The foothills of the Spin Ghar mountain range, two dozen miles south of Jalalabad in the borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan, were once home to hundreds of olive plantations. For tens of thousands of acres, there used to be farms clustered along the banks of the Nangarhar Canal, a monumental hydroelectric irrigation project completed in the 1960s, when Afghanistan was safe and liberal enough to form a regular stop on the hippie trail from Europe to India and the Far East. By the turn of the new millennium, however, more than 20 years of continuous warfare had almost destroyed the canal’s capacity to pump water to the groves, all but killing what had once been a flourishing business. One day in the fall of 2001, with yet another foreign invasion brewing, a father sat with three of his young sons in the shade of one of the few remaining olive trees. Together, they performed a simple farewell ceremony. Then the father took his leave and disappeared into the mountains, heading for a familiar redoubt known as the Black Cave—or, in the local Pashto language, Tora Bora. “It was as if we pulled out our livers and left them there,” one of the sons recalled in a letter in 2009.
The boy who wrote that letter was Hamza bin Laden, a son of Osama bin Laden, who was then the leader of al-Qaeda. Hamza was to spend most of the next decade in captivity. Hamza grew up with a fervour for jihad and a determination to follow in the footsteps of his notorious father. And toward the end of his life, the older bin Laden began grooming Hamza for a leadership role. He even made plans for Hamza to join him in his secret compound in Abbottabad—the place where Navy SEALs ultimately shot him dead. But 16 years after their farewell under that olive tree, Hamza’s emergence as a jihadi leader, along with several of his father’s most trusted and competent lieutenants, portends an al-Qaeda resurgence. Today, it might seem like the Islamic State group is strong, as its followers attack and kill innocents in London and Manchester. But its power is dwindling, as it loses men and territory in Iraq and Syria thanks to an assault by Iraqi, Kurdish and American forces. Meanwhile, Hamza’s story—based on books, court documents, open-source intelligence, al-Qaeda videos and records seized from his father’s compound after his death in 2011, among other things—shows how IS’s parent organisation, al-Qaeda, is making a comeback—one with potentially deadly consequences for the West and the rest of the world.
In the months after 9/11 and the fall of the Taliban, as the US invaded Afghanistan, bin Laden family members and high-ranking al-Qaeda figures escaped to the Shia stronghold of Iran. That may seem like a surprising destination for some of the world’s most fervent Sunni extremists—men who pepper their public utterances with slurs about their Shia rivals. But in the wake of the attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, Iran was the one place in the Muslim world where America’s military and law enforcement apparatus could not apprehend them. The Iranian authorities deported most of the al-Qaeda members they captured, but they held on to a few high-value detainees to use as bargaining chips in hostage negotiations and other sticky situations. Among these valuable hostages were Hamza and his mother, Khayria, as well as three key figures: Abu Khayr al-Masri, the head of the al-Qaeda’s political committee, Abu Mohammed al-Masri, the head of its training camps, and Saif al-Adel, its chief of security and tactician.
Immediately following the trio’s arrest in Shiraz in April 2003, they were hauled off to Tehran and jailed for around 20 months in the dungeons of a building belonging to Iran’s feared intelligence apparatus. The top tier of al-Qaeda and their families were held incommunicado and without charge. Around the beginning of 2005, they were moved to a spacious military compound. But the prisoners were restive. In March 2010, the prisoners staged what one detainee later described as “a huge act of disturbance.” Masked, black-clad Iranian troops were ordered to storm the compound. The soldiers beat the men and some of the children and hauled off the senior detainees to solitary confinement, where they stewed for 101 days.
