Osama bin Laden’s ‘Letter to America’ Goes Viral 21 Years Later — on TikTok

osama-bin-laden-letter.jpg Osama bin Laden born March 10, 1957. member of the prominent Saudi bin Laden family and the founder of the Islamic extremist organization al-Qaeda, best known for the September 11 attacks on the United States and numerous other mass-casualty attacks again - Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
osama-bin-laden-letter.jpg Osama bin Laden born March 10, 1957. member of the prominent Saudi bin Laden family and the founder of the Islamic extremist organization al-Qaeda, best known for the September 11 attacks on the United States and numerous other mass-casualty attacks again - Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

As a famous @dril tweet noted of the terrorist group ISIS, “You do not, under any circumstances, ‘gotta hand it to them.'” Yet amid the continuing horrors of the war between Israel and Hamas militants, as people struggle to make sense of the violence and escalating rhetoric, more than a few people are willing to give al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden credit for his 2002 polemic against the United States, published as an explanation of the ideology that led him to orchestrate the attacks of 9/11.

“I need everyone to stop what they’re doing right now and go read — it’s literally two pages — go read ‘A Letter to America,'” said TikTok user Lynette Adkins in a video posted to the platform on Tuesday, referring to the title often given to the text by bin Laden. “Come back here and let me know what you think. Because I feel like I’m going through like an existential crisis right now, and a lot of people are. So I just need someone else to be feeling this too.”

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Commenters felt similarly awestruck by the document. “Just read it.. my eyes have been opened,” wrote one. “Read our entire existence for filth and he did NOT miss,” another said of bin Laden’s criticisms of the U.S. The clip itself went viral, with other young TikTokers also sharing the letter approvingly, encouraging followers to read it. “We’ve been lied to our entire lives, I remember watching people cheer when Osama was found and killed,” wrote a 25-year-old user who posted the letter in full. “I was a child, and it confused me. It still confuses me today. The world deserves better than what this country has done to them.”

After they had racked up thousands of likes and views, TikTok took down these and similar videos. In a statement to Rolling Stone, a spokesperson for the platform said: “Content promoting this letter clearly violates our rules on supporting any form of terrorism. We are proactively and aggressively removing this content and investigating how it got onto our platform.” They also noted that the content “is not unique to TikTok and has appeared across multiple platforms and the media.” Indeed, similar sentiment could be found on Instagram and X, formerly known as Twitter.

Writing a year after 9/11, bin Laden noted in his message that he was seeking to answer two questions that had occupied American media since that terrible day: “Why are we fighting and opposing you?” and “What are we calling you to, and what do we want from you?” The first section is surely the most relevant to the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza, as it denounces the U.S. for helping to establish and maintain a Jewish state in the Palestinian territories. “The creation and continuation of Israel is one of the greatest crimes, and you are the leaders of its criminals,” bin Laden argued. “Each and every person whose hands have become polluted in the contribution towards this crime must pay its price, and pay for it heavily.”

Bin Laden expounded further about how the oppression of Palestine had to be “revenged,” going on to impugn Western imperialism and hegemony in broader terms, before shifting into a justification for killing civilians in his jihad. “The American people are the ones who pay the taxes which fund the planes that bomb us in Afghanistan, the tanks that strike and destroy our homes in Palestine, the armies which occupy our lands in the Arabian Gulf, and the fleets which ensure the blockade of Iraq,” he wrote. “This is why the American people cannot be not innocent of all the crimes committed by the Americans and Jews against us.”

While some of bin Laden’s judgments would not have been out of place in mainstream American politics of the era — he takes the U.S. to task for not signing the Kyoto Protocol treaty on restricting emission of greenhouse gases, for example — the letter is also interspersed with antisemitic tropes and hate speech. He repeatedly wrote that the country was dominated by Jews who “control your policies, media and economy,” elsewhere condemning homosexuality and fornication as “immoral,” and accusing the U.S. of spreading AIDS, which he termed a “Satanic American Invention.” As for what al-Qaeda wanted, bin Laden said that the U.S. had to renounce its culture of “hypocrisy” and become an Islamic nation.

The top Google Search result for “Letter to America” directs to a page on the website of The Guardian, which published it in 2002. For a while on Wednesday, social media-driven interest in the text made it the publication’s top-trending story — but then the outlet removed the letter, and replaced it with a brief message: “This page previously displayed a document containing, in translation, the full text of Osama bin Laden’s “letter to the American people,” as reported in the Observer on Sunday 24 November 2002,” it reads. “The document, which was published here on the same day, was removed on 15 November 2023.” No other explanation is offered.

The deletion prompted even more discussion on TikTok and X, where people questioned the editorial decision and asked for other links to the document. “Thankfully they can’t wipe our memories, or undo our further radicalization,” wrote an X user who said it was “no coincidence” The Guardian took the article down after it made the rounds online. “They really want us to stay ignorant,” wrote another. A third reader argued that bin Laden “was not the bad guy.” But many were shocked to see sympathy for — or agreement with — the terrorist who masterminded 9/11. “These so-called TikTok leftists praising Osama Bin Laden now?” tweeted one person in apparent disbelief. “How do you get radicalized to be ridiculous?”

If nothing else, it must be a sign of how polarized and angry Americans have become over a Middle East conflict that has already claimed thousands of lives, and the role the U.S. has played in the region for decades. You know things are dire when, for some people engaged in the debate, an extremist mass murderer starts making sense.

Subsequent reporting on this trend indicated that it might not have taken off the way it did if not for a compilation of the TikTok videos that was shared on X by journalist Yashar Ali. This supercut has been viewed more than 32 million times, compared to 2 million total views for TikToks using the #lettertoamerica hashtag before he posted it, according to the Washington Post. (The app has since removed this hashtag altogether.) It’s also likely that the Guardian‘s decision to remove the letter from their website only helped to amplify its contents — a phenomenon known as the “Streisand effect,” in which perceived censorship attracts further interest in a piece of information.

Still, Gen Z’s original fascination with the bin Laden document seems to have been organic. One influencer who uploaded a video about it that was later deleted from TikTok, who requested anonymity for their safety, tells Rolling Stone she had seen clips encouraging people to read “Letter to America” at least a week ago — and ignored them. This week, she claimed, TikToks discussing the letter were “all over” her For You Page.

UPDATE Nov. 16, 8:40pm ET: This story has been updated to include comment from TikTok, as well as more context about how the “Letter to America” videos and posts gained visibility.

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