Dozens of young Americans have posted videos on TikTok this week expressing sympathy for Osama bin Laden, the notorious terrorist who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, for a two-decade-old letter he wrote criticizing the United States, including its government and support for Israel.
The letter, which seeks to justify the targeting and killing of American civilians, was first published in 2002. It began circulating this week on the social media platform, and videos on the subject had garnered at least 14 million views by Thursday. Many of the videos, which supported some of Bin Laden’s claims and encouraged other users to read the letter, were shared in the broader context of criticism of US support for Israel in its ongoing war against Hamas.
TikTok said 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 was “small,” adding “reports of what was trending on our platform are inaccurate.”
TikTok declined to provide specific data to support this claim.
TikTok is hugely popular among 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 terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when 19 men hijacked commercial airliners, deliberately crashing the planes and killing 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 accurately measure how popular or widespread a sentiment is on the platform, but an initial CNN review found a few dozen videos that openly praise or sympathize 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 at the letter and how it was praised by others on the platform.
In a 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, saying: “If you’ve read it, let me know if you too are going through an existential crisis at this very moment, because in the last 20 minutes my whole outlook on the whole life that I’ve believed and that I’ve lived has changed.”
The video was later removed. CNN has reached out to the user for comment.
In another video that has been viewed more than 100,000 times, a TikTok user who regularly posts criticism of the US government said of the letter: “If we want to call Osama bin Laden a terrorist, so is the US government .”
A White House spokesman criticized the apparent online trend in a statement, calling it an insult to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“There is never any justification for spreading the vile, vicious and anti-Semitic 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 ,” says deputy press secretary. Andrew Bates told CNN.
“No one should ever offend the 2,977 American families still grieving their loved ones by associating themselves with the vile words of Osama bin Laden,” Bates added, “especially now, at a time of rising anti-Semitic violence in the world and right 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, executive director of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, explained that TikTok encourages high engagement at all costs. The platform “is completely ruthless about whether it uses hate, disinformation or positive content to keep you hooked.” As such, “the smart takes aren’t the ones that succeed. It’s the dumb stuff that gets the most virality on a platform like TikTok.”
Ahmed, who has studied 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 or 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 US foreign policy that is also filled with anti-Semitic 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 gives us both laughter and tears to see that you are not yet tired of repeating your fabricated lies that the Jews have a historic right to Palestine,” it reads.
Peter Bergen, a CNN national security analyst who produced the first televised interview with Osama bin Laden in 1997, said he finds the letter’s virality “puzzling.”
“Most of the people either weren’t born or were very young children when Bin Laden and 9/11 happened, so they don’t have a lot of historical context.”
Bergen, who has written several books about the late terrorist, remains skeptical of the letter’s origins. “There is no evidence that it was written by bin Laden, and some of the things 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 paper said the letter “published on our website 20 years ago has been widely shared on social media without its full context. Therefore, we have decided to take it down and refer readers to the news article that originally contextualized it instead .”
However, the letter is still available elsewhere online.
New data from the Pew Research Center released Wednesday shows that TikTok is quickly becoming a place where more and more young Americans get their news.
Nearly a third of Americans ages 18-29 regularly get their news from TikTok, according to Pew — and overall, the share of American adults who say they regularly get their news from TikTok quadrupled from 3% in 2020 to 14 % in 2023.