WASHINGTON – When intelligence officials briefed President Donald Trump on the most disturbing terrorist threats during the first two years of his tenure, they regularly mentioned the names of terrorist figures the CIA was working to find and kill, including the head of Al Qaeda. , Ayman al-Zawahri.
Trump would ultimately give the green light to successful strikes against ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Yemeni al-Qaeda leader Qasim al-Rimi – perhaps the most important names on the target list US potential CIA.
But he was more interested in a younger, less influential figure much lower down the list, according to two people familiar with the briefings, because he recognized the name.
“He would say, ‘I have never heard of any of these people. What about Hamza bin Laden?’” Said a former official.
“It was the only name he knew,” added a Pentagon official.
Although Osama bin Laden‘s youngest son was not planning an attack, the United States eventually carried out an airstrike that killed him in 2018, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter. At first, officials weren’t sure about his fate, but in July, NBC News was the first to report that U.S. officials believed he was dead.
A review of the process that led to the strike on Hamza bin Laden sheds light on how Trump approached one of the President’s most important responsibilities in the post-9/11 era: deciding which of the enemies of the America must be marked for death.
Trump’s recent move to target Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani – in the face of intelligence suggesting Iran is seeking revenge for the death of the Quds Force commander by killing Americans – illustrates the high-stakes nature of such decisions. Improvements in weaponry and technology for finding targets have given this president deadly options his predecessors never had, but the greater freedom of action can make decisions more difficult.
Yet Trump – who doesn’t read or digest detailed intelligence assessments, current and former officials say – says he operates on instinct. “I have an instinct, and my instinct tells me more sometimes than anyone’s brain can ever tell me,” he said in response to a question about the economy in an interview in November 2018.
“The president’s highest priority is ensuring the safety of Americans,” said a senior administration official, who requested anonymity. “He and his administration have successfully targeted the world’s most dangerous and deadly terrorists in order to protect the American people, including Hamza bin Laden, al-Baghdadi, Qassem Soleimani and Qasim al-Rimi. These and countless other actions have been taken. removed dozens of high value targets illustrate this administration’s determination to defeat terrorism. “
The White House announced on February 7 the successful strike against al-Rimi, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, on February 7. He and Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS killed in a US commando raid authorized by Trump in October, were at the top of all intelligence priority lists, officials said.
But former CIA official Douglas London, who headed an agency unit targeting high-ranking terrorists in 2018, said what he called Trump’s “obsession” with bin Laden’s son “is an example of the president’s preference for a targeted assassination of a ‘celebrity’ as opposed to prioritizing options that might prove better for the security of the United States.”
In an article for the JustSecurity.com website, which London says has been reviewed and found to be unclassified by the CIA, he wrote: young, lacked battlefield experience and had not yet developed a serious supporters. “
Few or no counterterrorism experts argue that Hamza bin Laden was not a legal target. He called for attacks on Americans on behalf of a terrorist group with which the United States is at war, and he was seen by experts as a possible future Al Qaeda leader.
But the CIA’s assessment at the time was that he was not next in the line of succession and was not a major threat, according to London and other US intelligence officials who spoke under cover. of anonymity.
“Despite intelligence assessments showing the greatest dangers posed by Zawahri… and the unlikely likelihood of Hamza being in the line of immediate succession, the president thought differently,” London wrote. “He regularly requested updates on Hamza and insisted that we step up our efforts to continue him.”
Trump’s wishes “necessarily influenced the alignment of the intelligence community’s focus and resources,” London wrote in an unusual behind-the-scenes look at the covert terrorist targeting process.
London has suggested that politics may have been a factor in Trump’s decision-making.
“We have not escaped the problem that the president has insisted on the most to get results in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections,” he wrote.
The Pentagon, the State Department and various intelligence agencies were involved in the process of appointing Hamza bin Laden for murderous action, according to a former senior US official with direct knowledge of the matter.
But Hamza bin Laden was not a top priority until Trump’s exhortations swayed the extent to which the CIA devoted its scarce manhunt resources to hunting him down, according to the London account.
Exile in Iran
For a long time, Hamza bin Laden was an afterthought.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when the United States invaded Afghanistan, he was among bin Laden’s family members who traveled to Iran, where he lived for several years, some of whom were in detention, intelligence officials say.
But in August 2015, al-Zawahri appeared in a video and introduced the young bin Laden, calling him “the lion of al-Qaeda’s lair.”
Bin Laden did not appear in the video, but he said in an audio-only portion: “What America and its allies fear most is that we are taking the battlefield from Kabul, Baghdad and Gaza to Washington, London, Paris and Tel Aviv. , and to apply it to all American, Jewish and Western interests in the world. “
It quickly became a staple in Al Qaeda’s messages, and counterterrorism officials have taken note. The news media began to report the possibility that he was being groomed as a future terrorist leader. Following the death of senior official Bin Laden at the hands of the Navy SEALs in Pakistan in 2011, and amid the rise of the militant group Islamic State, or ISIS, al-Qaeda struggled for its relevance.
At the time of his father’s death, authorities believed Hamza bin Laden had settled in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Yet during the Obama administration little attention was paid to Hamza bin Laden, three former senior officials said. He was not included in intelligence assessments of the terrorist threat.
“I don’t remember a single meeting where we focused on Hamza bin Laden,” said Joshua Geltzer, who was the top counterterrorism official on the National Security Council until start of the Trump administration.
A former senior counterterrorism official added: “He had the name, but he didn’t have a lot of working relationships with people and he didn’t have battlefield experience.”
In November 2017, the CIA released documents seized during Operation Bin Laden, including a video of Hamza bin Laden’s marriage to the daughter of 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta.
Fox News presents Hamza
Trump was then president and the video sparked a wave of television coverage. Fox News, a privileged source of information for the president, devoted significant airtime to the publication of the CIA documents and the video of young bin Laden.
Within the US government – and among US allies, according to a senior Western intelligence official – there was growing concern that Hamza bin Laden could refresh the ailing brand of Al Qaeda.
But there is no evidence that he was involved in or even inspired any attacks, experts say.
“It is not at all clear that Hamza presented a real and serious threat of inspiring attacks,” said Seth Jones, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who advises the US government.
But Jones said he believed Hamza bin Laden was a justifiable target.
Nonetheless, he said, “I don’t recall a case where I saw an interrogation of a terrorist who said he was inspired by Hamza bin Laden.”
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Last March, the US government announced a million dollar award for information helping to locate Hamza bin Laden. There was consensus that such a move was warranted, officials said.
Still, the size of the award was telling. This pales in comparison to the $ 10 million offered to top al-Qaeda official Saif al-Adel or the $ 25 million the United States once offered to top al-Qaeda official.
“Hamza bin Laden is wanted for questioning in connection with his membership of the al-Qaeda organization and his public statements threatening the security of the United States”, indicated the wanted notice.
But at that point, officials now believe Hamza bin Laden was already dead.
Al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahri and his main lieutenants are believed to be alive and well.