Illinois men sentenced to less than minimum for Minnesota mosque bombing

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April 13 (Reuters) - A federal judge in Minnesota on Tuesday sentenced two Illinois men to much less than mandatory minimum 35-year prison sentences after they pleaded guilty to roles in the 2017 bombing of a mosque outside of Minneapolis and cooperated with prosecutors of the militia leader who masterminded the plot.

Michael McWhorter, 33, and Joe Morris, 26, were ordered to jail for 16 years and 14 years, respectively for helping carry out the attack on Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center while worshipers participated in morning prayers, according to court documents.

They were charged with firearms, arson, use of a destructive device and federal civil rights violations. No one was hurt in the explosion.

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In September, Emily Claire Hari, the militia group leader formerly known as Michael Hari who was convicted of masterminding the pipe bombing on Aug. 5, 2017, received a 53-year sentence. McWhorter and Morris cooperated in that case, so Assistant U.S. Attorneys Allison Ethen and Timothy Rank asked for a judgment below the sentencing guidelines.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank at Hari's sentencing said the bombing was a "premeditated act of domestic terrorism" against the place of worship in Bloomington, Minnesota, which serves as a community for Somali immigrants.

"The government recognizes and values McWhorter and Morris’s cooperation throughout this case, which contributed to Hari’s conviction," U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said in a statement. "Today, justice under the law has been served for their actions."

Five religious leaders of Muslim, Christian and Jewish faith also gave victim impact statements, advocating for mercy, the Star Tribune reported.

Explaining his decision, Frank said he weighed the need to deter similar crimes, the report said. "When all is said and done lesser sentences would not "promote respect for the law," Frank said, according to the Tribune.

Minnesota has the largest Somali community in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Prosecutors said Hari recruited the pair into a terrorist militia group called "The White Rabbits" and later drove a rented pickup truck more than 500 miles to the mosque.

Morris is alleged to have used a sledgehammer to break a window at the Islamic center in the early morning of Aug. 5, while worshippers gathered for morning prayers, and of throwing a container of diesel and gasoline into the Imam’s office.

McWhorter lit the fuse on a pipe bomb Hari built and threw it into the office, igniting the fuel. The two returned to the vehicle where Hari was waiting and sped off, according to U.S. prosecutors.

FBI agents arrested Hari, McWhorter and Morris, all from Clarence, Illinois, in March 2018.

All three were indicted the following June. McWhorter and Morris pleaded guilty to their roles in January 2019.

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Reporting by Tyler Clifford; Editing by David Gregorio

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