The heir apparent to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda throne has died, according to NBC’s sources in the US government, but it’s not clear when or how. Hamza bin Laden had been AQ’s hope for a re-ascendence in the terrorist hierarchy after its former offshoot ISIS mostly collapsed over the last two years. Without bin Laden’s son, and with Ayman al-Zawahiri growing old, the network may not have any cohesive central figure around which they can organize:

The United States has obtained intelligence that the son and potential successor of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Hamza bin Laden, is dead, according to three U.S. officials.

The officials would not provide details of where or when Hamza bin Laden died or if the U.S. played a role in his death.

Asked by reporters on Wednesday whether the U.S. had intelligence that Hamza is dead, President Donald Trump said, “I don’t want to comment on that.”

Is he really dead, though? The New York Times sounds skeptical:

Mr. bin Laden had been mistakenly pronounced dead before, when officials thought he had died in the SEAL raid to kill his father. Two years ago, there was also a failed attempt to kill him, according to three officials.

Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies noted on Twitter on Thursday that Al Qaeda-affiliated channels on Telegram, the messaging app, had been discussing the reports of Mr. bin Laden’s death, but there has been no official confirmation or denial from Al Qaeda’s general command.

We should all be a little skeptical until solid evidence develops publicly. Hamza had been asserting himself as a leader of AQ, although not the leader, with occasional exhortations to terrorists within the network about the joys of martyrdom. More recently, Hamza had called for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy — another pet cause of his father — and attacks on Israel. Those recordings came from 2015, and the lack of action from those suggest that Hamza was less of an operational leader and more of an inspirational figurehead, someone Zawahiri could use for recruitment and loyalty rather than a true successor. Had his father issued tapes like that, it would have signaled the start of attacks.

If that’s the case, the loss will still hurt AQ but may not cripple it, if Hamza is in fact dead at all. Zawahiri will lose the opportunity to keep the bin Laden brand alive and with it any argument for supremacy among radical-Islamist terror networks, but it won’t set them back operationally. The threat remains regardless of whether Hamza is alive or pining for the fjords, and we should not be taking our eyes off the ball either way.

In case anyone’s wondering about the headline, here’s the classic Monty Python sketch: