‘Eye-opening’ is what some TikTokkers call Bin Laden’s letter in videos in which they call on others to read his so-called Letter to America. One user said he was experiencing “an existential crisis” after reading the letter: “In the last twenty minutes, my entire perspective on the entire life I have believed in and lived has changed.”
A compilation of these types of videos, that one https://twitter.com/yashar/status/1724942399431217457 was shared by American journalist Yashar Ali, has now been viewed more than 40 million. Individual videos of social media users talking about the letter have been viewed more than a million times in some cases. The hashtags LetterToAmerica and BinLaden were also trending on Instagram and Twitter last week, according to American media.
Although some experts doubt this, it is generally believed that bin Laden wrote the Letter to America, which was first published in 2002. In the letter he tries to justify the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the 2,977 civilian casualties that occurred. According to him, the US deserved this because the country had been attacking Muslims in Afghanistan and Somalia, among other places. His letter focuses mainly on the oppression of Palestinians in Israel, which the US supported, according to Bin Laden.
The letter also contains anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, such as that Jews control the American economy and media, and have thus ‘enslaved’ Americans. The conspiracy theory that the disease AIDS is a ‘satanic American invention’ is also reflected in the letter.
The White House has condemned the re-emergence of the letter, calling it an “insult” to the families of the victims. “There is never any justification for spreading the disgusting, evil and anti-Semitic lies of the leader of Al-Qaeda,” a spokesperson told CNN.
Why is this letter suddenly receiving attention again more than twenty years later? This has everything to do with the war between Israel and Hamas that is currently being waged in the Gaza Strip, says Jelle van Buuren, associate professor of terrorism and counterterrorism at Leiden University.
He speaks of a ‘historical lesson’ that some Americans are unexpectedly presented with. “Suddenly some people realize that the role of Israel and the US in the Middle East has been a point of contention for regimes and parts of the population there for much longer,” he says. “Bin Laden’s criticism of Palestinian oppression by Israel and the US thus takes on new meaning for some people in the current context.”
According to Van Buuren, this example shows how some young people now read the letter in a different way because they miss part of the historical context. “Young social media users did not experience 9/11 themselves, or never really consciously experienced it,” he says. “They now see the intense images in Gaza and that gives this letter a different meaning.”
That is a ‘mechanism’ that occurs more often, Van Buuren explains. “During intense conflicts, there are always people who see opportunities to bring attention back to events from the past that had faded away a bit,” he says. “Especially in these digital times when documents, such as this letter, can be reproduced at any time.”
Do these social media videos – which speak of a “revelation” after reading the letter – mean that bin Laden is suddenly popular again among a young generation of Americans? Even though it has caused a real riot on social media, it will probably not cause such a storm.
According to https://twitter.com/jason_koebler/status/1724926681897693236 it is only a small niche on TikTok. While some videos on the topic have been viewed more than a million times, that’s not even a lot for TikTok. The number of videos in total about the letter is also low compared to the usual numbers on the platform.
Moreover, some of those videos actually criticized the renewed attention for the letter and Bin Laden’s glorification of violence. News channel NBC News further points out that most creators do not say that they approve of the 9/11 attacks, but that they are critical of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Some of the TikTokkers later made a second video saying they were against terrorism or violence.
Letter taken offline
According to the American media platform Vox, the letter only really came into the spotlight when the media started paying attention to it, the White House responded, and Republican politicians took the opportunity to once again call for a ban on TikTok. Since then, social media platforms have removed videos of the letter and blocked hashtags, and The Guardian newspaper pulled the original letter from its website – which may have actually sparked more curiosity.
It is difficult to say whether this is dangerous, says Van Buuren. “The circulation of this type of propaganda can perpetuate terrorist or extremist ideas, but whether that will really be the case we can only say over time.”