Born into al-Qaida: Hamza bin Laden's rise to prominence

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Years after the death of his father at the hands of a U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan, Hamza bin Laden now finds himself in the crosshairs of world powers.

In rapid succession in recent weeks, the U.S. put a bounty of up to $1 million on him; the U.N. Security Council named him to a global sanctions list, sparking a new Interpol notice for his arrest; and his home country of Saudi Arabia revealed it had revoked his citizenship.

Those measures suggest that international officials believe the now 30-year-old militant is an increasingly serious threat. He is not the head of al-Qaida but he has risen in prominence within the terror network his father founded, and the group may be grooming him to stand as a leader for a young generation of militants.

"Hamza was destined to be in his father's footsteps," said Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent focused on counterterrorism who investigated al-Qaida's attack on the USS Cole. "He is poised to have a senior leadership role in al-Qaida."

"There is probably other intelligence that indicates something's happening and that's what put this thing on the front burner," he said.

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In this image from video released by the CIA, Hamza bin Laden is seen as an adult at his wedding. The never-before-seen video of Osama bin Laden's son and potential successor was released Nov. 1, 2017, by the CIA in a trove of material recovered during the May 2011 raid that killed the al-Qaida leader at his compound in Pakistan. The one hourlong video shows Hamza bin Laden, sporting a trimmed mustache but no beard, at his wedding. He is sitting on a carpet with other men. (CIA via AP)
In this image from video released by the CIA, Hamza bin Laden is seen as an adult at his wedding. The never-before-seen video of Osama bin Laden's son and potential successor was released Nov. 1, 2017, by the CIA in a trove of material recovered during the May 2011 raid that killed the al-Qaida leader at his compound in Pakistan. The one hourlong video shows Hamza bin Laden, sporting a trimmed mustache but no beard, at his wedding. He is sitting on a carpet with other men. (CIA via AP)
FILE - In this 1998 file photo made available on March 19, 2004, Osama bin Laden is seen at a news conference in Khost, Afghanistan. Bin Laden, was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, put there for his role in the 1998 deadly bombings of U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, appearing as Usama bin Laden. When he was killed in 2011, the FBI updated the list to include a large red-and-white "deceased" label atop his photograph. (AP Photo/Mazhar Ali Khan, File)
This image taken from video released by Qatar's Al-Jazeera televison broadcast on Friday Oct. 5, 2001 is said to show Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, at an undisclosed location. Al-Jazeera did not say whether the image was taken before or after the Sept. 11 attacks or how they obtained it. At right is bin Laden's top lieutenant, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri. Bin Laden is believed to have been at a celebration of the union of his al-Qaida network and al-Zawahri's Egyptian Jihad group. Graphic at top right reads "Exclusive to Al-Jazeera." At bottom right is the station's logo which reads "Al-Jazeera." (AP Photo/Al-Jazeera via APTN)
Hamza Ben Laden (ici lors de son mariage, probablement en Iran) terrorisme undated file video grab released by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on November 1, 2017 and taken by researchers from the Federation for Defense of Democracies' Long War Journal, shows an image from the wedding of killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden's son Hamza. The CIA has put online 470,000 additional files seized in May 2011 when US Navy SEALs burst into the Abbottabad compound and shot dead the leader of Al-Qaeda's global extremist network. According to Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, scholars from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who were allowed to study the trove before it was made public, it provides new insights. "These documents will go a long way to help fill in some of the blanks we still have about al Qaeda's leadership," Roggio said. The inclusion of Hamza Bin Laden's wedding video, for example, gives the world public the first image of Bin Laden's favorite son as an adult -- an image apparently shot in Iran.
Reprodução de imagem de vídeo divulgada pela CIA em 1º de novembro de 2017 mostra Hamza Bin Laden em seu casamento
Al Jazeera tv image purportedly showing Hamza bin Laden, a son of Osama bin Laden, handling wreckage of crashed US helicopter, Ghazni, Afghanistan,video still
Al Jazeera tv image purportedly showing Hamza bin Laden, a son of Osama bin Laden, Ghazni, Afghanistan, video still
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Much remains unknown about Hamza bin Laden — particularly, the key question of where he is — but his life has mirrored al-Qaida's path, moving quietly and steadily forward, outlasting its offshoot and rival, the Islamic State group.

