US militia members plead guilty to pipe bomb attack on mosque

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In August 2017, the pair say, they threw a pipe bomb into the Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center in Illinois.

Hoping to scare Muslims into leaving the United States, members of an Illinoisan militia group rented a truck and drove more than 805km to bomb a Minnesota mosque, two men admitted on Thursday.

Michael McWhorter and Joe Morris said that when they arrived at the Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington on August 5, 2017, they broke a window and threw a lit pipe bomb and a petrol mixture inside, causing an explosion, fire and extensive damage.

No one was injured in the attack, which happened just as morning prayers were about to begin, shaking members of the local Muslim community.

McWhorter, 29, and Morris, 23, of Clarence, Illinois, pleaded guilty on Thursday to five counts in connection with the mosque attack, the attempted bombing of an Illinois abortion clinic, armed robberies and other crimes.

A third defendant, 47-year-old Michael Hari, who prosecutors said directed the bombing, remains in federal custody in Illinois.

The plea agreements portray Hari as the ringleader of a militia group called the White Rabbits, which included Hari, McWhorter, Morris and at least five other people. Hari’s trial is set for July.

The guilty pleas of McWhorter and Morris came a day before three members of another militia were set to be sentenced for a foiled plot to massacre Muslims in southwest Kansas by blowing up a mosque and apartments housing Somali immigrants.

That attack, planned for the day after the November 2016 presidential election, was thwarted after another member of the group tipped off authorities.

Anti-Muslim attacks have spiked since Donald Trump became the US president, rights groups say. 

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) recorded 300 hate crimes in the US targeting Muslims in 2017. That number marked a 15 percent increase from 2016, when CAIR recorded 260 incidents targeting Muslims.

Muslims ‘not going anywhere’ 

In the Minnesota mosque bombing, Hari allegedly picked Dar al-Farooq because it was far enough from the White Rabbits’ central Illinois hometown that he thought they wouldn’t be suspected. He also allegedly believed it was a focal point for “terrorism” recruiting, a claim that law enforcement has not substantiated.

Morris’s lawyer, Robert Richman, said his client merely followed the lead of Hari, a man he’d known as a father figure since he was nine years old.

“Hari essentially weaponised Joe Morris,” Richman said.

McWhorter’s lawyer, Chris Madel, said, “Human beings are a lot more complicated than what some people believe, and Michael McWhorter’s story has yet to be told.”

Morris and McWhorter could each face at least 35 years in prison.

Neither lawyer would say whether his client would cooperate or give evidence against Hari. Messages left with Hari’s lawyers in Illinois and Minnesota were not immediately returned.

White nationalists pass a militia member during the August 2017 Charlottesville rally [File: Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

The plea agreements say the men targeted the mosque to interfere with the free exercise of religion by Muslims and to let them know they were not welcome in the US.

Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of CAIR in Minnesota, said McWhorter and Morris wanted the Muslim community to be fearful and run away.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said.

According to the plea agreements, the men were headed towards Minnesota when Hari told McWhorter and Morris that he had a pipe bomb in the vehicle and they were going to bomb a mosque.

When the three arrived at Dar al-Farooq, Hari gave Morris a sledgehammer and told him to break a window, the plea agreements say. McWhorter then lit the fuse on the pipe bomb and threw it inside; Morris threw the petrol mixture.

McWhorter and Morris also pleaded guilty to their roles in a failed attack on an abortion clinic in Champaign, Illinois in November 2017. A pipe bomb that Morris said he and Hari threw into the clinic did not explode.

Robberies and foiled attacks 

The plea agreements say Hari, McWhorter, Morris and others also participated in an armed home invasion in Ambia, Indiana, and the armed robberies or attempted armed robberies of two Walmart stores in Illinois.

Morris and McWhorter also admitted to attempting to extort the Canadian National Railway by threatening to damage tracks if the railway didn’t pay them money.

Militia groups have been active in far-right protests in recent years [Chip Somodevilla/Reuters]

A fourth man, Ellis Mack of Clarence, already pleaded guilty to two counts in Illinois. He’s scheduled to be sentenced in April.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an Alabama-based hate monitor, identified 689 anti-government groups across the nation in 2017. Of that total, 40 percent were militias. 

In recent years, many militia groups have participated in far-right rallies, including violent clashes with anti-fascists, and carried out vigilante patrols on the US-Mexico border. 

Earlier this week, three men and a high school student were arrested over their alleged plans to attack Islamberg, a predominantly Muslim community in upstate New York. 

“If they had carried out this plot, which every indication is that they were going to, people would have died,” local Greece Police chief Patrick Phelan said.

“I don’t know how many and who, but people would have died.”

Islamberg was founded more than three decades ago by a group of black Muslims who follow the teachings of Pakistani Sufi scholar Mubarik Ali Shah Gilani.

According to the FBI, hate crimes across the country spiked by 17 percent in 2017.