The three men drove through the night in a rented pickup truck with a bag full of automatic rifles in the back seat, and after 10 hours on the road, Michael Hari revealed the objective of their trip.
“We’re going to go to Minnesota and we’re going to bomb a mosque,” Hari told them, according to Michael McWhorter’s testimony in St. Paul’s federal courthouse on Thursday morning. It was about 4 a.m. on Aug. 5, 2017, and the three men were an hour away from the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington.
McWhorter, one of the passengers in the truck, is a star witness for the prosecution in the domestic terrorism trial of Hari, which began Monday. McWhorter pleaded guilty in January 2019 to two federal charges related to the bombing of the mosque. Several people had gathered inside for dawn prayer when the pipe bomb ignited, along with a bottle full of gasoline and diesel fuel. The bombing didn’t injure anyone, but Muslim faith leaders in the Twin Cities say the attack irreparably shook their community.
Hari, 49, of Clarence, Ill., has pleaded not guilty to five federal charges, including multiple civil rights and hate crimes. Prosecutors say Hari’s hatred for Muslims, and for others who were different from him, motivated him to plan and help execute the bombing.
As part of McWhorter’s plea, he agreed to testify against Hari. McWhorter, 31, and Joe Morris, 25, the other man in the truck, will be key to proving the prosecution’s case that Hari was the mastermind behind the bombing and leader of a radical anti-Muslim militia called the “White Rabbits.”
In opening statements, Hari’s attorney, James Becker, urged jurors to be skeptical of testimony from McWhorter and Morris, saying their stories have changed over time. McWhorter said he didn’t hold strong political beliefs before he met Hari and had never voted. Under cross examination, Becker read several Facebook posts in which McWhorter makes pro-Donald Trump, anti-Muslim statements in summer 2017. McWhorter said he didn’t specifically recall writing the posts but said he must have done so if they’re under his name.
Under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty, McWhorter told the jury Thursday that Hari took advantage of his desperate financial situation in 2017 to recruit him for what Hari originally called security work. At the time, McWhorter said, he’d lost his job and was supporting 11 people, including his wife and her four children. He was a high school dropout struggling to make ends meet.
Hari, a friend of McWhorter’s parents who ran for sheriff on the Libertarian ticket years earlier, offered him $50,000 plus regular installments of $6,000 to join his new company, McWhorter said. McWhorter readily agreed, even though Hari was vague about what the work entailed.
At one point, McWhorter said, Hari showed him images from rioting in Ferguson, Mo., following the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man. Hari said they would be going into situations such as this “on the right-wing side,” where they would “damage buildings” and, if necessary, “defend themselves,” according to McWhorter.
Hari taught McWhorter about fully automatic weapons, and one day they drove together to Indiana, where Hari bought black powder from an ammo shop, McWhorter said.
On Aug. 4, 2017, Hari told him to get ready for a trip that could take four days to a month, and to leave his cellphone at home, McWhorter said.
“He said we were going to work,” recalled McWhorter.
Hari picked up McWhorter that evening in the rented truck, along with Morris, whom McWhorter had never met, he said. They drove on back roads to avoid cameras in toll booths. McWhorter said Hari packed the car with assault rifles, a sledgehammer, masks, gloves and equipment to jam cellphones or police radio signals. Hari stopped at a gas station, where he filled up a plastic bottle with diesel fuel and gas.
They arrived at the Dar Al-Farooq mosque around 5 a.m. Hari instructed Morris to break open a window with a sledgehammer, throw in the gas-diesel concoction, and for McWhorter to light a black-powder pipe bomb and throw it inside, according to McWhorter. It was still dark. McWhorter said he believed the building was empty, and they were sending a message that mosque members would receive upon arriving to find their place of worship burning.
Hari described Dar Al-Farooq as a “terrorist training school” to the others. It’s unclear exactly why the bombers chose that particular mosque, but McWhorter said: “If you drive to Minnesota and bomb a mosque, you’re less likely to be a suspect.”
McWhorter said he chose a dark window in the mosque because he “didn’t want to hurt anyone.” He fumbled with the fuse and had to borrow a lighter from Morris to light it properly. After following Hari’s orders, they ran back to the truck, where Hari was waiting as the “getaway driver,” said McWhorter, and he saw a man standing in the entryway of the mosque staring at him.
The three men found out their operation had been successful after hearing a report of a bombing on their police scanner. They drove back a different route and stopped at a rundown motel in Iowa for a couple of hours to get off the road. When they learned the bomb blew up in the office of the imam, Hari told McWhorter he’d “hit a hole in one,” said McWhorter.
It took seven months for the FBI to track the men down and arrest them. In the meantime, McWhorter said, Hari dubbed their militia the “White Rabbits” and started recruiting others, including McWhorter’s brother and stepson, to join. Hari gave them military ranks, deeming himself “captain” and McWhorter “sergeant,” and split them up into “security” and “assault” teams with different responsibilities. Hari issued them assault rifles, uniforms and patches.
Hari spoke frequently about his hatred for the Islamic religion, said McWhorter. This included calling Muslims “sheep” and other more vulgar terms. He talked about a Muslim-Christian war, and said Islam was incompatible with American patriotism.
When the FBI started to close in, the men fled into the countryside, where they survived on vienna sausages and ditch water.
“I was scared, I didn’t know what to do,” said McWhorter.
He said he thought he was “obligated to stay in” the White Rabbits because of the role he’d played in the bombing.
McWhorter and Morris face up to 35 years in prison, and they’re asking the judge for leniency in exchange for their cooperation.
Becker questioned McWhorter’s motives for testifying.
“The point is to get a lower sentence, right?” asked Becker.
McWhorter answered yes. “Who wouldn’t want a lower sentence? Of course.”
McWhorter’s attorney, Christopher Madel, said afterward that his client’s testimony was “devastatingly honest.”
Morris is expected to testify this week or early next week.