Hamza bin Laden's exact date of birth remains disputed, but most put it in 1989. That was a year of transition for his father, who had gained attention for his role in supplying money and arms to the mujahedeen fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

As the war wound down, Osama bin Laden would launch a new group that sought to leverage that global network for a broader jihad. They named it al-Qaida, or "the base" in Arabic.

Already, bin Laden had met and married Khairiah Saber, a child psychologist from Saudi Arabia's port city of Jiddah. She gave birth to Hamza, their only child together, as al-Qaida took its first, tentative steps toward the Sept. 11 attacks.

"This boy has been living, breathing and experiencing the al-Qaida life since age zero," said Elisabeth Kendall, a senior research fellow at Pembroke College at Oxford University who studies Hamza bin Laden.

Al-Qaida's attacks against the U.S. began in earnest in 1998 with the dual bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. Its 2000 suicide attack against the USS Cole off Yemen killed at least 17 sailors.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001. The coordinated al-Qaida hijacking of four U.S. commercial flights killed nearly 3,000 people and prompted the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan seeking to topple al-Qaida's ally, the Taliban, and capture Osama bin Laden. The al-Qaida leader escaped, splitting from his family as he slipped into Pakistan. That was when Hamza, 12 at the time, saw his father for the last time — receiving a parting gift of prayer beads.

"It was as if we pulled out our livers and left them there," he wrote of the separation.

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NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: (FILE PHOTO) A fiery blasts rocks the south tower of the World Trade Center as the hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston crashes into the building September 11, 2001 in New York City. Almost two years after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, the New York Port Authority is releasing transcripts on August 28, 2003 of emergency calls made from inside the twin towers. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Sarasota, UNITED STATES: TO GO WITH AFP STORY 'Americans mark 9/11 anniversary with new questions on vulnerability' - (FILES) US President George W. Bush has his early morning school reading event interupted by his Chief of Staff Andrew Card (L) shortly after news of the New York City airplane crashes was available in Sarasota, Florida 11 September 2001. AFP Photo Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Americans mark 9/11 anniversary with new questions on vulnerability' - This 11 September 2001 file photo shows Marcy Borders covered in dust as she takes refuge in an office building after one of the World Trade Center towers collapsed in New York. Borders was caught outside on the street as the cloud of smoke and dust enveloped the area. The woman was caught outside on the street as the cloud of smoke and dust enveloped the area. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
New York, UNITED STATES: TO GO WITH AFP STORY 'Americans mark 9/11 anniversary with new questions on vulnerability' - (FILES) The rubble of the World Trade Center smoulders following a terrorist attack 11 September 2001 in New York. Americans mark the fourth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks Sunday nagged by new burning questions about their readiness to confront a major disaster after the debacle of Hurricane Katrina. AFP PHOTO/Alex Fuchs (Photo credit should read ALEX FUCHS/AFP/Getty Images)
394471 13: Firefighter Tony James cries while attending the funeral service for New York Fire Department Chaplain Rev. Mychal Judge, in front of the St. Francis of Assisi Church September 15, 2001 in New York City. Judge died while giving the last rites to a fireman in the collapse of the World Trade Center. The World Trade Center was destroyed after both the landmark towers were struck by two hijacked planes in an alleged terrorist attack on September 11. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 8: The 'Tribute in Light' memorial as seen from Bayonne, New Jersey, consists of two shafts of light to represent the World Trade Center Twin Towers, is tested before the fifth anniversary of 9/11 terrorist attacks September 8, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Sylwia Kapuscinski/Getty Images)

NEW YORK- SEPTEMBER 3: A wax replica of Thomas Franklin's photograph from September 11, is seen at Madame Tussaud's wax museum September 3, 2002 in New York City. The replica is to be part of an exhibit at the museum called 'Hope: Humanity and Heroism.' (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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He and his mother followed other al-Qaida members into Pakistan. From there, they crossed the border into Iran, where other al-Qaida leaders hid them in a series of safehouses, according to experts and analysis of documents seized after the U.S. Navy SEAL team raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Eventually, Iran put the al-Qaida members on its soil into custody, holding them reportedly on military bases or in other closed compounds.

