Osama bin Laden threatened in a new message released Thursday to kill any Americans al-Qaida captures if the U.S. executes the self-professed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks or other al-Qaida suspects.
In the 74-second audiotape aired on Al-Jazeera television, the al-Qaida leader explicitly mentions Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan in 2003. He is the most senior al-Qaida operative in U.S. custody and is currently detained at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In 2008, the U.S. charged Mohammed with murder and war crimes in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. Pentagon officials have said they will seek the death penalty for him. Four of his fellow plotters are also in custody.
"The White House has expressed its desire to execute them. The day America makes that decision will be the day it has issued a death sentence for any one of you that is taken captive," Bin Laden said, addressing Americans.
A U.S. counterterrorism official said it is absurd for al-Qaida to suggest it is going to start treating captives badly.
"They may have forgotten Danny Pearl and all the others they've slaughtered, but we haven't," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss classified information.
The official did not confirm that the tape was authentic.
After his March 2003 capture in Pakistan, Mohammed described himself as the architect of numerous terrorism plots and even claimed that "with my blessed right hand," he had decapitated Wall Street Journal reporter Pearl. Pearl was found beheaded in Pakistan in 2002.
The U.S. is still considering whether to put Mohammed and the four fellow plotters on military tribunal. The Obama administration is also looking into recommendations for civilian trials, and is expected to announce a decision soon.
Al-Qaida is not known to be holding any Americans captive now. But the Haqqani group — the Pakistan-based Taliban faction closest to al-Qaida — is holding American soldier Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl who was captured in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009. It released a video of him in December.
Bin Laden also said President Barack Obama is following in the footsteps of his predecessor George W. Bush by escalating the war in Afghanistan, being "unjust" to al-Qaida prisoners and supporting Israel in its occupation of Palestinian land.
"The politicians of the White House were and still are wronging us, especially by supporting Israel and occupying our land in Palestine. They think that America, behind oceans, is safe from the wrath of the oppressed, until the reaction was loud and strong in your homeland," he said of the Sept. 11 attacks. "Equal treatment is only fair. War is a back-and-forth."
Bin Laden is believed to be hiding somewhere in the rugged, lawless border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The prospect of giving Mohammed and the four fellow plotters a civilian trial in New York City has led to protests by residents and relatives of Sept. 11 victims who fear that such a move could again make the city a terrorism target and that they should instead face a military trial.
Earlier this month, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said that if Obama agrees to try the five in military tribunals, he will press fellow Republicans to vote to close the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Graham told CBS television's "Face the Nation" March 7 that reversing Attorney General Eric Holder's plan to try the suspected terrorists in a civilian court in New York City would be seen as an act of leadership by the public. The White House is reviewing Holder's plan and no new recommendation has been presented to the president. A decision is not expected for several weeks.