In this image from video released by the CIA Nov. 1, 2017, Hamza bin Laden is seen on an undertermined date at his wedding.
FILE - In this image from video released by the CIA, Nov. 1, 2017, Hamza bin Laden is seen on an undetermined date at his wedding.

WASHINGTON - The son and heir of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden is presumed dead, apparently killed in a U.S.-supported operation, according to reports.

Officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the suspected death of Hamza bin Laden, believed to be in his 30s, Wednesday as first reported by NBC News.

The New York Times subsequently reported the younger bin Laden had been killed within the past two years in an operation that involved the U.S. in some capacity. But officials told the Times the government had yet to confirm his death and refused to share additional details.

The U.S. had been offering a reward of up to $1 million for information leading to the capture or death of Hamza bin Laden, who was by his father’s side when al-Qaida launched the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks against New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Groomed from an early age

According to letters found at Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Hamza bin Laden had been groomed from an early age to one day take command of his father’s terror group.

The correspondences, recovered by U.S. forces following the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, also indicated the al-Qaida founder had been hoping his son might be able to join him in Pakistan in what turned out to be his final days.

But notes to the former al-Qaida leader from senior operatives expressed concern it would not be possible to safely smuggle Hamza bin Laden out of Iran, where he had been placed under house arrest.

Prominent voice

In recent years, Hamza bin Laden had become an increasingly prominent voice within al-Qaida, first having been officially introduced to the terror group’s followers by current al-Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri in a 2015 audio recording.

The U.S. first designated Hamza bin Laden as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in January 2017.

In his most recent video, issued in March 2018, Hamza bin Laden picked up on one of his father’s favorite themes, denouncing the founders of Saudi Arabia’s current monarchy as traitors to Islam. He also blamed the kingdom’s close ties with the U.S. for the deaths of “hundreds of thousands” of Muslims.

Previously, Hamza bin Laden also issued multiple calls for attacks on the U.S. to avenge his father’s death.

A blow to al-Qaida

According to former FBI agent and counterterror expert Ali Soufan, the operation to kill Hamza bin Laden could have far-reaching implications.

“Hamza’s death will be a significant blow to al-Qaida’s future plans on passing the leadership to the younger generation, and to reunifying the salafi-jihadi movement under another Bin Laden,” Soufan told VOA via email.

“There are probably other veteran al-Qaida operatives ahead of him in the pecking order, so I doubt that he was next in the group’s line of succession,” Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VOA. “But there’s no question al-Qaida groomed him to be a key leader, someone who could articulate his father’s conspiratorial worldview to a younger generation of jihadists.”

Threat of al-Qaida has not ended

How al-Qaida will now seek to win over younger jihadists is not the only question facing the terror group, which has been competing with the Islamic State terror group for followers and for pre-eminence within the jihadist movement.

“For al-Qaida, this has left the group without a charismatic and recognizable voice, which may limit its presence on the global stage,” said Katherine Zimmerman, a research manager with the Critical Threats Project. 

“But the decapitation strategy does not end the threat al-Qaida poses to the U.S.,” she added.

United Nations report

A United Nations report released to the public this week, based on the intelligence of member states, said terror groups aligned with al-Qaida appear to be stronger than their IS-aligned rivals. But it also raised concerns about al-Qaida’s central leadership.

“The immediate global threat posed by al-Qaida remains unclear, with Aiman Muhammed Rabi al-Zawahiri (sic) reported to be in poor health and doubts as to how the group will manage the succession,” the U.N. report said.

Hamza bin Laden was married to the daughter of al-Qaida senior leader Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah.

Abdullah was charged in the U.S. in connection with the August 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, which killed 224 people and wounded thousands of others.

Hamza bin Laden is also thought to have had at least one son, named Usama.

In December 2017, al-Qaida insiders distributed a letter purportedly from Hamza bin Laden, in which he announced the death of the then-12-year-old Usama.

“In the last few days of his life, as he was playing with the other children, he used to enact his own martyrdom, throwing his body on the ground and shutting his eyes and smiling a simple smile like this is the way I will be when I become a martyr,” the letter said, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.