Why Osama bin Laden's 'Letter to America' Went Viral on TikTok

Osama bin Laden's "Letter to America" has found a new audience. Credit - Getty Images

Two decades ago, Osama bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader behind 9/11, laid out his attempted justification for the terror attack against the U.S. that killed nearly 3,000 people in his “Letter to America.”

This week, that same letter went viral on TikTok among a new generation, many of whom are debating the Israel-Hamas war and the role played by the U.S. For some, a big part of bin Laden’s justification—American support for Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories in what the U.N. deems a violation of international law—resonates with what’s going on now in the Middle East, leading them to renew calls for a Gaza ceasefire.

In one video (which was still live on the app as of Thursday afternoon) with more than 900,000 views, a TikToker made the claim that “everything we learned about the Middle East, 9/11, and ‘terrorism’ was a lie.” Others on social media have criticized the videos as sympathizing with terrorists and legitimizing violence.

In a statement posted on X Thursday, TikTok said, “Content promoting this letter clearly violates our rules on supporting any form of terrorism. We are proactively and aggressively removing this content and investigating how it got onto our platform.”

The company also says that the content did not reflect a widespread trend, but rather a few posts on the platform. “The number of videos on TikTok is small and reports of it trending on our platform are inaccurate. This is not unique to TikTok and has appeared across multiple platforms and the media.”

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Views on videos shared with the hashtag #lettertoamerica had over 14 million views on Thursday, CNN reported, but as of Thursday afternoon the phrase could not be searched on the app due to guideline violations.

This isn't the first time TikTok has faced controversy for what's been shared on the app. The company has responded to Republican criticism that the platform was biased toward pro-Palestinian content by pointing to polling that shows younger people are more sympathetic to Palestinians.

While tens of thousands of people recently publicly showed their support for Israel in the U.S. and condemned anti-Semitisim in France, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in pro-Palestinian protests around the world, calling for a ceasefire to protect civilians in Gaza, since the start of the war on Oct. 7.

Bin Laden’s letter appeared to go viral after TikTokers found a translated copy published by The Guardian in 2002, although the news site removed the letter on Nov. 15.

The Guardian told TIME in an emailed statement on Nov. 16 that after the transcript was widely shared on social media without the full context “we have decided to take it down and direct readers to the news article that originally contextualized it instead.”

The letter argues a justification for the killing of civilians, referencing reports of American and other government-sponsored violence against Muslims in the Palestinian territories, Somalia, Chechnya, Kashmir and Lebanon, and economic sanctions in Iraq that left people hungry.

The letter also accuses the U.S. of hypocrisy for allowing Israel to occupy Palestinian territories for decades in disregard of United Nations’ law and for violating its own law by imprisoning people in Guantanamo Bay without charges or trials.

Write to Simmone Shah at simmone.shah@time.com.