Alleged Bloomington mosque bomber pleads not guilty

Asad Zaman stands at the site of the bombing.
Asad Zaman stands at the site of the bombing in the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center on Aug. 7, 2017, in Bloomington.
Courtney Pedroza | Star Tribune via AP

One of three alleged Illinois militia members accused of bombing a Twin Cities mosque last year has pleaded not guilty to hate crime and explosives charges.

Joe Morris, 23, appeared briefly in a St. Paul federal courtroom Tuesday to enter his plea. He, 47-year-old Michael Hari and 29-year-old Michael McWhorter are accused in a June grand jury indictment of driving from their hometown of Clarence, Ill., about two hours south of Chicago, to Bloomington, Minn., where in the early morning of Aug. 5, 2017, Morris allegedly smashed a window on the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center and McWhorter lit the fuse and tossed in a pipe bomb made from fuel and black powder.

The grand jury alleges the men bombed the mosque to frighten Muslims. Five people were in the building at the time. No one was injured, but the blast did quite a bit of damage.

Federal prosecutors in Urbana, Ill., say Hari, Morris, McWhorter and a fourth man are part of an anti-government group that calls itself the White Rabbit Militia. The Illinois indictment accuses the men of a long list of crimes.

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Prosecutors say the militia members tried bombing a women's clinic in Champaign, Ill. They also allegedly robbed or tried to rob Walmart stores and a drug dealer, tried extorting money from a railroad by putting bombs on train tracks, and planted explosives in the yard of another Clarence resident with whom Hari had a disagreement about loose dogs.

When they first brought these charges, prosecutors said they'd hoped to wrap up the Illinois case before pressing forward with the mosque bombing case.

Federal authorities now say the Illinois and Minnesota cases have been consolidated, at least for Morris and McWhorter. Hari — the alleged ringleader of the militia group — still faces separate indictments and is being held in Illinois.

McWhorter — the alleged bomb thrower — is expected to make his initial appearance Wednesday in St. Paul federal court. He and Morris are being held in the Sherburne County Jail, about an hour's drive northwest of St. Paul.

Besides the hate crime accusation, the three are also accused of attempting to obstruct by force the free exercise of religion. Authorities say Hari built the pipe bomb, rented a pickup truck in the Champaign-Urbana, Ill., area, and drove with the others more than 500 miles to Bloomington.

Mohamed Omar, executive director of the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center, was in the courtroom Tuesday to hear Morris' plea. Omar was at the mosque during the attack. After the hearing, Omar said seeing Morris brought back memories from last year.

"This guy ... I was in the room next to the one that they bombed. It could be me who was dead today," he said. "Today this guy was a few feet away from me. This was the real moment that I was reflecting, and it was very painful."