Despite the reported death of the son and heir apparent of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden, U.S. officials warn the global terror group remains a significant threat to the United States.
The officials refused to confirm the death of Hamza bin Laden, said to have been killed in a U.S.-involved operation sometime in the past two years. But they warned Thursday that regardless of his status, al-Qaida should not be underestimated.
“What we see today is an al-Qaida that is as strong as it has ever been,” State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Ambassador Nathan Sales told reporters during a briefing intended to focus on the terror group’s main rival, Islamic State, also known as IS or ISIS.
“Al-Qaida has been strategic and patient over the last several years,” Sales said. “It’s let ISIS absorb the brunt of the world’s counterterrorism efforts while patiently reconstituting itself.”
“They’re very much in this fight and we need to continue to take the fight to them,” he added.
The U.S. assessment of al-Qaida is in line with a recent United Nations report, which described the terror group as “resilient.”
“Groups aligned with al-Qaida are stronger than their ISIL counterparts in Idlib, Syrian Arab Republic, Yemen, Somalia and much of West Africa,” the report said, using another acronym for Islamic State.
Like the U.N. report, Sales focused U.S. concern on a series of “active and deadly” al-Qaida affiliates, including al-Shabab, which has been operating in Somalia and Kenya, as well as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
AQAP, in particular, has repeatedly been cited as perhaps the most threatening of all al-Qaida affiliates by U.S. officials for its advanced bomb-making capabilities and its desire to strike the U.S.
“No one should mistake the period of relative silence from al-Qaida as an indication that they’ve gotten out of the [terror] business,” Sales said.
Still, some counterterrorism analysts caution that despite al-Qaida’s savvy long-term planning and relative strength, the reported death of up-and-coming leader Hamza bin Laden, if confirmed, would be a severe blow.
“The death of Hamza, particularly as Osama bin Laden’s son, removes what could have been a powerful voice for the global jihad from the scene,” said Katherine Zimmerman, a research manager with the Critical Threats Project. “Hamza had begun to pick up his father’s mantle to carry on the legacy.”
At the same time, Zimmerman and others warn al-Qaida leadership is more than capable of recovering, even with evidence that current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is in poor health.
Hamza bin Laden “was not going to be the successor to Zawahiri,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst and CEO of Valens Global.
“While there’s not a great deal of high-profile leaders in al-Qaida, at least in respect to those who are recognizable in Western press reporting … they have a fairly deep bench,” he said. “I think it would be very foolish to think that Hamza bin Laden is the only one, even though he’s very identifiable.”
Talk about a possibly weakened al-Qaida began gaining momentum Wednesday, after NBC News reported U.S. officials had intelligence that Hamza bin Laden had been killed.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday refused to confirm the death, or possible U.S. involvement, when questioned by reporters on the White House lawn.
“I will say Hamza bin Laden was very threatening to our country. And you can’t do that,” Trump said. “But as far as anything beyond that, I have no comment.”