Last week, al-Qaeda released an audio statement by a son of its founder to mark the 16th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks. The statement was the latest in a series of messages by Hamza bin Laden and the organization’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, since May last year. The frequency, content, and timing of the messages have triggered speculation: Is al-Qaeda positioning a son of its former charismatic leader to succeed its aging current leader? Speculation about a different leader for al-Qaeda also renewed questions about whether the groups would reconcile after Zawahiri dies, since he was party to their formal breakup in 2012.
Counter-terrorism expert Ali Soufan suggested this in a definitive profile of Hamza, saying that because Hamza has refrained from publicly attacking the Islamic State, he may succeed where Zawahiri failed in presenting a unified voice for the two jihadi giants.
But arguably al-Qaeda has no such intention. Recent messages instead suggest heightened confidence that the group has weathered the storm of the Islamic State since its rise in 2014. The promotion of Hamza, coupled with Zawahiri’s ridicule of the Islamic State and his praise of the legacy of its predecessor, suggest that al-Qaeda wants to position itself as the true heir of bin Ladenism and the unrivaled leader of global jihad.
The messages mark a notable change in tone in Zawahiri’s discourse. Hamza’s first recording last year followed one by Zawahiri on May 9 last year that marked a departure from his previous conciliatory remarks on the Islamic State. The messages signaled a newfound confidence within al-Qaeda and its Syrian branch, with both Zawahiri and Hamza suggesting that Syria was the most vital jihadi arena for the organization. Zawahiri later went further, calling for Iraqis to start a guerrilla war modeled on the early days of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later became the Islamic State. Along with praising Zarqawi as the most effective jihadi against the Shia, Zawahiri expressed unusually aggressive sectarian language against the Shia “Safavids” in Iraq — a shift from what long distinguished al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. A speech by Hamza two months after his first message also featured several photos of Zarqawi in the accompanying footage. The posturing indicated that a more secure al-Qaeda was seeking to appeal to the base of a declining Islamic State.
Furthermore, senior jihadis in Syria have dismissed Hamza’s leadership prospects. One notable cleric, who used to operate under Jabhat al-Nusra and who until recently remained in contact with senior al-Qaeda figures in Syria, said it would be “very hard” for Hamza to fill his father’s shoes. “The bin Laden spark is gone. Nobody in the jihadi world considers Hamza as anything — not an authority, not an inspiring figure, and certainly not someone who is capable of fulfilling his father’s dream. He doesn’t have the recognition his father had.” Hamza’s messages have barely registered in jihadi and Islamist spheres, and his latest on Syria sounded like a high school writing assignment. The content seemed outdated and out of touch: Hamza spoke about migration to Syria to support the mujahideen, when even Jabhat al-Nusra, now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has made no such request in recent years. His remarks would fit in the context of the open border and financial flow before 2014.
Bizarrely, the remarks also included an admonition of jihadis in Syria, saying they should visit refugee camps to renew their fighting zeal. The tone would seem patronizing to these jihadis, who regard themselves as better tuned to reality than members of al-Qaeda’s central command, whom some describe as living in a “bubble.” Even among members of “al-Qaeda Central,” other long-standing jihadi figures would feel more qualified than Hamza to become the next leaders of the organization. In terms of reconciliation with the Islamic State, such members have also refrained from publicly attacking the group. Additionally, they had deeper links with Zarqawi and his Iraqi networks prior to his death in 2006, as well as the former branch of al-Qaeda in Syria, according to a source familiar with recent communication between al-Qaeda operatives and Tahrir al-Sham’s leadership.
But even if al-Qaeda has members not seen by the Islamic State as hostile, the prospect of cooperation between the organizations is close to nil. Aside from the tensions between them, the groups’ tactical and strategic disagreements would make it hard to reconcile even if there is a genuine desire to cooperate. As I previously argued, the Islamic State’s failure to expand or retain territory is viewed by al-Qaeda as vindication of its gradual approach focusing on popularizing jihad; similarly, the Islamic State views al-Qaeda’s strategy as delusional and ineffective. Any push for cooperation, which is unlikely, would fail to reconcile their diametrically opposed tactics. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Al-Qaeda’s promotion of Hamza, its messages on Syria, and its posturing versus the Islamic State appear to merely be attempts to use his surname as a reminder that al-Qaeda is the heir of bin Ladenism and an affirmation of the group’s relevance.