Nov 19, 2023

Osama bin Laden was a mass murderer, not a TikTok influencer,

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room” also on Apple and Spotify. He is the author of “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN. CNN — Let’s be clear: Osama bin Laden was not a deep thinker but the leader of a group responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans and other Westerners, along with tens of thousands of people in Muslim-majority countries. So the fact that people on TikTok are extolling bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to America,” al Qaeda’s rationale for the 9/11 attacks, in videos that have been watched at least 14 million times is simply baffling. Most of the people praising bin Laden on TikTok appear to be in their 20s, so they were either not born or were young children when 9/11 happened, and they also seem to be entirely ignorant of the actual history of al Qaeda. Bin Laden’s men not only carried out the 9/11 attacks that killed 2,997 people, but they also bombed two US embassies in Africa in 1998, killing more than 200 Kenyans and Tanzanians and a dozen Americans. Bin Laden’s al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq helped to trigger the Iraqi civil war in 2006, during which tens of thousands of Iraqis died. In Indonesia in 2002, an al Qaeda-affiliated group killed more than 200 people in Bali, and in London three years later, bin Laden’s followers carried out the most lethal terrorist attack in British history, killing 52 commuters. And this is only a partial list of the mayhem carried out by bin Laden and his followers. The “Letter to America,” had been posted on The Guardian’s website in 2002 when it was first issued, and it was removed by the Guardian this week after it started going viral. This text is a laundry list of rationales that runs to a dozen pages about why al Qaeda attacked the United States on 9/11. It begins with the issue of Palestine, which the letter says is occupied by Israel with “American support.” Some of the recent videos on TikTok seem to be making connections between bin Laden’s opposition to Israel and their own opposition to the US support for Israel in its war against Hamas. The “Letter to America” also decries the United States’ role in global warming, American tolerance for homosexuality and the drug culture that exists in the United States. I’ve read tens of thousands of words by bin Laden, have written several books about al Qaeda, and produced bin Laden’s first television interview, which aired on CNN in 1997, and it’s not clear to me that bin Laden even wrote this “Letter to America” because it differs in many respects from his usual writings. If he did write it, he did so with the help of others. Bin Laden’s voluminous other statements invariably focused not on cultural or political critiques of the United States but on criticizing American policies in the Middle East, not only US support for Israel but also, for instance, its support of the Saudi royal family. Certainly, bin Laden himself was very focused on the Palestinian issue. As a teenager, he would gather friends to chant religious songs about Palestine. His father, who ran a major construction company, renovated the three holiest sites in Islam, including the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, which is in territory that was taken by the Israeli army during the 1967 War. So, bin Laden not only had a personal connection to the Palestinian issue, but as a devout Muslim, he had strong religious convictions about it. When, on August 23, 1996, he declared war against the United States, he wrote, “I still feel the pain of (the loss) [of] Al-Quds [Jerusalem] in my internal organs; That loss is like a burning fire in my intestines.” For bin Laden, the Palestinian issue was a key factor in his hatred of the US. The al Qaeda leader was killed in a US Navy SEAL Team Six raid in 2011 in Pakistan, and so his voice has been absent from the scene. But in recent years, that issue seemed to have waned in importance for other jihadist groups. In countries like Iraq and Syria, ISIS was far more focused on attacking Shias, whom the jihadist group’s members consider to be heretics. Now, the Palestinian issue is back as a cause célèbre among jihadist groups from al Qaeda to ISIS. For the podcast “In the Room with Peter Bergen,” I interviewed Nelly Lahoud, a professor of security studies at the US Army War College and the author of “The Bin Laden Papers.” Lahoud examined all the files recovered at bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, nearly 6,000 pages of al Qaeda’s internal communications. Lahoud learned how much bin Laden miscalculated about how the US would respond to the 9/11 attacks, telling me, “Bin Laden was convinced that the American people would take to the streets and replicate the Vietnam anti-war protests and demand that their government withdraw their military forces from the Middle East.” In fact, bin Laden’s attacks on 9/11 spectacularly backfired, and instead of withdrawing from the Middle East after the attacks, the United States got more deeply involved in the region than at any other time in its history. It might behoove those posting on TikTok to understand some of this history before praising bin Laden’s purported brilliance.