WASHINGTON — For the first few years after the September 11 attacks, any audio or video-taped message from Osama bin Laden prompted an almost immediate reaction from the U.S. intelligence community, and within a day or two, verification of its authenticity.
But as time went by, intelligence and counterterrorism officials decided they were no longer going to give credibility to what they considered the al Qaeda leader's hateful messages. There would be virtually no comment, not even to verify his identity. As one official put it to me at the time, "It has never not been him." However, I would still make the perfunctory call after each new bin Laden tape, knowing full well I would get a "no comment."
But Thursday's audio message purportedly from bin Laden apparently struck a chord. In the message first aired on al-Jazeera TV, bin Laden threatens to kidnap and kill Americans if the U.S. executes Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or any of the other suspected al Qaeda terrorists awaiting trial in the U.S.
A U.S. counterterrorism official (who is not authorized to speak on the record) dashed off a response to bin Laden's latest threat. "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. They may have forgotten Danny Pearl and all the others they've slaughtered, but we haven't."
Danny Pearl was the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan in 2002. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed took responsibility for the Pearl killing in a written declaration submitted to a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay.
The U.S. official also said that "if this is bin Laden and he wants to weigh in on legal proceedings involving 9/11 conspirators, I challenge him to show up in court to make his case. Frankly, that's about all the comment this deserves."
Why comment now? The counterterrorism official told me bin Laden's remarks were "so ridiculous" that the official felt compelled to respond. What really bugged this person was the reference to starting to kill Americans. "They started doing that 10, 12, 15 years ago," said the official.