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Letterman threat on Al Qaeda website is no laughing matter

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(Read caption) Letterman threat: In this photo provided by CBS, Ford president and CEO Alan Mulally joins host David Letterman on the set of the “Late Show with David Letterman,” Wednesday Aug. 3, in New York.

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TV funnyman David Letterman gets fan mail all the time, plus crank notes and the occasional threat. They can make good grist for the next night’s show. But his latest viewer missive is a little creepy and a lot darker.

Someone calling himself Umar al-Basrawi posted a death threat on an Al Qaeda message board called shumukh al-Islam.

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Because of jokes Mr. Letterman has made about Osama bin Laden and Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri, another Al Qaeda leader killed by a US strike in Pakistan in June, Mr. Basrawi in essence put out a contract on the host of CBS’s “Late Show.”

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“To the righteous Muslims in America: Isn’t there a man among you who can cut off the tongue of this lowly Jew and silence him forever?” he wrote. (Letterman was raised in the Presbyterian Church, but never mind.) “He showed his evil nature and deep hatred for Islam and Muslims.”

The New York Police Department and the FBI are looking into it.

“It could be a total hoax, and it probably is, but in this world of mass communication, something that seems frivolous can intensify if it gets picked up by the wrong people,” Charles Strozier, director of the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told AM New York.

There’s a history to such threats involving charges of blasphemy against artists and entertainers perceived as making light of or insulting Islam.

Novelist Salman Rushdie lived under police protection for years after Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran issued a fatwa declaring that Mr. Rushdie should be killed for having written “The Satanic Verses.”

Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard drew death threats and attempted attacks for having drawn an image of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban.

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“South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were subsequently threatened when they satirized the Westergaard controversy, depicting Muhammad wearing a bear suit.

And in the Netherlands, filmmaker Theo van Gogh, whose 2004 film “Submission” examined abused women in some Islamic societies, was killed by a Dutch-Moroccan citizen Mohammed Bouyeri, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Neither CBS nor Letterman (who’s off the air while on vacation) has commented on the threat.

"In general, you cannot write any of these off as a non-viable threat. These Internet threats have been a rallying cry to 'have the guy's head,' " Don Borrelli, former assistant special agent in charge of the FBI-NYPD joint terrorism task force, told the New York Daily News. "If I am the guy targeted in one of those things, I would be taking it seriously and hunker down."