ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — One of two Illinois men who pleaded guilty to a 2017 bombing of a Minnesota mosque testified that the group’s alleged ringleader timed the attack to precede early morning prayers and didn’t tell the others what he was planning until they were nearing their target.
Michael McWhorter, 31, testified Thursday that once he learned of Michael Hari’s plans, he did what Hari said because he feared he’d be shot if he didn’t.
Hari, 49, of Clarence, Illinois, is the only one of the three men accused in the attack to go to trial. He has pleaded not guilty to five federal charges, including civil rights and hate crimes, stemming from the Aug. 5, 2017, attack on the Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington. No one was injured in the blast, but the building was damaged.
McWhorter and another man, 25-year-old Joe Morris, pleaded guilty to their roles in the bombing. Morris was also expected to testify. Hari’s attorney, James Becker, told jurors that McWhorter and Morris have changed their stories and were testifying to try to get reduced sentences. They both face mandatory minimum sentences of 35 years in prison.
McWhorter testified that he was in financial trouble in the summer of 2017 when Hari offered him work in “security” for his company, Minnesota Public Radio News reported. In the days before the attack, McWhorter said he drove with Hari to a gun shop in Indiana, where Hari purchased black powder. McWhorter said that on Aug. 4, Hari told him to leave his cellphone at home and pack enough clothes for a month, and that “we were going to work.”
McWhorter said Hari packed the car with assault rifles, a sledgehammer, masks, gloves and equipment to jam cellphones or police radio signals. McWhorter testified that he, Hari and Morris drove about 500 miles (800 kilometers) to Minnesota using paper maps and avoiding toll roads to avoid being tracked.
Hari told the men that they were going to bomb a mosque when they were about an hour from their destination. McWhorter said that when they stopped for gas, Hari filled a plastic bottle with diesel fuel and gasoline.
Morris has admitted that he threw the container into the mosque after smashing a window. McWhorter said he lit the fuse on the pipe bomb and threw it inside. Prosecutors say the device contained about 10 pounds of black gunpowder and shook the building’s cinder block walls.
McWhorter said Hari chose Dar Al Farooq because he thought investigators would not suspect someone from Illinois and Hari believed it was a “terrorist training school.” Some young people from Minnesota who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State group had worshipped at Dar al-Farooq, but mosque leaders were never accused of any wrongdoing.
It took seven months for the FBI to find the men. During that time, McWhorter said, Hari named their group the “White Rabbits” and recruited others. Hari gave them military ranks, calling himself “captain,” and split them into “security” and “assault” teams. Hari gave them assault rifles, uniforms and patches, the Star Tribune reported.
McWhorter said Hari spoke often about his hatred of Islam and Muslims. When the FBI started to close in, the men fled to the countryside, where they survived on vienna sausages and ditch water.
“I was scared, I didn’t know what to do,” McWhorter said.
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