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The News Not Noise Letter: Osama Bin Laden’s Surprise Comeback
Bin Laden’s “Letter to America” had a burst of popularity on social media; we put his words, beliefs, and actions in context.
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Bin Laden’s Real Ideology
Here’s a sentence we never thought we’d write: this week Osama Bin Laden was resurrected on social media. On TikTok young Americans shared cherry-picked excerpts from his 2002 “Letter to America,” in which Bin Laden justified the 9/11 attacks on America and advocated jihad. One influencer said after reading the letter: “my entire viewpoint on the entire life I have believed, and I have lived, has changed.”
It’s unclear if Bin Laden went viral before or after reporter Yashar Ali made a video calling attention to the Bin Laden fans. (Panic over TikTok and Bin Laden has since exploded in the media; reporters disagree about which was bigger – the viral trend or the panic around it.) We do know this: social media platforms only started blocking pro-Bin Laden videos after Ali reported on them. Bottom line, it’s currently part of the discourse.
Whatever started it, references to Bin Laden and his letter to America jumped from Nov 14 through Nov 16 when the platforms started taking the posts down. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which analyzes extremism on social media, found that from 11/14-11/16:
X: References to Bin Laden jumped 4,600%. References to “Letter to America” jumped 1,800% with 719 million impressions.
TikTok: 41 “Letter to America” videos reached +6.9M viewers including minors. TikTok has blocked “Letter to America” in search, but at least for another 24 hours videos about it could be found by searching “Bin Laden.” (CNN estimates the videos reached 14 million viewers.)
YouTube: Searches for Bin Laden jumped 400%.
Instagram: “Letter to America” was listed as a “popular search” driving users to these videos. Late Thursday, Instagram started blocking the videos as a violation of their community standards.
Telegram: Neo-Nazis shared links to the posts on Telegram.
General: Salafi jihadists welcomed the interest across social media platforms “with glee.”
ISD also says that the trending Bin Laden videos “unleashed new content focused on 9/11 trutherism” – an antisemitic conspiracy theory that holds the government or a “cabal of Jews” masterminded the attacks on the United States.
NNN has spoken with a number of 20-somethings who say that their friends have been discussing Bin Laden and his message this week.
Since Bin Laden and his violent, nihilistic dogma are back in the conversation, we thought we’d share some information you can provide to friends, kids, and family who are just discovering his writing now. You can also listen to my 2021 conversation with Peter Bergen, one of the few journalists to interview Osama Bin Laden, on the News Not Noise Podcast here.
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Osama Bin Laden claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. On that day 19 hijackers flew four airplanes into three US locations, killing nearly 3,000 people, wounding 6,000 others. According to the CDC another 4,627 responders and survivors of the World Trade Center attack have since died after reporting illnesses related to chemical exposure on 9/11.
Bin Laden also oversaw the 1998 attack on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 200 and wounded 4,500 people.
Bin Laden’s “Letter to America” rages against US foreign policy in the Middle East and uses deeply antisemitic tropes to support his radical interpretation of Islam and advocate for violent extremism.
To better understand Bin Laden, I spoke with Nada Bakos, past Chief of the CIA Counterterror Targeting Group focused on 9/11, Al Qaeda and Iraq. She is the author of The Targeter: My Life in the CIA, Hunting Terrorists and Challenging the White House and is co-founder of Raven Global Advisors.
According to Bakos, Bin Laden’s “intent with the letter and talking to the American public was to create a level of disinformation that would co-opt society into fighting against their own government. He wanted us to rise up against the government in the United States.”
Bin Laden declared a jihad, or holy war, against the United States with the aim of ending the US relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and preventing the US from having any presence around the globe but especially in the Middle East and North Africa. With the US vanquished, Bakos says, Bin Laden aimed to establish “totalitarian rule” that followed his “radical Islamic belief that you have a hierarchical structure made of men that control all of society and they rule through brutality.”
What was Bin Laden’s totalitarian vision?
Bakos explains his views were “not mainstream Muslim belief” but “a radicalized extremist element that derived some principles from the Quran.”
