Jury selection begins Monday in St. Paul in the trial of an Illinois man accused of firebombing a suburban Twin Cities mosque more than three years ago. Michael Hari, 49, the alleged leader of an anti-government militia, faces hate crime and explosives charges in the first major federal trial in Minnesota since the pandemic began.
On Aug. 5, 2017, five men gathered for early prayers at the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center, in a former school building not far from the Mall of America.
“I remember that morning, 5 a.m., it was a beautiful day.”
Mosque executive director Mohamed Omar sat at a long conference table in the imam’s office earlier this year, and recounted what happened next.
“This is the window that they threw the bomb through, and the next window was mine. And the fortunate thing is that this wall is a brick wall. This wall is a solid wall. Otherwise if it had been sheetrock, it would have destroyed everything, including me,” Omar said.
Shrapnel from the 10-pound black powder pipe bomb pierced chairs and desks. The attackers also tossed in a container of gasoline and diesel fuel. Omar and the others in the building that morning walked away without physical injuries. But he says the firebombing left everyone in the Dar Al Farooq community on edge.
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“We suffered from this attack. This was an attack on our sense of security, on our freedom of religion, on our being able to be who we are.”
Omar fled civil war in Somalia as a teenager three decades ago, but says he never feared for his life until domestic terrorists came to suburban Minneapolis.
Many of the mosque’s neighbors rallied in support of the victims, trade unions donated labor to repair the damage, and federal investigators promised to make the case a top priority. Nearly six months later, a tipster called an FBI hotline and alleged the attackers were three militiamen from the small town of Clarence, Ill. — more than 500 miles from Dar Al Farooq — and their ringleader was Michael Hari.
Soon a second tip came in, indicating that someone in the hamlet south of Chicago had a cache of explosives in his backyard shed. But, as investigators would learn, it was Hari who allegedly planted the material and tried to frame his neighbor by emailing a phony tip to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
When federal agents started knocking on doors, Hari went into hiding, put on a ski mask and took to YouTube with several other men. They posted a video pleading for help from other militias to fend off what Hari called a federal intrusion.
Eventually, Hari was arrested along with 31-year-old Michael McWhorter and 25-year-old Joe Morris. Federal prosecutors filed hate crime and explosives charges.
Investigators allegedly recovered illegally modified AR-15 rifles and other paramilitary paraphernalia including bandoliers, uniforms and Hari’s tactical vest with a patch that says “pork-eating crusader.”
University of Chicago historian Kathleen Belew studies the white power and other far-right movements. She says adherents view Islam as a personal threat.
“One important thing for people to understand about this kind of activism is this very visceral sense of apocalyptic emergency that these activists see in many issues as they go about their lives. It’s that state of emergency I think that moves people toward radicalization and violence.”
McWhorter and Morris pleaded guilty early last year, and said they attacked the mosque because Hari told them it was a terrorist recruiting ground. Dar Al Farooq drew attention in far-right media in recent years after reports that several young men convicted of trying to join ISIS had gathered there. But authorities found no evidence that religious leaders radicalized them. In fact, Dar Al Farooq once banned a man for expressing extremist views.
McWhorter and Morris may testify against Hari at trial. His attorney did not respond to recent requests for comment, and Hari earlier declined to be interviewed.
No matter the outcome of his trial in St. Paul, Hari faces additional charges in Illinois. Besides allegedly planting explosives on his neighbor’s property, federal prosecutors also say that in the months after the mosque attack, Hari tried to blow up a women’s clinic in Champaign, robbed several Walmart stores, and sabotaged train tracks in an attempt to extort money from a railroad.