WASHINGTON — Never-before-seen video of Osama bin Laden’s son and potential successor was released Wednesday by the CIA in a trove of material recovered during the May 2011 raid that killed the al-Qaida leader at his compound in Pakistan.
The video offers the first public look at Hamza bin Laden as an adult. Until now, the public has only seen childhood pictures of him.
In recent years, al-Qaida has released audio messages from Hamza bin Laden. And to mark a recent anniversary of 9/11, al-Qaida superimposed a childhood photo of him over a photo of the World Trade Center. He is expected to rise to prominence in the jihadist movement and is being closely watched as the rival Islamic State organization suffers setbacks in the Middle East.
One hourlong video shows Hamza bin Laden, sporting a trimmed mustache but no beard, at his wedding. He is sitting on a carpet with other men. A man chanting Koranic verses can be heard in the background. Sporting a traditional white headdress, he verbally accepts his marriage to his bride “on the book of God and the example of the prophet. Peace be upon him.”
“Takbeer!” the others shout, marking his marriage with a kind of religious hooray.
It was the fourth trove of documents, images and computer files recovered during the raid of bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Earlier materials were released in May 2015, March 2016 and in January of this year.
The CIA said the nearly 470,000 additional files offer insights into the inner workings of the terrorist organization responsible for 9/11 and detail its clashes with the Islamic State group, a spin-off of al-Qaida’s operation in Iraq. They also shed light on hardships that al-Qaida faced at the time of bin Laden’s death.
Ties to Iran
Controversially, scholars from a Washington think-tank who were given access to the now de-classified trove say the documents also shed new light on al-Qaeda’s murky relationship with Iran.
According to Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, scholars from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who were allowed to see the trove before it was made public, it provides new insights.
“Today’s release … provides the opportunity for the American people to gain further insights into the plans and workings of this terrorist organization,” said CIA director Mike Pompeo.
According to Joscelyn and Roggio, writing in the FDD’s Long War Journal, one of the newly released documents is a 19-page study of Al-Qaeda’s links to Iran written by a Bin Laden lieutenant.
Last month, at a seminar hosted by the same FDD that had an advance look at the files, Pompeo had promised to release Abbottabad documents that would show Iran-Al Qaeda ties.
“There have been relationships, there are connections. There have been times the Iranians have worked alongside Al-Qaeda,” the US spy chief argued.
“There have been connections where, at the very least, they have cut deals so as not to come after each other.”
This raised alarm bells among critics of President Donald Trump’s new strategy to counter Iranian influence, wary that hawks like Pompeo may be making a case for war.
The full extent and true nature of this relationship is unclear and a matter of dispute among scholars and policy-makers.
On the one hand, Tehran and its largely Shiite proxy forces in the Middle East often fight against Sunni movements aligned with Al-Qaeda’s deeply sectarian ideology.
The Iranian backed Hezbollah, for example, is locked in conflict against Al-Qaeda linked Syrian rebels.
But the very fact that Hamza and other senior figures appear to be able to live under Iranian protection or custody supports claims that Tehran and Bin Laden had a working relationship.
One document, Joscelyn and Roggio write, recounts how Iran offered training, money and arms to some of Al-Qaeda’s “Saudi brothers” on condition they attack US interests in the Gulf.
But the files also show Tehran and Al-Qaeda sometimes had stark disagreements, and Bin Laden once wrote to Iranian leader the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to demand his relatives be released.
“Other files show that Al-Qaeda kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in order to force an exchange,” Joscelyn writes.
“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.”
In addition, Roggio and Joscelyn say, “Bin Laden himself considered plans to counter Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East, which he viewed as pernicious.”
Nevertheless, they argue, analysis of the intelligence points to Al-Qaeda having been able to maintain a “core facilitation pipeline” on Iranian soil.
Some in Washington are skeptical about the motives behind the release, coming after what the intelligence community had previously said was the last dump from the Bin Laden files.
Ned Price, a former CIA official who was seconded as a national security adviser to former president Barack Obama, said the new documents “don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.”
Instead, he argued on Twitter, Pompeo may have released the files to bolster the case against Iran as a sponsor of terror, pushing the United States closer to open conflict with Tehran.
“These moves suggest he’s reverting to the Bush administration’s playbook: Emphasize terrorist ties as a rationale for regime change,” Price warned.
Father of the groom
Included is a 228-page, handwritten personal journal of bin Laden and about 79,000 images and audio files, including practice reels of public speeches. Also released were home videos and more than 10,000 video files, including the one of Hamza bin Laden’s wedding.
After shouts of congratulations, the video moves to another location where the groom and others are sitting on a red carpet dotted with bowls of bananas and apples, bottles of cola, sweets and tea. The groom smiles nervously, revealing his dimples. Osama bin Laden is not seen, but a man notes that the “father of the groom, the prince of the mujahedeen” is overjoyed about his son’s marriage and his happiness will “spread to all the mujahedeen.”
At one point, a man stands up and offers a lengthy quiz on the history of Koranic verse, largely for the benefit of young boys in the group who compete to answer the questions. Red heart-shaped balloons decorate the room and in a second video of the wedding, the boys play a rough game of indoor soccer while the adults cheer.
Also included in the material is information about how al-Qaida planned to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the network’s work to spread its message through Western media; the group’s effort to exploit the Arab uprisings in 2011; bin Laden’s quest to keep his organization together amid disagreements over beliefs and operational tactics; and the organization’s work to burnish its image with fellow Muslims amid negative media.
There are still materials that have not yet been released. The CIA said this includes materials that are sensitive to national security; those protected by copyright; pornography; malware; and blank, corrupted and duplicate files.
Not all the material, however, was of a serious nature. There was a video known as “Charlie bit my finger!” depicting a boy and his baby brother who bit his finger. There also were YouTube videos about crochet, including “How to Crochet a Flower.”
And bin Laden’s video collection included “Antz,” a 1990s animated adventure comedy about an ant colony, “Chicken Little” and “The Three Musketeers.” Also in the collection were “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden” and several National Geographic programs: “Kung Fu Killers,” ”Inside the Green Berets” and “World’s Worst Venom.”