Does bin Laden get the last laugh?

By James Durso

Osama bin Laden may be in Hell, but he could be having the last laugh.

TikTokers recently discovered Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America” which was written in 2002 and residing online in plain sight.

The letter, allegedly written by bin Laden’s #2, the late Ayman al-Zawahiri, was al-Qaeda’s justification for attacking America on 11 September 2001. In the letter, bin Laden declared that America was attacked because of the oppression of the Palestinians by Israel, made possible by America; for stealing the oil from Muslim countries; occupying Muslim lands with miliary forces; and, being hypocrites for preaching freedom and democracy but “for [the] white race only.” Bin Laden didn’t just blame American leaders, but also the American people who elect the oppressive governments, and whose taxes pay for the military that oppresses the Muslims.

To be clear, the letter is clearly written as propaganda for justifying the terrorist actions with which bin Laden and his followers are well known. But the reappearance of the letter in the current climate underscores the current problems facing America and its role in the world. Too many young Americans simply do not now much about the past and have interpreted this letter as somehow an accurate description of the world today. And the inability of American governing elites to fail to understand their own role in the problems facing the country today is highlighted as well.

A video about the letter was apparently first shared on TikTok on by an “online personality and pro-Palestinian activist” and it got about 800,000 views and over 80,000 likes. Some other TikTokers also posted about the letter with similar results. Soon the hashtag #lettertoamerica was born, but it only took off when journalist Yashar Ali tweeted about it and it soon secured 14 million views, though some were critical of the posting.

 Among the reactions to the letter were, “everything we learned about the Middle East, 9/11, and ‘terrorism’ was a lie,” “I will never look at life the same. I will never look at this country the same,” “Osama bin Laden’s letter is not as crazy and threatening as I expected, is well written, and makes some objectively true points,” and “Osama bin Laden was good. Even better than us.”

And, most oddly, “TikTok is going to save this generation [Gen Z].”

After young Americans on TikTok expressed sympathy for Osama bin Laden, the White House had to remind everyone that Osama bin Laden was a bad man.

Eventually, the TikTok videos about the letter, and the letter itself, a copy of which could be found on the website of The Guardian, were promptly removed. TikTok is already in enough trouble with the U.S. government and no doubt wanted to show it was acting responsibly and declared, “Content promoting this letter clearly violates our rules on supporting any form of terrorism.” The Guardian, which was not clear about what it was guarding, just said the transcript of the letter had been “widely shared on social media without the full context.”

But there’s no better way to make a young person think “there’s something they don’t want you to know!” than a speedy cleanse of the Internet of offending commentary, which only validates it as today’s samizdat.

No one seems to know how the bin Laden letter was introduced to Influencer Zero, and people who study online influence campaigns don’t think it’s the effort of Russia or China, but its all guesswork for now. (Though if Beijing is behind TikTok as alleged, it must be marveling at what Americans can be induced to do.) TikTok pointed out that #lettertoamerica was popular due to media attention and postings on Twitter and, at 274 video posts and 1.85M total video views, it was small potatoes on a platform where #travel got 137,011,985 views and #skincare scored 252,103,826 views in a recent 24-hour period.

Many of the TikTokers who pushed #lettertoamerica are probably typical of TikTok users who are mostly teens and young adults. There are 45 million Gen Z TikTok users in the United States as of 2023, 47.4% are 10-29 years old, and 53.4% are female. About a third of TikTok users aged 18 to 29 are most likely to say they regularly get their news on TikTok. (The U.S. has the most TikTok users – 116.5 million – and Indonesia is next with 113 million.)

How could young Americans ever think “Maybe this bin Laden guy has something to say” after he murdered almost 3,000 of their countrymen? Why not trust government figures or establishment journalism on what a bad man bin Laden was?

Well, that’s because The Establishment hasn’t given them any reason to be trusted. The government and its media acolytes were the cheerleaders for the 2003 invasion of on Iraq which was based on lies: that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was cooperating with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist group. The cost of the Iraq war: about $3 trillion according to Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize-winner in economics, 4,492 dead U.S. troops, and over 200,000 dead Iraqi civilians. (Total direct deaths of the post 9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen are about 940,000.)

Then there’s Afghanistan.

According to the Afghanistan Papers exposé senior American officials knew the U.S.-led NATO campaign was failing, but they kept it going for almost 20 years until the Taliban victoriously entered Kabul on 15 August 2021. The U.S. finally departed on 30 August, but not before an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. service members, 12 of them aged 25 and under. The cost: over $2 trillion, over 2,300 dead U.S. troops, and about 100,000 dead Afghan civilians, including opposition fighters, many of whom joined the opposition due to U.S. abuses.

In 2011, the U.S. led the attack on Libya and destroyed the functioning government that was cooperating with Washington, and kicked off a migrant wave that upended politics in Europe. U.S. troops are still in Syria because mumble-mumble terrorism, though the Islamic State was defeated in 2018. Then it was All Aboard! to fight the Russians in Ukraine, but then the U.S. political class and media dropped Ukraine when Israel was attacked by Hamas.

Young Americans are likely realizing that their country is led by unserious people who lie to them as a matter of course.

But it’s not just the liars in Washington, D.C. Parents and teachers must shoulder some of the blame for the lack of critical thinking skills in many young Americans.

American students have been in the care of teachers less interest in civic education than in the “anti-racist” 1619 Project and  “decolonizing the curriculum” instead of teaching the three Rs. The result: American students are falling behind the rest of the world and their test scores lag the global average.

And knowing they were lied to may explain the failure of the military to attract enough qualified recruits, which is part of a long-term trend of “historically low faith in U.S. institutions” reported by Gallup. Who wants to be the cannon fodder in the next war fought for dubious “American interests” when you can be sure no one named Bush or Obama will be in that trench with you?

Gen Z members suffer from high levels of depression and anxiety and are most likely to report their mental health as being poor, according to the American Psychological Association. Poor mental health, a bad education, a lack of trust in institutions, and the sense their economic prospects are limited and the American Dream is out of reach, are what’s needed to create a population susceptible to thinking bin Laden was an anti-imperialist who had a point when he said, “Your law is the law of the rich and wealthy people.”

After all that pessimism, or maybe adding to it, young Americans have departed from their elders’ reflexive support for anything Israel does. According to a CNN poll, asked whether Israel’s response to the Hamas attack was fully justified, only 27 percent of Americans aged 18-34 agreed, as opposed to 81 percent of Americans over age 65. This is likely due to both existing distrust of the media and government, and what is known as “networked tribalism,” the rapid development of empathy and kinship with others via online media, resulting in maximalist thinking where opposing sides can’t even agree on basic facts.

In a 2004 communiqué, bin Laden declared economic war on America: “We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.” He also noted that al Qaeda has found it “easy for us to provoke and bait this administration…All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations.”

In short, bin Laden predicted that America would impoverish itself while it created more enemies than it killed. The U.S. blew over $8 trillion on the post 9-11 wars, most of it borrowed from China, and its national debt will soon exceed $34 trillion dollars, but the leaders who lied to promote the wars won’t be around to pay the tab, leaving that to a resentful and disillusioned young Americans, fertile ground for extremist sentiment. And, hopefully, Washington will come to understand that most of the world failed to support its campaigns in Ukraine and Israel-Gaza because of its heedless waste of money and lives, most of them not American.

Bin Laden was killed 12 years ago, but you must admit – he’s been pretty successful for a dead guy.

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

The featured photo is the opening of binLaden’s 2002 letter.