A Letter To America: how Bin Laden’s two decade old letter has gone viral

On November 15th, the Guardian decided to remove a it’s publishing of Bin Laden’s ‘letter to America’, a piece written over two decades ago explaining Al-Qaeda’s motivation behind the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. The move has caused high levels of controversy, with some arguing it unfairly restricts access to information, and others countering that the material should have never been available to the public in the first place. But why the sudden action to remove an article over a decade old?

The answer lies in social media. Tiktok, an app with over a  billion users has had a variety of unique trends (ranging from performing  various dances to the recent ‘Roman Empire’ trend), but perhaps surprisingly has had a surge in users discussing their perceptions and reactions to Bin Laden’s ‘Letter to America.’ This started with user Lynette Adkins, who posted a video instructing nearly 12 million followers to ‘go read A Letter to America.’ This soon went viral, and another user soon after posted a video stating after reading it, they would ‘never look at life the same’, which received over a million views. Readers of the article were also likely inspired by its reference to Israel and Palestine, which have been heavily featured in global news lately due to the outbreak of war. This prompted a soar in the number of users reading the letter through the Guardian, causing them to remove it from their website.

So what exactly is the issue with the letter becoming so popular? Possibly the most common response would be that it incites violence and contains hate speech. Al-Qaeda refer to the attacks on the twin towers as ‘inevitable’, as well as condemning ‘immoral’ homosexuality and fornication. Given that the largest demographic appearing to participate in this trend are young Americans, it may therefore seem surprising that they’d empathise with a letter critiquing Western values in this way. However, it is perhaps due to many readers only seeing select parts that the movement has gained so much traction. According to Charlie Winter, expert on Jihadist affairs and director of research at intelligence platform Extrac, ‘It’s not the letter that is going viral. It’s a selective reading of parts of the letter,’

The parts which some users may be seeing and supporting relate to the letter’s message against Israel, as it states, ‘The creation of Israel is a crime which must be erased.’ Furthermore, they may support the letter criticising how America has ‘destroyed nature with … industrial waste and gases more than any other nation in history,’ and yet refused to commit to the Kyoto agreement. Others likely found themselves in support of the letter due to Al-Qaeda’s criticisms of the US’ cultural imperialism and hegemonic influence over the international system, as it states ‘we want to restore freedom to our nation.’ However, it is important to remember that these weren’t necessarily the only reasons behind the 9/11 attack; Neaman argues that Bin Laden showed little concern for Palestine before using them as a means to gain favour of militants and so defending Palestinians is unlikely to be a central motivation, while others suggest that religion or a push against globalisation may have been the true reasons behind the attacks.

Whatever the true reason behind the attacks, it is important to approach he letter critically, keeping the context in mind. In that case, taking down the full letter  may have been a poor move – users may now be limited to seeing parts of the text which are quoted on social media to gain sympathy, rather than being able to read the original text in context. Others argue that, now the letter has been removed, the story has gained much more attention and more people will seek out to defend Al-Qaeda’s views, as they argue that the letter  has  been unfairly censored.

This story certainly raises interesting questions about where we draw the line of censorship and free speech. Does the risk of misleading information mean that access to information should be restricted in the first place? This is a question we can only expect to get more important in the era of social media.

Image: Paul Weaver on Unsplash

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