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Israel-Hamas war

Muslim members of Congress face spikes in death threats

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., one of Congress’ highest-profile progressive members, said she worries for her children’s safety as her office is inundated with profanity-laced threats.
Ilhan Omar
Ilhan Omar in the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 7.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

One of the few Muslim members of Congress told NBC News she feels her life may be in danger after being inundated with threats since a terror attack sparked the war in Gaza, reflecting wider fears among Muslim Americans who feel they are being targeted to a degree unseen since the days after 9/11. 

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., whose family fled Somalia’s civil war before emigrating to the United States, unequivocally condemned the Hamas attack, but her longstanding criticism of Israel policy toward Palestinians and Washington’s support for the country has made her a lightning rod.

The U.S. Capitol Police and the House Sergeant at Arms briefed Omar and other progressive lawmakers critical of Israel — including the only other Muslim woman in Congress, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., who is Palestinian American — over potential threats last week, according to a Democratic aide familiar with the meeting.

Voicemails shared with NBC News include profanity-laced death threats calling Omar a “terrorist Muslim.” Another claimed a vigilante group spying on the congresswoman and “your children” had obtained “all your addresses and handed them out to rapists.”

“I’m from a militant group,” the male caller of a third voicemail claimed. “I can’t wait ‘till our group sees you one day and I can rip your f------ rag off your head... I hope the Israelis kill every f------ one of you.”

In a statement, Omar said she and other Muslim Americans have been victims of a “dishonest smear” that equates criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with support for Hamas, which has created an environment where threats proliferate.

“It directly endangered my life and that of my family, as well as subjected my staff to traumatic verbal abuse simply for doing their jobs,” Omar said. “More importantly, it threatens the millions of American Muslims.”

“This toxic language and imagery has real-world consequences,” Omar continued. “House Republican leaders stay silent as their party unleashes these toxic attacks and refuse to hold extremists in their ranks accountable. Since assuming office, two men have pleaded guilty to threatening to kill me. This is very real. I fear for my children and have to speak to them about remaining vigilant because you just never know.”

Omar, Tlaib and other members of the “Squad” of progressive lawmakers have long been targets of conservative media, and they were frequently singled out by former President Donald Trump. 

Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., has called them the “Jihad squad,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., dubbed them the “Hamas caucus,” and the official campaign arm of House Republicans has labeled the pair “Hamas spox,” Washington slang for spokesperson. 

They have also faced official criticism from their own party and Jewish leaders. The White House called other “Squad” members’ initial response to the Hamas attack “repugnant,” while Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., said Wednesday that it was “truly disturbing” that members of Congress would take the word of Hamas over Israel after Tlaib repeated claims that Israel bombed a Gaza hospital. (U.S. officials believe it was a misfired Palestinian rocket, but questions remain.) 

Tlaib is now facing a censure motion from Republicans over the comments.

The security briefing last Thursday afternoon, organized in part by House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, also included Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., Cori Bush, D-Mo., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Delia Ramirez, D-Ill.

Due to persistent threats, several of those members have long been assigned security details, which is highly unusual for members of Congress outside top leadership roles. But Omar’s office said the threats in the past 10 days have been worse than ever.

In one voicemail left for her office, a male caller says, “I wish that someone would kill you and put you in hell.”

Another male caller says she should “drop dead for supporting f------ terrorists.”

“You work for this country,” the caller continues. “Pull your f------ head out of your f------ turban-wearing ass, and f------ see the light of day, you dumbass f------ terrorist-supporting f------ piece of s---.”

The caller who claimed Omar was being spied on also said the group targeting her had hacked into all of her accounts and was allegedly preparing to poison her and her family.

“Allegations are they’re going to kill you and we get to watch on the internet,” the caller said. “I pray that they f------ have justice on all you traitors.”

The Capitol Police said it does not comment on specific threats, but confirmed that it has been “enhancing security throughout the Capitol complex” and said it is “working around the clock to coordinate with our law enforcement and intelligence partners across the country to keep everyone safe.” 

Last summer, a Florida man was sentenced to three years probation and a $7,000 fine over a threat emailed to Omar, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley. And in 2020, a New York man was sentenced to a year in prison over threatening phone calls made to Omar. 

The offices of several Jewish members of Congress either did not respond to requests for information about threats or said they had not seen a notable spike.

Meanwhile, watchdogs have tracked a surge in the number of incidents targeting Muslim and Jewish Americans seemingly motivated by the conflict in the Middle East. 

The danger feels especially real to Muslims after a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy outside Chicago was killed in what authorities say was a hate crime. According to court documents, the boy’s landlord allegedly stabbed the boy 26 times after expressing hatred of Muslims and anger over the Hamas attack.

“We are undoubtedly seeing a spike in incoming threats and hate to the community,” said Corey Saylor, the research director at the Center for American-Islamic Relations, the country’s largest Muslim advocacy group, who said the group had been so busy responding to incidents that it hadn’t had a chance to tally numbers yet.

In addition to some isolated acts of violence and threats, like an Oregon mosque receiving the message “DIE MUSLIMS DIE!,” Saylor said he has been particularly concerned about attempts to intimidate students who have criticized Israel and spoken out about Palestinian causes. 

For instance, a mobile billboard circled Harvard Square last week displaying the names and faces of students involved in a controversial statement blaming Israel for creating the conditions that led to the attack, while Google was forced to remove an anonymously created document that included their names and personal identifying information in what Saylor called a “mass doxxing.” 

Meanwhile, Jewish organizations have also stepped up their security in response to growing threats. 

Oren Segal, who runs the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, said his group has tracked at least 141 antisemitic incidents (such as vandalism, harassment or assaults) in the 10 days between Oct. 7 and 17, which represents a 48% increase over that same period last year. 

ADL researchers also found a 400% surge in “non-specific” threats about killing Jews, “Zionists” or Israelis on the social media platform Telegram, an online space that has “incubated hatred and animated real-world activity in the past,” according to Segal.

Antisemitism has already been on the rise for several years, with FBI crime data released this week showing that anti-Jewish hate crimes rose 37% from 2021 to 2022, reaching the highest level in decades.

“In a time where a lot of the public narrative is focused on divisions between our communities, we need to be allies for everyone who is targeted by hatred,” Segal said of Jewish and Muslim communities. “Those hatreds are often combined not only in the minds of extremists, but those who want to divide our community.”

CORRECTION (Oct. 20, 2023, 5:18 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Marjorie Taylor Greene’s party affiliation. She’s a Republican, not a Democrat.