Dec. 1, 2011 — -- In a newly released audio message, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri claims that his organization is holding hostage Warren Weinstein, a 70-year-old American who went missing in August in Pakistan.
Zawahiri's statement is the first official claim of responsibility by any group in relation to the kidnapping, and a U.S. official said the statement buttressed earlier "indications" that al Qaeda might be holding the American.
"I tell the captive soldiers of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and our female prisoners held in the prisons of the crusaders and their collaborators, we have not forgotten you and in order to free you we have taken hostage the Jewish American Warren Weinstein," says Zawahiri in the 30-minute statement, which appeared on jihadi websites Thursday and otherwise focuses mainly on the situation in his native Egypt.
The leader of Al Qaeda addresses Weinstein's family, telling them that "your government tortures our prisoners, but we have not tortured your prisoner." He also warns them not to trust President Obama's assurances that everything is being done to secure Weinstein's release, accusing the president of wishing "[Weinstein] would be killed to get rid of his problem."
A U.S. official told ABC News that although there has been no "proof of life" offered by al Qaeda or its allies that proves they have Weinstein, there were already "indications" he may be held by al Qaeda.
"The documents from bin Laden's hideout show his frustrated deputies were considering kidnapping and other criminal enterprises as a means of striking for their weakened state," said the official. Zawahiri assumed the leadership of al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. strike on his Pakistan hideout in May.
"It's entirely possible that al Qaeda or one of its militant allies may be holding Mr. Weinstein," said the official, "and the statement by Zawahiri supports this conclusion. The U.S. government is following every lead to help find Mr. Weinstein."
Zawahiri: Obama Has the Power to Free Weinstein
In exchange for Weinstein's release, Zawahiri requests the lifting of the Israeli "siege" of the Gaza strip, the complete end of "bombings by America and its allies in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Gaza," the release of all al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners and the closing down of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo bay, Cuba, in addition to the release of members of Osama bin Laden's family.
"Obama has the power, capacity and authority to free [Weinstein]," says Zawahiri. "He could also leave him in captivity for years and, if he does something stupid, kill him."
In August, Pakistani police arrested three men in connection with the kidnapping. Weinstein, a private U.S. citizen who has lived in Pakistan for seven years, was sleeping in his bed when assailants burst into his home to snatch him. The former USAID worker is currently employed by the private U.S.-based development firm J.E. Austin Associates.
All three suspects are from the same province in which Weinstein lived, an area far from the turbulent tribal regions near the Afghan border more usually associated with violent attacks. The men were arrested after investigators managed to track their cell phone numbers, the Lahore police chief said without elaborating.
Some in Pakistan have speculated privately that Weinstein was not a development worker, but instead worked in intelligence for the U.S. Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah publicly announced his suspicions, telling local media that Weinstein was involved in "quite suspect" intelligence-gathering for the U.S. government and comparing him to Raymond Davis, the American CIA contractor who was jailed in Pakistan earlier this year for shooting two men on the streets of Lahore.
U.S. diplomats said Weinstein is not connected to any U.S. intelligence groups.
Weinstein is the first private citizen to be kidnapped in Pakistan since al Qaeda operatives abducted and murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.
On the new tape, Zawahiri also acknowledges for the first time the death of his number two, al Qaeda deputy leader Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, in a CIA drone strike in Pakistan's tribal area in August. One senior U.S. official described his death at the time as "a tremendous loss for al Qaeda, because Zawahiri was relying heavily on him to help guide and run the organization, especially since bin Laden's death." According to U.S. officials, Atiyah was the "operational leader" of the terror group.