News Analysis

No, Gen Z has not embraced Osama bin Laden

Don't worry: America’s "Gen Z" does not revere Osama bin Laden.
Jeff Schogol Avatar
Tik Tok
(Task & Purpose photo composite)

It’s time for everyone to calm down about fears that America’s Generation Z has elevated despised terrorist Osama bin Laden to some sort of Yoda figure.

As most Americans already know, Bin Laden planned the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania that killed nearly 3,000 Americans. Almost 10 years later, Navy SEALs killed the infamous, elusive bin Laden in a daring night raid inside Pakistan.

On Monday, more than 20 years since 9/11, a TikTok user posted a video in which she read parts of bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to America.”  Two days later, journalist Yashar Ali posted a video on “X” showing a compilation of several TikTok users agreeing with parts of bin Laden’s letter.

“Over the past 24 hours, thousands of TikToks (at least) have been posted where people share how they just read Bin Laden’s infamous ‘Letter to America,’ in which he explained why he attacked the United States,” Ali posted on X.

The ensuing social media typhoon led many to conclude that America’s Zoomers had fallen in love with the evil terrorist leader – just as generations before them had idolized other prolific killers including Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Mao Zedong.

Such was the furor that the White House spokesman Andrew Bates posted a statement on X admonishing those who felt that bin Laden had made some valid points in his letter: “No one should ever insult the 2,977 American families still mourning loved ones by associating themselves with the vile words of Osama bin Laden, particularly now, at a time of rising antisemitic violence in the world, and just after Hamas terrorists carried out the worst slaughter of the Jewish people since the Holocaust in the name of the same conspiracy theories.”

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A TikTok spokesperson told Task & Purpose that the number of videos related to the bin Laden letter was small, and the videos associated with hashtag #lettertoamerica were never trending on the platform.

“Content promoting this letter clearly violates our rules on supporting any form of terrorism, the spokesperson said on Friday. “We are proactively and aggressively removing this content and investigating how it got onto our platform.” 

TikTok insists that it was the media’s coverage of the bin Laden video that made it go viral, the company wrote in a statement posted on X.

“As @broderick [journalist Ryan Broderick notes, the thread below and media attention drove people to engage with these hashtags,” the statement says. “From 11/14 – 15 (before tweets and media coverage) the hashtag #lettertoamerica had 274 video posts and 1.85M total video views – moving to ~13M views after tweets/press stories. We’ve since removed the hashtag.”

The number of views the #lettertoamerica hashtag received is minuscule compared to how often videos associated with other hashtags were seen during a recent 24-hour period, according to the statement. The hashtag #travel had more than 137 million video views; #skincare had more than 252 million views, #film videos were viewed more than 319 million times, and #anime had about 611 million views.

World Trade Center
Silhouette of the World Trade towers at the center of the Manhattan skyline from New Jersey. (Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

However, TikTok has not released any specific data to back up its statement that relatively few videos made by people who sympathized with bin Laden were shared on the platform, and that the video never trended on TikTok, CNN reported on Friday.

“If TikTok eventually chooses to release a full analysis on views of the bin Laden letter videos it’ll no doubt show it accounted for 0.01% of the overall views on TikTok in that period,” CNN correspondent Donie O’Sullivan posted on X. “But TikTok has such a massive hold over our attention that is still a s–t ton of views (we estimate at least 14 million).”

Bin Laden’s “Letter to America” rant

The gunpowder behind this week’s explosion on social media is bin Laden’s 2002 letter, in which he tried to justify the Sept. 11 attacks. Although The Guardian, a British newspaper, removed a copy of the letter from its website, an archived version of the letter’s text is still available.

Bin Laden’s “Letter to America” can best be described as a tirade in which the terrorist airs a series of grievances against the United States that reek of pure hate.

Some of bin Laden’s allegations are almost comical, in a sick way. He accuses the U.S. military of targeting civilians in Afghanistan seemingly oblivious to the thousands of American civilians who were murdered on Sept. 11 on his direct orders. Those victims included eight children, the youngest of which was two-and-a-half years old.

A good portion of the letter consists of anti-sematic rants. Bin Laden describes the creation of Israel as “one of the greatest crimes,” which he claims must be “erased.”

“The Jews have taken control of your economy, through which they have then taken control of your media, and now control all aspects of your life making you their servants and achieving their aims at your expense; precisely what Benjamin Franklin warned you against,” bin Laden writes.

The reference to Benjamin Franklin is a debunked conspiracy theory that Franklin made an anti-sematic speech at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 warning that Jews would destroy the United States.

Bin Laden also accuses the United States of attacking the Palestinians, ignoring the work the U.S. government had done during the previous decade to try to achieve a two-state solution. President Bill Clinton hosted a summit in 2000 that attempted to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its failure marked the beginning of the end of the peace process.

Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat
U.S. President Bill Clinton, right, speaks with Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat during summit meetings July 19, 2000 at Camp David, MD. Peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis are continuing into their second week. (David Scull/Newsmakers)

Still, some of the TikTok users who were featured in Ali’s compilation video said they felt that bin Laden had made valid points about the United States’ treatment of the Palestinians.

“The British handed over Palestine, with your help and your support, to the Jews, who have occupied it for more than 50 years; years overflowing with oppression, tyranny, crimes, killing, expulsion, destruction and devastation,” bin Laden writes.

The bin Laden letter has resurfaced in the wake of the Oct. 7 terror attacks on Israel, when Hamas killed roughly 1,200 people and took about 240 hostages.

Pro-Hamas feelings are running so strong among some Americans that people have torn down posters of Israelis who are being held hostage by Hamas. A college professor has also been charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the death of a pro-Israel demonstrator.

President Joe Biden has drawn a sharp distinction between Hamas and the Palestinian people. Biden said on Oct. 20 that he told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that the United States “remains committed to the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and to self-determination.”

“The actions of Hamas terrorists don’t take that right away,” Biden said. “Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people. Hamas uses Palestinian civilians as human shields, and innocent Palestinian families are suffering greatly because of them.” 

9/11 memories may fade with next generation

In the 22 years since Sept. 11, 2001, the terrorist attacks have become a historical event rather than a pressing political issue. Bin Laden’s death in May 2011 brought a sense of resolution to many Americans, and the war on terrorism itself has mostly dropped out of the news cycle.

Naturally, Americans who were young children or not even born during the attacks will not have the same visceral reaction to the event as those who were old enough to remember it. Many young service members in uniform today, born after 9/11, have (or will) deployed in support of military actions authorized by Congress in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks.

Navin Bapat, an international relations professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the response of students who take his class on terrorism during the Sept. 11 attacks has become much less intense since he began teaching in 2004.

“As an example, when I showed footage of the attacks and response from 2004-2006, no student moved their eyes, they were glued to the footage,” Bapat told Task & Purpose. “As we’ve moved further away, it loses attention faster. It’s certainly become more distant versus personal to the students.”

However, all his students have some interest in terrorism, and none has denied that the Sept. 11 attacks took place, Bapat said.

Bapat, who stressed that he is neither a psychologist nor a political psychologist, said that based on his personal observations, people’s memory of politics, trauma, and war may fade, depending on their personal experience and their connection to the trauma.

“In the case of 9/11, my guess is that many of the families are still deeply wounded by what happened,” Bapat said. “However, for many younger people, 9/11 happened before they were born, so it may be less visceral. As an example, the deadliest conflict in American history was the Civil War. It was a terrible event, but today, the visceral reaction people have to it may have faded, unless someone has a history with it or studies the conflict intensively. I would say it does require more effort to remind younger people of the trauma of that day and also to contextualize it in the larger history.” 

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