‘Letter to America’: Some TikTok users say they sympathize with Osama bin Laden

  • November 18, 2023

Dozens of young Americans posted videos on TikTok this week expressing sympathy for Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, for a dozen-year-old book criticizing the United States, including its government and support for Israel.

This book, which attempts to justify the targeting and killing of American citizens, was first published in 2002. It started going viral this week on social media, and videos on the topic had already garnered at least 14 million views by Thursday. Many videos, which supported some of Bin Laden’s claims and urged other users to read the book, were shared in a broader context of criticizing America’s support for Israel in its ongoing war with Hamas.

TikTok said Thursday that videos promoting the book violated its rules against “supporting any form of terrorism.” The company said the number of videos promoting the book was “small” and added that “its trending reports on our site are not good.”

TikTok declined to provide specific data to support this assertion.

TikTok is most popular among American teenagers, with the majority of Americans under the age of 30 using the app at least once a week, according to a KFF study. The majority of TikTok users were born after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when 19 men hijacked commercial airliners, deliberately crashed the planes, and killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City, Washington, DC, and rural Pennsylvania. The attack was inspired by Bin Laden, the former leader of the terrorist group al Qaeda who was killed during a raid by US special forces in 2011.

TikTok’s design makes it difficult to gauge exactly how popular or how widespread sentiment is on the platform, but CNN’s initial review found a dozen videos praising or sympathizing with the sentiments expressed in the book, titled “Letter to America.”

Many videos were shared with the hashtag #lettertoamerica. By Thursday, those videos had surpassed 14 million views, but other videos were of users expressing their frustration and disgust with the book and the way it was being praised by others on the platform.

In a video that is no longer available on the platform that has been viewed more than 1.6 million times, the New York lifestyle advocate encouraged others to read the book and said, “if you read it, let me know if you go too. in the crisis that exists at this time, because in the last 20 minutes, my whole view of the life I believe, and the life I live, has changed.”

The video was later removed.

In one video that has been viewed more than 100,000 times, a TikTok user who often posts criticism of the US government said of the book, “If we’re going to call Osama bin Laden a terrorist, so is the US government.”

A White House spokesman condemned the act, which appeared online in a statement, calling it an insult to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“There has never been any justification for spreading the despicable, vile, and counterintuitive lies spewed by the leader of al Qaeda after the worst terrorist attack in American history – highlighting it as his motive for killing 2,977 innocent Americans,” the deputy press secretary said. Andrew Bates told CNN.

“No one should insult the 2,977 American families who are still mourning loved ones by associating themselves with Osama bin Laden’s terrible words,” Bates added, “especially now, at a time of increasing anti-Semitic violence in the world, and in the wake of the terrorist attacks by Hamas. since the Holocaust in the name of the same conspiracy theories.”

Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Counting Digital Hate, explained that TikTok encourages high engagement at all costs. The platform is “not at all cruel in that it uses hate, misinformation, or good content to keep you hooked.” Therefore, “the wise takers are not successful. It’s the dumb stuff that gets a lot of power from a platform like TikTok. ”

Ahmed, who has been studying the rise of conspiracy theories among young people, told CNN that TikTok “says it’s an entertainment device” but it’s actually “an educational device.” Currently, “we have no visibility or control over the algorithms that are shaping the minds of young people in America today,” he explained.

The book itself is a broad critique of American foreign policy that is also full of antisemitic tropes and repeats the conspiracy theory that AIDS was “America’s Satan.”

There is a special focus on US support for Israel. “It brings us laughter and tears to see that you never tire of repeating your fabricated lie that the Jews have a historic right to Palestine,” it read.

Peter Bergen, the CNN National Security Analyst who produced the first televised interview with Osama bin Laden in 1997, said he found the authenticity of the letter “puzzling.”

“Most people weren’t born or were very young children when Bin Laden and 9/11 happened, so they don’t have a lot of history.”

Bergen, who has written many books about the dead terrorist, still doubts the origin of the book. “There is no evidence that it was written by bin Laden and some of his focus is inconsistent with his other writings,” he told CNN.

On Wednesday, The Guardian newspaper, which first published a translated copy of the book in 2002, removed it from its website after TikTok users linked directly to the text. In a statement, the newspaper said the book “which was published on our website 20 years ago has been widely circulated on social media without full content. So we decided to take it down and direct readers to the news article that originally had the context.”

The book, however, is still available elsewhere online.

New data from the Pew Research Center released Wednesday shows that TikTok is becoming a place where many young Americans get their news.

About a third of Americans aged 18-29 regularly get news from TikTok, according to Pew — and overall, the share of American adults who say they regularly get their news from TikTok will quadruple from 3% in 2020 to 14% in 2023 .