CAIRO — 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 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 stated its interest to execute him. The day America will take such decision, it would have taken a decision to execute whoever we capture," bin Laden said, addressing Americans.
A U.S. counterterrorism official on Thursday dismissed the threat as absurd.
"It's the height of absurdity for anyone associated with al-Qaida to even suggest that now, at long last, they're going to start treating captives badly," said the counterterrorism official, who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity.
"They may have forgotten Danny Pearl and all the others they've slaughtered, but we haven't."
Desire to be a 'martyr'
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 Daniel Pearl. Pearl was found beheaded in Pakistan in 2002.
Mohammed, appearing in June 2008 for the first time since his capture five years earlier, said he would welcome becoming a "martyr" after a judge warned him that he faces the death penalty for his confessed role as mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Osama bin Laden "Yes, this is what I wish, to be a martyr for a long time," he declared.
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.
"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."
On the lam
It wasthe third message released by bin Laden this year. In the first, on Jan. 24, he claimed responsibility for a Dec. 25 attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound plane. "The message sent to you with the attempt by the hero Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is a confirmation of our previous message conveyed by the heroes of Sept. 11," bin Laden said.
Less than a week later, on Jan. 30, he blamed the U.S. and other Western industrial powers for global warming. "The effects of global warming have touched every continent. Drought and deserts are spreading, while from the other floods and hurricanes unseen before the previous decades have now become frequent," bin Laden said in the audiotape, aired on Al-Jazeera.
The three messages have been brief. It is possible, U.S. officials say, that all three of them were recorded around the same time and are being parceled out by al-Qaida media operations.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.