Bin Laden threatens to kill Americans if Khalid Sheik Mohammed is executed

By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010

Osama bin Laden has threatened that al-Qaeda will kill American captives if the United States executes self-avowed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed or other members of the terrorist network in U.S. custody.

The newly released message, which aired on the al-Jazeera network Thursday, comes as officials in Washington are wrestling with how prosecutions of those detainees should proceed.

Bin Laden refers broadly to "the captives you have taken from us" in the 74-second recording, but he specifically mentions only Mohammed, who U.S. officials have said could face the death penalty for his alleged role as the principal plotter of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"The White House has expressed its desire to execute him," bin Laden said, according to a translation provided by Flashpoint Partners, which is headed by terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann. "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."

U.S. officials dismissed the threat, saying it has long been clear that Americans captured by al-Qaeda cannot expect to live.

"It's the height of absurdity for anyone associated with al-Qaeda to even suggest that -- now, at long last -- they're going to start treating captives badly," said a U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter on the record. "They may have forgotten Danny Pearl and all the others they've slaughtered, but we haven't."

Pearl, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was killed by al-Qaeda-linked militants in Pakistan in 2002. After his capture, Mohammed said that he had beheaded Pearl "with my blessed right hand."

Al-Qaeda is not known to have any U.S.-born prisoners. But a Taliban group with close ties to al-Qaeda has been holding a U.S. soldier in Pakistan for months. Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl was captured near a U.S. military compound in Afghanistan in June.

Mohammed has previously expressed a desire to be executed in U.S. custody and die as a martyr.

He is among five alleged co-conspirators in the Sept. 11 plot being held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Obama administration was forced to retreat from a plan to prosecute Mohammed in civilian court in New York City. The White House recently signaled that Mohammed's trial is now likely to take place before a military tribunal.

Paul Pillar, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University and former CIA officer, said that bin Laden's new tape "takes advantage of the controversy over the issue of trying KSM . . . to sow additional fear among Americans." Whatever the trial venue, administration officials have treated the execution of Mohammed as a foregone conclusion. In January, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that Mohammed was "going to meet justice, and he's going to meet his maker. . . . He will be brought to justice, and he's likely to be executed for the heinous crimes that he committed."

Bin Laden's tape may have been a belated response to those remarks. He accuses President Obama of "following the footsteps of his predecessor in many important issues such as escalating the war in Afghanistan and unjustly treating our people that you took as captives."

Bin Laden's messages often air weeks after they are recorded and are thought to be carried by courier. The last tape aired in January. In it, he said that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

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