Al-Qaeda’s haphazard rebranding

11 July 2016 – Vancouver, CA

by Stewart Webb

Hamza bin Laden attracted international headlines with his 21-minute speech that was entitled “We Are All Osama”.  The speech was posted to a militant website and Hamza vowed revenge for his father’s death. It is a rallying cry on a personal level from the son of the world’s most notorious terrorist leader who was killed in an American raid. The intended purpose of this message is, of course, to revitalize the group with fresh blood and recruits. But is it enough to save the waning terrorist group?

Many have recently commentated that Hamza, who is believed to be in his mid-twenties, is the new face for al-Qaeda. Some speculation has arisen whether Hamza will be al-Qaeda’s future leader. It is true that al-Qaeda’s leadership is aging and that the organization that has been on the decline with the rise of ISIS. Having a fresh face with a blood relation to Osama bin Laden could prove to be beneficial for the group either as a spokesman or as a figurehead.

It is suspected that Hamza was with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan during the 9/11 attacks. During the fall of the Taliban, Hamza and his mother Khayriyah moved to Iran and were placed under house arrest in Iran, but was still in correspondence with his father.  It is unknown when his house arrest in Iran was lifted, but it was after the infamous Seal Team Six raid on the Abbottabad compound. Hamza was introduced in an audio message by Ayman al-Zawahiri last year. Hamza released an audio message in May and even called for the unification of all jihadist organizations, including ISIS. Given his affiliation and allegiance to his father’s organization, it would suggest that he was released within the past year.

Having a new face for al-Qaeda, ultimately, is not enough to revitalize the terrorist organization.

The Battle for the Ownership of the Global Jihad

This battle is one that was coined by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is common knowledge now that both al-Qaeda and ISIS have been vying for dominance. Recently, ISIS has been losing its territorial hold in Iraq and Syria and with that comes the degradation of its position as the dominant jihadist organization. At least this is the opinion of US Secretary of State John Kerry, while CIA Director Joh Brennan believes that ISIS is as dangerous as ever. In addition to the territorial lose, ISIS’ official social media presence has been reduced, however much of the ISIS social media presence is held by ISIS supporters and not by the organization itself. The ability for the group to radicalise potential lone wolves, new recruits or even passive supporters has not been affected as much as we would hope. ISIS is still inspiring lone wolf attacks and its franchises in Libya, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh demonstrate that the ISIS brand is still strong. ISIS has the market share of young jihadists and al-Qaeda is in desperate need to revitalise new membership, but also to remain relevant.The ISIS brand is still strong due to the fact that it has a decentralized structure abroad.

The al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden was definitely not decentralized. Al-Qaeda Central attempted to direct action with its franchises and control how those franchises operated. ISIS was an example of how a group could disenfranchise itself by not following al-Qaeda Central’s directives. The “We are all Osama” message may be part of a wider branding campaign. But in order for al-Qaeda to become the dominant jihadist group again, changes are in order. These changes may not sit well with the overall al-Qaeda leadership.

In order for the new branding campaign to work, Al-Qaeda and its successful franchises in Yemen (AQIM) and North Africa (AQAP) need to carry out several successful attacks within the very near future. If the message is that al-Qaeda is on the resurgence and that all jihadists are “Osama”. Al-Qaeda needs appear back on the map and therefore relevant. This means overall al-Qaeda activity needs to increase.

In addition to this, the al-Qaeda will need to inspire lone wolf attacks elsewhere in order for it to demonstrate that it has a wider jihadist audience. This means that al-Qaeda will need to become more social media savvy and not rely on older internet platforms as the group previously relied on.

AL-Qaeda has relied on chat rooms and the media to proliferate its message via the internet. Al-Qaeda’s messages have been audio messages with low production values, while ISIS has videos and a strong social media presence.  ISIS’ social media presence has been able to inspire not only lone wolf attacks, but even simple messages of support.

The “We Are All Osama” slogan is appealing and attractive. It is similar to the simple, yet powerful slogan of “Je Suis Charlie”. Given how the message was posted on a militant website and not through a social media account, it is doubtful that this means that al-Qaeda will be embracing the social media strategy of ISIS. Al-Qaeda needs more than just attractive messages and slogans. Regardless of what terrorist group, the use of electronic communication has several elements: indoctrination, recruitment, planning and coordination, propaganda, fundraising and data mining to determine who their audience is. Al-Qaeda seems to have lost this over the years.

Al-Qaeda is facing an uphill battle to regain the dominant title again. In order to become dominant jihadist group again, al-Qaeda will need to adopt ISIS social media tactics. “We are all Osama” may even turn into “We are all part of ISIS”. Al-Qaeda will need to adopt ISIS social media strategies in order to remain relevant. The question at hand is, of course, surrounding the future role for Hamza bin Laden. Is he just a simple spokesman attempting to bring some revitalization for al-Qaeda through pleas, or the beginning of a new al-Qaeda strategem to join the 21st century?

 

Feature Photo: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri c., 2001 – Wikimedia Commons, 2016

DefenceReport’s Analysis is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.


Stewart is the editor for DefenceReport. Stewart holds a MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and holds a BA in Political Science from Acadia University. His specialties include South Asian and Canadian defence issues. He has made frequent appearances on CTV National News, and other Canadian media outlets both radio and TV. Stewart can be contacted at: swebb@defencereport.com


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