A series of viral TikTok videos this week has brought Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to America” to a new generation of Americans. And their reaction has come as a shock.
“Trying to go back to life as normal after reading Osama bin Laden’s ‘Letter to America’ and realizing everything we learned about the Middle East, 9/11, and ‘terrorism’ was a lie,” one TikToker said in a video shared on Twitter by journalist Yashar Ali.
The general sentiment of the TikTokers is that bin Laden, far from being a crazed religious fanatic trying to kill Americans because he hated our freedoms, had legitimate political grievances against the West in general and the US in particular. One video showed a young woman, apparently in her 20s or early 30s, reenacting her celebration after bin Laden’s death in 2011 and then flashing forward to today, “reading his letter to America knowing he was right.”
These videos come as Israel battles Hamas terrorists in Gaza following the jihadi group’s barbaric October 7 attacks that left approximately 1,200 Israelis dead, including women and children. The letter, written during the Second Intifada, lists as reason 1a for al Qaeda’s attack: “You attacked us in Palestine.” And most of the letter, or at least the first half, paints American support for Israel as his casus belli.
Let’s put aside, for now, the shock of seeing Americans celebrating a terrorist that killed thousands of their fellow countrymen. Let’s also ignore that it was David Duke-like antisemitism that won them over. And let’s table these TikTokers’ decision to overlook the parts of the letter that call on the US to reject premarital sex, homosexuality, and drugs and to embrace Shariah Law. There is another glaring problem with bin Laden’s letter and with this newfound wave of support for him coming presumably from the most vehemently anti-Israel segment of the left.
Bin Laden did not attack America because of Palestine.
True, he says he did in this letter and many other communications published after 9/11. I know – I wrote my masters’ thesis on al Qaeda’s approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I spent a year of my life deep in bin Laden’s writings and those of his al Qaeda colleagues.
And to be sure, he was no closet Zionist. He would have, unquestionably, approved of everything Hamas did on October 7.
But, as his biography makes clear and as he acknowledged time and again before 9/11, there was one issue that, more than any other, drove this trust fund millionaire to flee to the mountains, live in a cave, and dedicate his life to killing supposed infidels. And that issue was not Israel, but the presence of American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War to protect the Kingdom against Saddam Hussein.
Granted, this is not a cause that would fire up many of the nose-ringed TikTokers now declaring Osama their new Che Guevara. In fact, few Muslims were kept up at night by the small contingent of American forces camped near the Saudi-Iraqi border. But for bin Laden, it was an intolerable insult, both to him personally and to all of Islam.
A quick refresher on the history: al Qaeda was formed from a group of foreign fighters who went to Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion of 1979 to battle the Communist infidels. These Arab fighters played little role in driving the mighty Red Army out of the graveyard of empires. But driven out they were and when bin Laden, the son a construction magnate, returned home, he took outsized credit for the Soviet withdrawal and was met with a hero’s welcome.
Bin Laden’s late father, Mohammed, was a billionaire construction tycoon tapped by the Saudi Royal family for many of the most prestigious projects across the Kingdom and beyond. Osama bin Laden was embraced by the House of Saud, and when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein overran neighboring Kuwait and threatened the kingdom’s oil fields, the al Qaeda leader expected the Saudi leadership to ask him to reassemble his army of mujahadeen, or Islamic holy warriors, to defend Islam’s holiest lands.
Instead, the Saudis allowed the US Armed Forces – comprising women, Jews, and infidels of all kinds – to establish a base on Saudi land. Adding insult to injury, a residual US force remained in the Kingdom after Iraq was driven out of Kuwait, just as bin Laden had predicted.
Where in the past there had been some tension between bin Laden and the House of Saud, the conflict over American troops created a fatal rift. Bin Laden referred to the troop presence as an occupation; he left the peninsula in May of 1991 and become one of the regime’s fiercest critics. In 1994, his Saudi passport was seized.
Bin Laden declared war – or jihad – on America in 1996, shifting his focus from overthrowing secular regimes in the Muslim world to targeting “the far enemy.” In his declaration he got straight to the point, beginning the message, “Expel the Polytheists from the Arabian peninsula.”
“This last aggression was the worst catastrophe that was inflicted upon the Moslems since the death of the Prophet,” he wrote. “That is, the occupation of the land of the two holiest sites,” Saudi Arabia.
Two years later, bin Laden announced the formation of a coalition against “Jews and Crusaders.”
“The Arabian Peninsula has never – since Allah made it flat, created its desert, and encircled it with seas – been stormed by any forces like the crusader armies spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations,” this declaration of Jihad stated.
Both these statements mention Palestine or Israel but leave no doubt that the “occupation” of his home country by American troops is his true casus belli.
Why, after 9/11, did bin Laden claim that the American support for Israel was the reason for the September 11 attacks? Why was the residual force in Arabia buried deep in his list of grievances, after a dozen mentions of Palestine, in that 2002 Letter to America?
The answer, most likely, is that he wanted to broaden his appeal. The American bases in Arabia enraged many religious Saudis but never had the same emotional resonance across the Muslim world, to say nothing of US college campuses. Focusing on Palestine, especially as the Second Intifada raged, made perfect sense for propaganda purposes as he sought greater acceptance across the Middle East. He probably never imagined he’d achieve cult popularity on TikTok.
The TikTokers now so smitten with the mass-murdering jihadi have one thing right. Americans should read “Letter to America,” as well as bin Laden’s other major declarations, for the same reason they should read the Communist Manifesto or the Dred Scott decision. Understanding the reasoning behind evil ideas, people and acts is not the same as legitimizing or accepting them.
But you shouldn’t take bin Laden at his word. Bin Laden telling Americans that he attacked them to defend Palestinians’ right to sovereignty and autonomy does not make it so. And by taking this mass murderer at face value, these TikTokers have proven to be not just antisemitic and amoral, but stupid.