The death of another bin Laden and what it might mean

Here we go again.

After more than 1,000 blogs on terrorism it is inevitable that my readers will encounter some repetition. While I have tried to keep my writings new and fresh it is perhaps – I hope! – understandable that some topics will rise to surface more than once. After all, there are simply some issues that either occur with ongoing frequency or are important enough to comment on several times.

Today’s blog is one of those.

We are learning more about the death of Hamza bin Laden, one of the sons of former (as in dead) Al Qaeda (AQ) leader Usama bin Laden. The young man was allegedly killed, probably in 2017 in the border region of Afghanistan-Pakistan, by a US airstrike (details are still a little murky). Some analysts believe he was being groomed to take over the terrorist group in the wake of his dad’s death in May 2011. AQ has not officially announced that Hamza is dead – this is somewhat odd as many terrorist group’s make a big deal of publishing public eulogies of those ‘martyred’ in the cause.

So, how big a deal is this? Having followed initial reaction in several online news sources you would surmise that it is REALLY big. Here are some excerpts:

  • If confirmed, his death represents another blow to Al Qaeda, whose ranks were hollowed out by relentless American attacks and by the rise of the Islamic State.
  • “If it’s true that he is dead, then Al Qaeda has lost its future because Hamza was the future of Al Qaeda,” said the former F.B.I. agent and counterterrorism expert Ali Soufan.
  • “He was being prepared to lead the organization, and it’s very obvious from his statements that his focus was to bring back his dad’s message,”

But is it?

I don’t want to ignore this event as I have long said that a dead terrorist is a good terrorist. A dead terrorist cannot kill anyone or plan future attacks. Bin Laden’s removal has probably had some impact on AQ as it is now led by an uncharismatic old fart, Ayman al Zawahiri, and many members saw Hamza as not only younger but the son of the iconic founder of the organisation.

At the same time, AQ is still around. The death of a possible future leader will not likely cause the terror group to collapse, any more than Usama bin Laden’s death did. Remember how we felt when he died in a US Special Forces attack in Pakistan? Remember all who said “this is the end of AQ?”

I find it curious that we have this fascination with breaking down terrorist organisations. We need to know who’s in charge, who’s #2, who plans ops, who is responsible for propaganda, etc. We treat these groups as if they were Bell Canada or SNC Lavalin. And that is a mistake.

If we have learned anything over the past 20 years it is that terrorism is not like a Fortune 500 company. Some groups are more hierarchical but some are not. Deaths of leaders do not lead to the group’s destruction. In some ways the opposite happens: the removal of revered figures spurs more violence as retribution is sought. Terrorist groups soldier on and the results are all too familiar: more slaughter and more destruction.

I don’t know a lot about what the erstwhile saviour of AQ had to say so I cannot state that he will become an inspiration for others. I don’t know if he will be a catalyst in the same way Anwar al Awlaki is: he is the former Yemeni terrorist who, despite his death in 2011, continues to wield influence on thousands if not millions.

In the end we can afford a small celebration that Hamza bin Laden is dead. We must, however, not commit the critical error that this signals the end of anything, AQ included. This scourge and many like it will continue to carry out terrorist attacks. That is just the way it is.

Sorry for being a wet blanket. It is nevertheless important to be realistic in our analysis.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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