(NEW YORK) — Extremists and bad faith actors have been hijacking the national debate in the United States around the Israel-Gaza war to call for violence, division and recruitment of mainstream audiences, law enforcement experts say.
They’ve been popping up at protests, using popularized language and spreading misinformation about the conflict online, according to researchers.
Members of the Montanans in Solidarity with Palestine say they were faced with this growing problem as they marched through the streets of Missoula on Oct. 21. Members say they came across a group of roughly 20 masked protesters chanting and holding signage containing xenophobic and racist hate speech.
The group, who members believed to be part of a local white supremacist hate group, “shouted as much as they could and we shouted them down,” Brendan Work, one of the organizers of the pro-Palestinian group, told ABC News.
“Our message was that hatred of any kind was not acceptable in our movement and would never be,” Work said.
He added that those being targeted by the group — including Jews and refugees — have been “on the forefront of the struggle for Palestinian liberation.”
The group reportedly chanted “hip hip Hamas! Hip hip Hezbollah!” in celebration of the Middle Eastern terrorist groups that have been in combat with Israeli forces, according to local reports, and falsely thanked pro-Palestinian marchers for their support.
The confrontation with the group stoked fear in pro-Palestinian protesters, as well as members of a local synagogue that the group had visited and protested earlier that day, the synagogue’s president told ABC News.
It was the first time Har Shalom, the synagogue, was visited by such a group, according to synagogue president Jamie Klein.
In the wake of the protests and ongoing tensions, Klein said the Missoula community has come together to show support for the synagogue.
“That was scary,” Klein told ABC News. “We’re really trying to stay unified and be strong together and come together in the face of antisemitism.”
The Montana incident is just one example of what experts are warning about regarding extremist groups and bad faith actors attempting to take advantage of the tensions.
As tensions spike in the U.S. amid the conflict in the Middle East, experts say extremist groups and bad faith actors are attempting to take advantage of the tensions.
“When there is a major event in the United States — particularly an event that the reaction to is polarized, that is highly politicized, that evokes a passionate and even angry response by those who are impacted by these events — you can be assured that those who wish for the downfall of the United States are going to seek to exploit it,” said John Cohen, a former Department of Homeland Security official and ABC News contributor.
Extremists hijack Israeli-Palestinian debate
The terrorist group Hamas launched an unprecedented surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7, and Israel retaliated with a bombing campaign and total siege of the neighboring Gaza Strip.
In Israel, at least 1,200 people have been killed and 6,900 others have been injured since Oct. 7, the Israeli prime minister’s office said as of Tuesday. In the neighboring Gaza Strip, at least 11,240 people have been killed and another 29,000 have been injured, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.
In the U.S., pro-Palestinian demonstrators have taken to the streets to call for a cease-fire in the war, as well as aid and freedom for Palestinians who live in what has been described as an “open-air prison” by international organizations such as the United Nations and advocacy groups such as Amnesty International.
Pro-Israel demonstrators have called for the immediate return of the 239 hostages Israeli officials say were taken by Hamas in the terrorist attack, as well as American support for Israel and combating the rise in antisemitism around the world since Oct. 7. And on Tuesday, thousands of demonstrators from across the country gathered in Washington, D.C., in support of Israel.
Experts say hate groups have been seen falsely claiming they’re part of these mainstream movements, using popular slogans alongside both antisemitic and Islamophobic messaging.
“You’re seeing something that might be just, in a different context, a pro-Palestinian statement, not antisemitic, but being co-opted and used by a violent extremist in support of their antisemitic ideology,” said Elizabeth Neumann, a former DHS official and ABC News contributor.
Extremist groups, as well as foreign agents, have different yet aligned goals for infiltrating the American political landscape, according to Cohen.
When it comes to foreign state actors — like those in Russia — their goal “is to further destabilize the United States to exacerbate our political and societal fractures to feed chaos and divert attention and support away from Ukraine,” Cohen explained.
For terror groups al-Qaida and the Islamic State, the goal is to promote their ideological and strategic objectives, according to Cohen. For white supremacists and neo-Nazis: “They see this as an opportunity to accelerate what they hope will be a coming race war in the United States,” he said.
This infiltration, and subsequent distortion of the movements’ intentions, puts the demographics at the center of the debate at risk of violence from across the ideological spectrum — protesters, Muslims, Arabs and the Jewish community alike, according to Neumann.
Across the country, federal agencies have warned that bias-motivated crimes and incidents are on the rise against the various demographics that appear to be connected to the conflict — Jews and Muslims, Arabs and Israelis, with some of these incidents happening at protest sites.
The nonprofit research organization Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) found several instances of demonstrators being subjected to physical attacks during otherwise peaceful protests.
According to the ISD, both antisemitic and anti-Muslim attitudes have also “snowballed” online since the current conflict in the Middle East began, mirroring the offline increase in violence being noted by law enforcement officials across the country.
Extremist language hits the mainstream
A recent analysis from the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public found that news discourse on X, formerly known as Twitter, has been dominated by inflammatory rhetoric and misleading information.
X did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment.
“Exposure is a key element,” Neumann said. “They’re literally flooding the zone to make it more difficult to know what the truth is.”
But this issue extends past the actions of deliberate extremists, Cohen told ABC News. He warns of hate being mimicked in the mainstream — by media personalities, influencers and public officials, exacerbating the already heightened environment.
With mainstream audiences being increasingly exposed to radicalized content online, it increases the likelihood that a small percentage of the population may start down the path of radicalization, Neuman added.
This has created a climate of uncertainty, fear and violence, Moustafa Ayad, executive director at the ISD for Africa, the Middle East and Asia, told ABC News.
“It’s not a small amount of messaging in the neo-Nazi communities around some of these events that are happening in the U.S.,” Ayad said. “We’re talking about a lot of sort of messages that seek to further divide or create violence at these marches, at these protests.”
Neumann’s research group Moonshot, which monitors extremist threats and violence, tracked online threats in October following Hamas’ terror attack.
“For our six-month baseline, threats against the Muslim community have gone up 417% and threats to the Jewish community have gone up 425%,” Neumann said.
Law enforcement experts anticipate that the longer the conflict lasts, “the higher the likelihood that we are going to experience acts of targeted violence directed at Jews, Arab-Americans [and] Muslims,” Cohen said.
Both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel community leaders in the U.S. say hate and violence are not a part of their messaging.
“To the extent that anyone has used any sort of antisemitic rhetoric or language, that’s unacceptable, just as the anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian rhetoric that we’ve seen is unacceptable, as well,” said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, deputy executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Mitchell said he believes that extremists are distracting from what he says are core issues around the decadeslong Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the region.
He continued, “You have millions of Americans over the past three weeks who have been horrified by the mass murders, killings in Gaza, and they’ve been calling for something very simple: an end to the violence and an end to the root cause of the cycles of violence, the [Israeli] occupation we’ve seen.”
Israeli and U.S. officials have rejected calls for a general cease-fire, but have agreed to implement daily 4-hour pauses in the fighting in Gaza to enable civilian evacuations and humanitarian relief.
Holly Huffnagle, the American Jewish Committee’s U.S. director for combating antisemitism, told ABC News that “antisemitism and extremism make strange bedfellows.”
“Neo-Nazis are using Palestinian symbols, including the Palestinian flag, and broadcasting their own anti-Zionism to promulgate anti-Jewish hate,” she said. “They do this all while still promoting their virulent Islamophobia.”
“These extremists are feeding off each other, both online and offline; instead of enabling them, we must push this hatred back to the fringes of society where it belongs,” she added.
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