By 2014, al-Qaeda and IS had officially split. IS had not only conquered territory in Iraq and Syria but shocked the world, beheading Americans on tape and broadcasting its brutality. In the eyes of the West, al-Qaeda was no longer the most dangerous extremist group, and IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had become a new bin Laden. To some jihadis, however, Baghdadi was much more: He was the leader prophesied to bring about a worldwide Islamic caliphate. Baghdadi’s rise came at the expense of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader. The Egyptian may have inherited bin Laden’s portfolio and job title, but from his grave under the Indian Ocean, the sheikh could not pass on his aura. In July 2014, as the feud between IS and al-Qaeda grew, Zawahiri renewed his group’s bayat, or loyalty oath, to Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. At the time, it seemed a smart symbolic move to underline the illegitimacy of Baghdadi’s claim to supremacy. A year later, however, it emerged that Omar had succumbed to tuberculosis in April 2013; Zawahiri and al-Qaeda had pledged allegiance to a man who had been dead for 15 months. At a time when Zawahiri was already struggling to show his relevance in the age of IS, it seemed to confirm the worst fears about his leadership. But Zawahiri does not stand alone at the prow of al-Qaeda, and his crew has recently grown stronger—at a time when war with the West and its allies has weakened IS.
In an audio message recorded in May or June 2015, Zawahiri triumphantly introduced a man he called “a lion from the den of al-Qaeda.” After four years of silence following his father’s death, Hamza bin Laden’s voice was heard once again, and his words remained faithful to al-Qaeda’s message. He praised the leaders of al-Qaeda’s various spinoffs, insulted President Barack Obama as “the black chief of [a] criminal gang,” lauded the attacks on Fort Hood and the Boston Marathon, and called for jihadis to “take the battlefield from Kabul, Baghdad and Gaza to Washington, London, Paris and Tel Aviv.”
In his 2015 statement, Hamza called for the release of imprisoned al-Qaeda members, singling out the “sheikhs” whom he credits with his education while in captivity, including the Shura big three—Abu Khayr al-Masri, Saif al-Adel and Abu Mohammed al-Masri. “May God release them all,” Hamza entreated. His prayers were soon answered. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in the middle of its ascendancy in Yemen, had bombed the Iranian ambassador’s residence in Sanaa in December 2014. Sometime in 2015, it swapped them for al-Qaeda’s three top leaders in Iran, who got a hero’s welcome in Waziristan. The returning trio brought with them a combined century of experience in jihad. All three men were closely involved in al-Qaeda’s first major blow against the United States, the embassy bombings of 1998. And after a long absence, all three were now involved in global jihad.
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, led by a former commander in the Pakistani Taliban, aims to unify Sunni extremist jihadis across the region and “rescue” Muslims living in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Assam, Gujarat and Kashmir. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda’s Waziristani nerve center, Khorasan, continues to enjoy the protection of the Pakistani Taliban and the powerful Haqqani Network, which has ties to the Pakistani security services. On May 9, 2016, one day after Zawahiri issued his latest call for unity among the jihadi groups fighting in Syria, al-Qaeda posted a second audio message from Hamza. The statement reiterated Zawahiri’s plea for unity and urged jihadis to think of the Syrian conflict as a springboard to the “liberation” of the Palestinian territories. The implication was clear: Zawahiri was preparing Hamza, the sheikh’s son, to lead. And if ever al-Qaeda wants to reunite with its own wayward progeny, Hamza embodies that chance.
For today’s al-Qaeda, there is little profit in antagonising the West with spectacular terrorist attacks. Instead, its strategy for the present involves building up resources and territory in places like Syria, Yemen and North Africa while the world is distracted by the Syria conflict. When IS finally crumbles, however, the spotlight will return to al-Qaeda. At that point, they will strike, and strike hard. With bin Laden’s filial heir and ideological successors firmly back in the fold, and the group’s affiliates making territorial gains in Yemen and elsewhere, al-Qaeda once again has the means and the opportunity to attack. Hamza is just waiting for the right time.
[The writer of this article, Ali Soufan, was an FBI supervisory special agent from 1997 to 2005. He now runs the Soufan Group, a private intelligence firm. This story, first published in the Newsweek magazine, has been adapted from his new book, Anatomy of Terror.]