Dozens of young Americans have posted videos on TikTok this week expressing sympathy with Osama bin Laden, the notorious terrorist who orchestrated the September 11 attacks, for a two-decade-old letter he wrote critiquing the United States, including its government and support of Israel.
The letter, which attempts to justify the targeting and killing of American civilians, was first published in 2002. It began to recirculate this week on the social media platform, and videos on the topic had garnered at least 14 million views by Thursday. Many of the videos, which supported some of Bin Laden’s assertions and urged other users to read the letter, were shared in the wider context of criticism of American support for Israel in its ongoing war against Hamas.
TikTok said on Thursday that videos promoting the letter violate its rules against “supporting any form of terrorism.” The company said the number of videos promoting the letter were “small” and added “reports of it trending on our platform are inaccurate.”
TikTok declined to provide specific data to support this assertion.
TikTok is hugely popular with young Americans, with a majority of Americans under 30 using the app at least once a week, according to a KFF survey. Many of TikTok’s users were born after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks when 19 men hijacked commercial airliners, intentionally crashed the planes, and killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City, Washington, DC, and rural Pennsylvania. The attack was orchestrated by Bin Laden, the former leader of the al Qaeda terrorist group who was killed in a US special forces raid in 2011.
TikTok’s design makes it difficult to precisely measure how popular or widespread a sentiment is on the platform, but an initial CNN review found a few dozen videos overtly praising or sympathizing with the sentiments expressed in the letter, which is titled “Letter to America.”
Many of the videos were shared with the hashtag #lettertoamerica. By Thursday, views of those videos had exceeded 14 million, yet some videos were from users expressing frustration and disgust about the letter and how it was being praised by others on the platform.
In one video no longer available on the platform that had been viewed more than 1.6 million times, a New York-based lifestyle influencer encouraged others to read the letter and said, “if you have read it, let me know if you are also going through an existential crisis in this very moment, because in the last 20 minutes, my entire viewpoint on the entire life I have believed, and I have lived, has changed.”
The video was later removed. CNN has reached out to the user for comment.
In another video viewed more than 100,000 times, a TikTok user who regularly posts criticisms of the American government said of the letter, “If we’re going to call Osama bin Laden a terrorist, so is the American government.”
A White House spokesman slammed the apparent online trend in a statement, calling it an insult to the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks.
“There is never a justification for spreading the repugnant, evil, and antisemitic lies that the leader of al Qaeda issued just after committing the worst terrorist attack in American history – highlighting them as his direct motivation for murdering 2,977 innocent Americans,” deputy press secretary Andrew Bates told CNN.
“No one should ever insult the 2,977 American families still mourning loved ones by associating themselves with the vile words of Osama bin Laden,” Bates added, “particularly now, at a time of rising antisemitic violence in the world, and just after Hamas terrorists carried out the worst slaughter of the Jewish people since the Holocaust in the name of the same conspiracy theories.”
Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, explained that TikTok incentivizes high engagement at all costs. The platform “is utterly ruthless about whether it uses hate, disinformation, or positive content to keep you addicted.” As such, “the smart takes aren’t the ones that succeed. It is the dumb takes that get the most virality on a platform like TikTok.”
Ahmed, who has been studying the rise of conspiracy theories among young people, told CNN that TikTok “claims to be an entertainment machine” but is really “an indoctrination machine.” Right now, “we have no visibility nor any control over the algorithms that are shaping the minds of young people in America today,” he explained.
The letter itself is a broad critique of American foreign policy that is also filled with antisemitic tropes and even repeats the conspiracy theory that AIDS was a “Satanic American Invention.”
There is a particular focus on US support for Israel. “It brings us both laughter and tears to see that you have not yet tired of repeating your fabricated lies that the Jews have a historical right to Palestine,” it reads.
Peter Bergen, a CNN National Security Analyst who produced the first television interview with Osama bin Laden in 1997, said he finds the virality of the letter “puzzling.”
“Most of the people were either not born or were very young children when Bin Laden and 9/11 happened, so they don’t have much historical context.”
Bergen, who has written several books on the deceased terrorist, remains skeptical of the letter’s origin. “There’s no proof it was written by bin Laden and some of the things that he focuses on are inconsistent with his other writings,” he told CNN.
On Wednesday, The Guardian newspaper, which first published a translated copy of the letter in 2002, removed it from its website after TikTok users linked directly to the document. In a statement, the newspaper said the letter “published on our website 20 years ago has been widely shared on social media without the full context. Therefore we have decided to take it down and direct readers to the news article that originally contextualized it instead.”
The letter, however, is still available elsewhere online.
New data from the Pew Research Center released Wednesday shows TikTok is rapidly becoming a place where more and more young Americans get their news.
Nearly a third of Americans ages 18-29 regularly get news from TikTok, according to Pew – and overall, the share of US adults who say they regularly get their news from TikTok has quadrupled from 3% in 2020 to 14% in 2023.