His Iranian detention ended up keeping Hamza bin Laden and the other al-Qaida members safe as the U.S. under Bush and later President Barack Obama waged a campaign of drone strikes targeting militants across the Mideast. Hamza's half brother Saad escaped Iranian custody and made it to Pakistan, only to be immediately killed by an American strike in 2009.

During this time, Hamza married an al-Qaida supporter, a daughter of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, an Egyptian who the U.S. says helped plan the November 1998 embassy attacks. They had two children, Osama and Khairiah, named after his parents.

In March 2010, Hamza and others left Iranian custody. He went to Pakistan's Waziristan province, where he asked for weapons training, according to a letter to the elder bin Laden. His mother left for Abbottabad, joining her husband in his hideout

On May 2, 2011, the Navy SEAL team raided Abbottabad, killing Osama bin Laden and his son Khalid, as well as others. Saber and other wives living in the house were imprisoned. Hamza again disappeared.

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U.S. President Barack Obama stands after addressing the nation on TV from the East Room of the White House to make a televised statement May 1, 2011 in Washington, DC. Bin Laden has been killed near Islamabad, Pakistan almost a decade after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and his body is in possession of the United States. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski-Pool/Getty Images)
In this handout image provided by The White House, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of the national security team receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House May 1, 2011 in Washington, DC. Obama later announced that the United States had killed Bin Laden in an operation led by U.S. Special Forces at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)
A newspaper vendor displays papers heralding the death of Osama Bin Laden on May 2, 2011 in New York City. President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden during a late night address to the nation from the White House in Washington on May 1. The mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks was killed in an American military operation at a compound in Pakistan. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
US Marines of Regiment Combat Team 1 (RCT 1) watch TV as President Barack Obama announces the death of Osama Bin Laden, at Camp Dwyer in Helman Province, on May 2, 2011. US President Barack Obama said on May 1, 2011 that justice had been done after the September 11, 2001 attacks with the death of Osama bin Laden, but warned that Al-Qaeda will still try to attack the US. (Photo by Bay Ismoyo via AFP/Getty Images)
People celebrate in Times Square after the death of accused 9-11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was announced by U.S. President Barack Obama May 2, 2011 in New York City. Bin Laden was killed in an operation by U.S. Navy Seals in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Newspapers left by visitors grace the fence overlooking the crash site of Flight 93 following the announcement that Osama Bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan May 2, 2011 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Nearly 10 years after September 11, 2001 construction is underway to erect a formal memorial at the crash site. Last night U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the United States had killed the most-wanted terrorist Osama Bin Laden in an operation led by U.S. Special Forces in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
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In August 2015, a video emerged on jihadi websites of Ayman al-Zawahri, the current leader of al-Qaida, introducing "a lion from the den of al-Qaida" — Hamza bin Laden.

Since then, he has been featured in around a dozen al-Qaida messages, delivering speeches on everything from the war in Syria to Donald Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as U.S. president. His frequent messages have raised speculation that the terror group may be trying to plan for the future by putting forward a fresh face.

Still, what's happening within al-Qaida remains a mystery. Hamza bin Laden hasn't been heard from since a message in March 2018, in which he threatened the rulers of Saudi Arabia.

"Will he be successful? We don't know. Will he live long to do what his father was able to do? We have no idea. We might drone him tomorrow," said Soufan, the former FBI agent. "But this is the plan. This is what they wanted to do. This is what he is destined, I believe, to do from the beginning."

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Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap .

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