).

As the Wall Street Journal reports, Hamza “was the only known son of Osama bin Laden who was still aligned with the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Another son was killed along with his father in 2011 during a Navy SEAL raid on their compound in Pakistan. A third son has distanced himself from al Qaeda.”

Hamza has been a known member of his father’s terror organization for years, and though Zawahiri is still functionally the boss, Hamza has long been talked about as a possible successor to the al-Qaeda “throne,” earning him the nickname the “Crown Prince of Terror.”

“Even at the age of 16, Hamza appeared, imprecating dire threats against the West, in a video made for his older brother Mohamed’s wedding,” British historian and scholar Michael Burleigh wrote in the Telegraph in 2011. Burleigh continued:

He read the verses: “Accelerate the destruction of America, Britain, France and Denmark. Oh God, reward the fighters hitting the infidels and defectors. God, be pleased with those who want to go for jihad – and blind those who are watching and want to capture them.” It was this ditty which won him his Crown Prince nickname.

In more recent years, Hamza has issued numerous statements calling on fighters to rise up and avenge his father’s death.

It’s unclear whether Hamza had ever taken steps to follow through on his rhetoric and plan attacks on the US, but the Wall Street Journal notes that “U.S. officials had become increasingly concerned in recent years about Hamza bin Laden’s repeated threats and calls for attacks on Americans at home and abroad as well as against U.S. allies.”

It’s also unclear where, exactly, Hamza has been hiding out for all these years. As the New York Times notes:

The location of Mr. bin Laden had been the subject of public speculation. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he and other members of Al Qaeda fled to Iran, where they were detained. He was eventually allowed to leave Iran, then reportedly moved with his family to the Pakistan border region. At one point, intelligence showed that he had traveled to Syria in the past several years, former officials have said.

But if Hamza is truly dead, the prospects of him one day seizing the mantle of leadership and restoring al-Qaeda to its former (horrific) glory are dead too.

So while we should remain skeptical about reports of his death at this stage, it’s not too soon to hope they might be true.

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