“He wasn't for humanitarian rights, regardless of how that letter can be interpreted without context. He considered anyone who didn't follow his belief system, which is not Islam, to be an infidel.”
He believed if you were LGBTQ+ “that could not exist in his society. So you either suppress that or you're killed.”
He believed women “are inferior.” For example, women weren’t educated except in his religious beliefs and “rape didn't really exist. A man had complete dominance over women….she is there for a man's purpose.”
He believed that Jews “are the enemy.” Bakos explains, “it's not unlike a Nazi ideology, it's pure hatred.”
He didn’t believe in diversity, pluralism and considered “dissidents or people who disagree with him to be infidels,” fair targets for death.
Below we will list specific quotes so you can share those with anyone who questions this information.
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Back to the news:
In the “Letter to America,” Bin Laden complains of US imperialism in the Middle East, says Americans “steal our wealth and oil,” “destroyed nature with your industrial waste,” and denounces America’s democracy as “the law of the rich and wealthy people.” He unleashes a spate of antisemitic tropes about who exactly these wealthy power brokers are. He also charges America with hypocrisy for using the atom bomb in WW2 and opening Guantanamo Bay. Bakos says there is “nothing nuanced and interesting” in Bin Laden’s foreign policy critique. Why might it intrigue younger generations?
The oldest members of Gen Z were born in the mid-1990s and don’t remember 9/11 well — if at all. Many weren’t even born yet. Surveys show that Gen Z and Millennials are less likely than older Americans to: support military action by the US, “take an active part in world affairs,” or pay attention to news of international affairs. Majorities of Gen Z lack trust in the US government, the news and the US military. The Carnegie Endowment found that less than half of Gen Z “support the idea that America is stronger because of its global leadership.” 7 in 10 believe “wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan were a waste …and they did nothing to make us safer at home.” Less than one-third view Israel as a friend to the United States. And The Center for Countering Digital Hate finds that the belief in conspiracy theories is higher among teenagers than adults.
Social media feeds Gen Z a steady diet of inflammatory, traumatic, graphic content – often out of context and unconfirmed. Notably, ISD finds more graphic content pushed to minors on Instagram than other platforms.
What can you do?
Explain that algorithms push the most inflammatory and disturbing content to get an emotional reaction that keeps you on the platform and engaged; the platforms also isolate you in filter bubbles with content that echoes and amplifies points of view you’ve already engaged with.
Share Bin Laden quotes that contextualize his violent and repressive worldview. He sought a society that violently oppressed women, LGBTQ+ people, those who support pluralism, criticism and free speech (see below).
If you have a friend or family member who is really going down the rabbit hole, here is an article on how to talk to folks buying into conspiracy theories and disinformation; and here is a conversation I had with Claire Wardle, an expert on teaching people to understand online information.
Here are more quotes from Bin Laden’s “Letter to America”:
America is “the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind.”
Attacks on American civilians, including children, are justifiable because civilians elect the government and “pay the taxes that fund” the US military.
Americans are “infidels” who must “reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and trading with interest.”
AIDS is a “Satanic American Invention.”
Jews “control [America’s] policies, media, and economy.”
Global conversion to Islam and establishment of a caliphate is the only path to “total equality between all people, without regarding their color, sex, or language.”
Links to learn more:
News Not Noise Podcast with Peter Bergen, author of The Rise and Fall of Osama Bin Laden and Manhunt: the Ten-Year Search for Bin-Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad: “What’s changed since 9/11?”
Statements by Bin Laden and Al Qaeda leaders over time.
“Violent and graphic content of the Gaza conflict served to minors’ accounts” from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
Note: after the letter went viral, The Guardian (which published the letter in 2002) took down the full text and instead redirected users to an article published at the same time which contextualized the letter. And TikTok is now removing many of the videos sharing the letter and has blocked the hashtag #lettertoamerica. Instagram is also blocking a lot of content that mentions Bin Laden and the letter.
Finally, here’s something relaxing to de-stress:
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