What People on TikTok Are Missing About That Osama bin Laden Letter

Osama bin Laden against a background of TikTok logos.

In what may be the most stunning case of antisemitic distortion and disinformation in the last six weeks—a very high bar, given the slew of such cases since the terrorist assault on Israel—hundreds of TikTok videos have cropped up praising excerpts of a letter written by Osama bin Laden in 2002 that allegedly explains (and, to many social media readers, justifies) al-Qaida’s attack on Sept. 11, 2001, and by extension, Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7, 2023.

“If you haven’t, you have to go read Osama’s letter to America,” one user who posted it wrote. “Then you’ll see what this has to do with us. They have lied to us more than enough. Reading that was honestly life changing. My bond with this conflict”—presumably Hamas’ conflict against Israel—“is unshakable.”

Another user said, “So I just read ‘A Letter to America’ and I will never look at life the same. I will never look at this country the same.” The video lured 1.2 million views in less than 24 hours.

It would be better if the users, and the many more like them, had read the entire letter before posting such embarrassing reactions. For the excerpts, which have been widely circulated, grossly misrepresent what the terrorist leader wrote, not long after masterminding the 9/11 attack.

The Guardian, which originally posted the letter back in 2002, took it down on Wednesday because so many people were taking passages out of context. (The full text can still be found in online archives.)

The letter does contain much about Israel’s hostility to Palestinians and America’s support of Israel, as well as a heap of ancient antisemitic conspiracy theories. For example, “It is the Muslims who are the inheritors of Moses (praise be upon him) and the inheritor of the real Torah.” He adds, addressing his stateside audience, “You attacked us in Palestine …The creation of Israel is a crime that must be erased.”

But the letter portrays this as part of a larger pattern of the West’s wars on Islam. “You attacked us in Somalia; you supported the Russian atrocities against us in Chechnya, the Indian oppression against us in Kashmir.” He further condemns Americans for killing “Iraqi children,” holding Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo, supporting “the Manila Government against the Muslims in Southern Philippines,” and—not least—for maintaining military bases all over the globe, including the Arab world. (Elsewhere, bin Laden condemned the continued presence of U.S. troops on holy land in Saudi Arabia, a vestige of the first Gulf War in 1990–91.)

In other words, the letter is not only, or even chiefly, an attack on Israel. It’s an Islamist war cry against all other religions and infidels.

Those who see the letter as a wake-up call to the truth should read the whole thing, for it’s also an attack on the modern secular world. Bin Laden instructs his American readers to take several steps in order to avoid death and damnation, above all “complete submission” to Islam and “the discarding of all the opinions, orders, theories and religions which contradict” it.

And there’s this: “We call you to be a people of manners, principles, honour, and purity; to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling’s, and trading with interest [usury].”

Then comes the hammer: “If you fail to respond to all these conditions, then prepare for fight with the Islamic Nation.” (Italics added.) In other words, stop supporting Israel, abandon your military bases, and give up your habits of “debauchery”—they’re all equally important. If you don’t, “you will lose this Crusade.” For, as he writes elsewhere in the letter, Islam—that is, bin Laden’s twisted vision of Islam—is “the Nation of Martyrdom; the Nation that desires death more than you desire life.”

Owing to the peculiarities of TikTok’s algorithms, it is unclear how many people actually read the excerpts of the letter or watched the videos about it. It is a deeper mystery still how many found the contents persuasive. In some ways, though, it doesn’t matter. The junk is out there. It’s infiltrating the mélange of facts, myths, and feelings on variously related topics held by people, especially those too young to remember bin Laden’s attack 22 years ago or too ignorant to put Hamas’ more recent attack in proper historical perspective.

Those who have felt drawn to this controversy, and found summaries of the letter in some way attractive, should read the entire thing and ask themselves these questions: Is the conflict that bin Laden tried to incite—and that killed 3,000 of your fellow Americans—really worth your “unshakable bond”? Does this death-cult jeremiad justify overhauling your entire worldview?

Finally, a question for TikTok users, historians, analysts, teachers, and generally educated people everywhere: WTF is going on?