It’s been more than 22 years since 9/11 and more than 12 since Osama bin Laden’s death. But the al-Qaida leader’s open “Letter to America” attempting to justify the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks is suddenly being shared online as the Israel-Hamas war rages in Gaza.
What was in the letter?
The two-page document, which was written in Arabic and translated into English, was first published by the Guardian newspaper in 2002 and is filled with conspiracy theories and antisemitic tropes.
In it, bin Laden explains the ideology that led him to orchestrate the 9/11 attacks the year before, accusing the United States of being responsible for the oppression of Palestinians because of its support for Israel.
“The creation and continuation of Israel is one of the greatest crimes, and you are the leaders of its criminals,” bin Laden wrote. “Each and every person whose hands have become polluted in the contribution towards this crime must pay its price, and pay for it heavily.”
Why did it go viral?
Earlier this week, several TikTok users — including some with large followings — encouraged their followers to read the letter.
“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,’” TikTok user Lynette Adkins said to her 175,000-plus followers in a video posted to the platform on Tuesday. “And please come back here and just 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.”
Her video generated nearly 1 million views, more than 80,000 likes and over 5,000 comments.
“Just read it,” one commenter wrote. “My eyes have been opened.”
By Wednesday, videos with the #lettertoamerica hashtag had been seen about 2 million times, according to the Washington Post. A TikTok spokesperson told the paper that the number of videos using that hashtag Wednesday was 274 — a relatively low figure for a platform that boasts about 150 million U.S. users — before “tweets and media coverage drove people” to it.
Yashar Ali, a journalist with a large following on X, compiled them in a post on Wednesday night. His compilation has been viewed nearly 40 million times.
What’s been the reaction?
TikTok has been removing videos promoting bin Laden’s letter, saying they violate the company’s policy surrounding “violent hateful organizations and individuals.”
“Content promoting this letter clearly violates our rules on supporting any form of terrorism,” TikTok said in a statement. “We are proactively and aggressively removing this content and investigating how it got onto our platform.”
On Wednesday, as people began to search for the letter online, the Guardian removed it from its website, initially without explanation — which generated even more interest in it among TikTok users.
“The transcript published on our website had been widely shared on social media without the full context,” the Guardian said in a follow-up note on its website. “Therefore we decided to take it down and direct readers instead to the news article that originally contextualised it.”
That article describes bin Laden’s letter as a “chilling new message” that was “being circulated among British Islamic extremists, calling for attacks on civilians and describing the ‘Islamic nation’ as ‘eager for martyrdom.’”
In a statement to Yahoo News, White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates called the letter an insult to the families of 9/11 victims.
“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,” Bates said.
“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,” he 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.”