Osama bin Laden has long been the star of Al Qaeda's propaganda operations. In his effort to paint the United States as an enemy of Islam – if not all of humanity – he's tailored and timed his comments in an effort to sway US elections, global warming policies, and decisions to deploy troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lurking behind all of it is always a threat that a new "spectacular" attack like the 9/11 plane crashes in New York and Washington that murdered almost 3,000 people will be carried out if, say, President Barack Obama sends more troops to Afghanistan.
But as the years have gone by without his threats backed up by solid action – no successful attack has been carried out by his group on US soil since 2001 – his comments have increasingly been treated as empty. The color-coded "threat level" alerts favored by US cable news networks in response to each Al Qaeda missive or tape in the years after those attack are now firmly a thing of the past.
While Al Qaeda central, as the group's founding leadership now based in Afghanistan and Pakistan is often called, has increasingly become irrelevant to the planning and execution of attacks on civilians in the US, there was something decidedly odd about Bin Laden's latest threat in an audiotape aired by the Arab language Al Jazeera on Thursday. (See audiotape below.)
Addressing the US desire to execute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed if he is found guilty for his involvement in organizing the 9/11 attacks – he has confessed to planning the murders both to an Al Jazeera journalist before his capture in Pakistan in 2003 and since, during questioning by military interrogators at Guantánamo Bay – Bin Laden said: "When America makes this decision, it will have made a decision to execute whoever of you is held prisoner by us."
Mr. Mohammed was close to Bin Laden and has claimed involvement in a number of attacks – both failed and successful – on US interests. But while such a threat would probably be ignored in any case, it's even less credible than normal, since Al Qaeda has already made a habit of killing US citizens in its custody. Mohammed himself was long believed to have personally murdered kidnapped American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, a crime he admitted to while at Guantánamo, according to the Pentagon.
At least five Americans and civilians have been kidnapped and gruesomely executed by Al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq. Given the group's track record of attacks on Americans – stretching back to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 – one would assume that the chances of survival for any American who falls into Bin Laden's hands are low, whatever happens to Mohammed.
"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," a US counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. "They may have forgotten Danny Pearl and all the others they've slaughtered, but we haven't."