A newly-released video shows Hamza bin Laden’s wedding, providing the first publicly-available images of him as a young man.
The video, which is split into two segments, was found in the materials seized during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in May 2011. The CIA has released the footage, along with hundreds of thousands of other documents, images, and computer files.
Since mid-2015, al Qaeda has promoted Hamza as key figure in the jihadi movement. As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, has released messages from Hamza threatening America, calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government, and highlighting the importance of the jihad in Syria, among other topics.
While al Qaeda has repeatedly trumpeted Hamza’s voice, the group has not released any images of him as an adult. Instead, As Sahab has released only audio recordings from Hamza that were embedded in videos with images of other jihadist personalities.
On the most recent anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, for instance, al Qaeda embedded a previously available image of Hamza as a child in one of the World Trade Center Towers. That photo has been online for years. It is likely that al Qaeda has not publicized a more recent image of Hamza out of concerns for his safety. Al Qaeda has refused to show the faces of some of its men in the past, fearing that once a jihadist is publicly identified it will become easier for individuals to report his whereabouts to authorities.
The video of Hamza’s wedding is several years old, perhaps a decade, so the pictures of him are not current. But the images are more recent than those that were previously available.
FDD’s Long War Journal assesses that Hamza is the young man seen in the middle of the image above. His robe has a gold trim. Other members of the wedding party sing throughout the ceremony, but Hamza remains mostly quiet, only occasionally whispering to those around him, until he recites his vows.
FDD’s Long War Journal also assesses that the wedding took place in Iran, where Hamza was held in a form of house arrest or imprisonment on and off for several years. His marriage to the daughter of Abu Mohammed al-Masri, a senior al Qaeda military leader, has previously been discussed in The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight, a book by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, as well as in a profile authored by former FBI agent Ali Soufan for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
Along with other members of the bin Laden family, Hamza relocated to Iran after the 9/11 hijackings. At first, many al Qaeda figures were welcomed inside the country. But ultimately their stay on Iranian soil became a highly contentious issue. In a letter addressed to Ayatollah Khamenei, al Qaeda even demanded that the family members be released. Other files show that al Qaeda kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in order to force an exchange. Osama bin Laden’s correspondence shows that he and his lieutenants were also concerned that the Iranians would track Hamza or other family members after they were released.
While the situation over the al Qaeda hostages became acrimonious, the Iranians allowed other al Qaeda operatives to maintain what the US government has called a “core facilitation pipeline” on their soil.
Hamza’s wedding appears to have been a lighthearted affair, with the participants smiling, laughing and singing. There is no sign of security at the doorways or elsewhere.
Another senior al Qaeda leader, Mohammed Islambouli, is seen sitting next to right of Hamza (see above), or close by, throughout the video. Islambouli, an Egyptian who is the brother of Anwar Sadat’s assassin, also lived in Iran for years. The details of his time in the country are somewhat murky, but it appears that he was operational at some points. In Aug. 2006, al Qaeda announced that Islambouli had formally joined its group. More recently, in Oct. 2014, NPR reported that Islambouli may be directing al Qaeda’s so-called Khorasan Group, which was based in Syria and targeting the US. FDD’s Long War Journal has reported on Islambouli’s role in the past.
Hamza made good use of his time inside Iran. In an Aug. 2015 message, Hamza named his mentors as Saif al Adel, Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khayr, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, Sulayman Abu Ghaith — all of whom were senior al Qaeda figures detained alongside Hamza in Iran.
Even while inside Iran, Hamza wrote to his infamous father. “My beloved father, I was separated from you when I was a small child, not yet 13, but I am older now, and have attained manhood,” Hamza wrote in a July 2009 letter to Osama that was previously released. “You might not recognize me when you meet me, as my features have changed. Praise God, I live a stable life, and God has blessed me with a pious wife, and she has blessed me with a son who I gave your name, Osama, and a daughter who I named after the mother, Khayriyah.”
“I ask God to place their image in your eye,” Hamza continued in the missive to his dad. “He created them to serve you. Osama says hello to you.”
Hamza was finally released from Iranian custody sometime in mid-2010. In September of that year, Osama bin Laden wrote a letter (also previously released) to three of his sons, including Hamza, as well as one of his wives and grandchildren. The al Qaeda founder made it clear that the “Iranians are not to be trusted” and he wanted his wife to “leave everything behind,” just in case some sort of tracking device was implanted within her possessions. Osama worried about Hamza’s security after his release and suggested that he travel to Qatar, where he could lay low and study. Hamza’s brother, Khalid, thanked Allah for saving him from the “wicked Magi” (meaning the Shiite Iranians). Atiyah Abd al Rahman, Osama’s righthand man at the time, also complained bitterly about having to ensure Hamza’s safety.
After Hamza made his way into Pakistan, he received advanced training on explosives. After several years of grooming, he emerged as a prominent voice for al Qaeda.
And now the public can see a more recent image of his face than the one al Qaeda relies on in its propaganda.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.