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'What happens if I am killed?' Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks out about threats

Omar said that for months, she had a 24-hour U.S. Capitol Police security detail with her.

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Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., speaks during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 26, 2023, in Washington, D.C.
Drew Angerer / TNS file photo

WASHINGTON — Death threats are a persistent part of U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar's life.

"I have to have regular conversations with my kids: 'What happens if I am killed?'" Omar said in an interview. "I have to have regular conversations with them about how to walk down the street, things to look for."

Since the Minneapolis Democrat won her congressional seat in 2018, two men have pleaded guilty to threatening to kill her. Omar's name, along with those of other prominent Democrats and some media figures, was found on a list put together by a man federal prosecutors warned "stockpiled assault weapons, studied violence, and intended to exact retribution on minorities and those he considered traitors."

In the most recent incident of threatening behavior, a man accused of starting fires at two Minneapolis mosques allegedly vandalized Omar's congressional office nearby and sent harassing emails.

When Democrats ran the House during her first four years in office, Omar said she could count on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to make sure she had the help and protection she needed. She said she lacks that confidence with the new Republican speaker, Kevin McCarthy.

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"I don't know if I feel confident that if things were to rise to a dangerous level again if I can rely on the current speaker to take my safety and the safety of some of my other former vulnerable colleagues (seriously)," said Omar, the first Somali American and one of the first Muslim women to serve in Congress.

A spokesman for McCarthy responded in an email that the speaker "has made clear his expectation that politics must be separated from security and has empowered the House Sergeant at Arms to work with U.S. Capitol Police to protect all Members of Congress as they deem necessary."

McCarthy promised before becoming speaker that Omar would be taken off the House Foreign Affairs committee, citing what he described in a tweet as her "repeated anti-Semitic and anti-American remarks." Republicans voted in February to oust Omar from the panel, and her office said the most recent surge in death threats was focused on her committee removal and the ensuing news coverage.

On the eve of the vote, Omar posted audio online of a message where a caller said she should get out of his country and that he'd kill her.

Omar's office said death threats against her increase when she's targeted by Republicans, with the worst level tied to when then-President Donald Trump denigrated her during the 2020 presidential race.

Omar said that for months, she had a 24-hour U.S. Capitol Police security detail with her. That protection meant during the Jan. 6 insurrection, she was in the same secure location as congressional leadership.

U.S. Capitol Police announced in a January news release that while threat investigations had decreased in 2022, "the caseload remains historically high." Every member of Congress gets concerning statements and threats and "the number of threats against both parties are similar," the news release noted.

"It's hard, not just for me, but mainly for my family and my staff," Omar said. "Oftentimes I personally worry about what happens if these people were to come for me, but I wasn't there. What would happen to either my children or the staff if they ended up being the targets of that?"

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Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Omar is a significant target of hate groups across the United States.

"There's a major correlation between hate attacks in Minnesota and her being the first hijab-wearing Muslim congresswoman," Hussein said.

A court filing alleges that late last year, an email account belonging to Jackie Rahm Little sent Omar's congressional office a photo of a man urinating on a Quran in a toilet and a picture of a bloody ear.

Little allegedly then went to Omar's Minneapolis office in January and spray-painted "500" on the front door. A federal investigator wrote that Little presumably went on to vandalize the patrol car of a Somali Minneapolis police officer and an entryway to the 24 Somali Mall in the same way. The filing also said the man later sent Omar's office other harassing emails before allegedly setting the April fires at the two mosques.

"It is unfortunate that he did end up targeting two masjids and now has a whole community that really is frightened and on edge," Omar said.

Negative rhetoric about her faith often generates death threats, Omar said, and some far-right House Republicans have made anti-Muslim comments about her. Republicans tend to call attention to her in campaign materials.

GOP U.S. Rep. Brad Finstad's campaign sent out an email earlier this year, first reported by MinnPost, that put the words "anti-Minnesota" and "anti-America" with check marks next to a photo of Omar. Finstad, by no means a partisan firebrand compared to some Republicans, did not comment in March when asked about concerns over that message.

While Omar is an outspoken progressive who has caused controversies during her career, her office said the threats she gets are almost always centered on her identity, religion or race.

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"I just wish people would see past all of the other things of her being Muslim, a refugee, a Somali, somebody that wears a hijab and all of those things, and being a Black woman in Congress," said Michigan Democratic U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who has also faced death threats and joined Omar as the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. "I wish they would see the humanity of her."

©2023 StarTribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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