Is Hamza Bin Laden Dead? When And Where Did He Die? What Does It Mean For Al-Qaida?
The US government thinks that al-Qaida’s heir apparent Hamza bin Laden is dead. But it remains unsure. Journalists have asked President Trump multiple times, who is declining to comment. However, in an important report on the purported death, a US intelligence official told New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi that Hamza died from injuries in a December 2017 US strike in the Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal region.
It so happens that my information from December 2017 aligns with Callimachi’s reporting. But some context first. I work on US counterterrorism, al-Qaida, and South Asia security issues. Part of my research is on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, on which I have published (here and here) in academic journals of international relations. After President Trump announced his South Asia policy in 2017, which implied an accelerated targeting campaign against the Afghan Taliban in the Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal region, I prepared to track US strikes with the help of local sources. In addition to insurgent harm, I was keen on tracking civilian harm in the US strikes in the region, which was a major concern in the US campaign in Pakistan from 2008 to 2014. (P.S. I counted 14 strikes and 3 civilian deaths from 2017 to 2018. The US government hasn’t carried out a strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas since July 2018.)
In December 2017, I learned from a good source in Afghanistan’s Paktika province that on December 10, the US and Afghan special forces raided compounds of the Pakistan Taliban’s Khalid Sajna faction and the Afghan Taliban’s Pir Afgha faction in the Margha region. In that raid, the special forces injured Hamza bin Laden and killed at least five members of the Khalid Sajna faction.
After this raid, the US and Afghan special forces appeared to have conducted two more raids in the same region, in what the source speculated was a search for the injured Hamza. On December 14th, the special forces raided the tented bazaar of Waziristan refugees in Laman area, in which 3 civilians were injured. On December 15th, they raided the Margha bazaar area, where the fighting with the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan Taliban went on for six days.
On December 31, 2017, as the press had not reported this, I tweeted about Hamza’s injury in response to Ali Soufan’s tweet regarding the death of Hamza’s son.
Given the absence of a eulogy from al-Qaida for Hamza, which is typical for senior figures in the organization, I am not fully convinced of Hamza’s death. Arguably, for transnational terrorist leaders like Hamza, the upside to faking death is significant—it can ease the pressure of the US government’s mighty counterterrorism machine. For now, however, I am leaning towards his death as the Bin Laden family is telling journalist Cathy Scott Clark that Hamza has passed away. Clark is the co-author of a prolific book on the flight of Bin Laden and his family since 9/11, The Exile (which I highly recommend).
Assuming Hamza is dead, two implications are key. First, the December 2017 date of his injury/death is significant—in ways more than the news of Hamza’s death itself. It suggests that Hamza’s death is unlikely to further undermine al-Qaida’s trajectory. As Hamza was not formally designated to succeed Zawahiri, his contribution to al-Qaida’s overall health was limited. In the 18 months since Hamza’s apparent injury/death, key indicators (UN January report here, UN July report here, and the State Department CT coordinator’s assessment here) suggest that al-Qaida continues to build in South Asia, Arabian Peninsula, Middle East, and Africa. Zawahiri has put out a lot of messages in this period as well. It is likely that by now al-Qaida’s central leadership has devised a new succession plan. To be sure, the news of his death will hurt the morale of al-Qaida cadres, who have an affinity for Hamza. It will also dent Hamza-led propaganda efforts to inspire attacks against the US and allied interests, and complicate the group’s leadership succession.
Second, the politics of the region where Hamza was reportedly injured highlights what may be on the horizon in Afghanistan—specifically against the backdrop of vigorous peace negotiations between the United States and Afghan Taliban. It appears that Hamza was being hosted by the Pakistan Taliban, and maybe even the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistan Taliban’s continued collaboration with al-Qaida is unsurprising. It hosted al-Qaida in Waziristan from 2003 to 2014. After Pakistan Taliban’s move to Afghanistan, the relationship between the two seems to have remained robust.
Moreover, the Afghan Taliban are the major arbiters there—they have long had good control in Paktika province. At the time of the raid, the Afghan Taliban’s shadow governor for Paktika was commander Pir Agha. Another key Afghan Taliban/Haqqani Network commander in the region was Bilal Zadran, who has long been close to al-Qaida. Over the last year, the Afghan Taliban have moved their shadow governors around. Until recently, Pir Agha was governor of the Nangarhar province and Bilal was governor of the Kunar province.
The ties between a diverse set of regional and transnational militant actors in eastern Afghanistan are important. They deserve attention of those trying to grapple with the implications of a peace settlement between the US and Afghan Taliban. Such political arrangements are unlikely to go away, at least easily, in case of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan.