Feds' Ford County terrorism probe shifts to email account

Feds' Ford County terrorism probe shifts to email account

URBANA — Federal authorities gained permission from a judge to search an email account believed to be used by the leader of a Ford County militia group linked to acts of terrorism, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Urbana.

The email account — illinoispatriot@protonmail.com — is believed to have been used by Michael B. Hari, 47, of Clarence, to make extortion demands from his militia group's targets and communicate with some of the other 13 militia groups active in the U.S., as well as so-called "higher-ups" from whom Hari's group would receive its next "missions," according to an affidavit attached to an application for the search warrant.

U.S. District Court Judge Eric Long issued the search warrant about two months after Hari and three other members of his "White Rabbits" homegrown domestic terrorism group were arrested in connection with the August 2017 firebombing of a mosque in Minnesota and the November 2017 attempted arson of a women's health clinic in Champaign, among other alleged terrorist acts.

The FBI used the warrant to search about 45 megabytes of emails and attachments from Hari's email account, FBI special agent Joel Smith said in court documents.

The FBI intended to use the information obtained from Hari's emails to learn his state of mind as it relates to his militia group's alleged crimes; any "potential future bombing targets and the motive for targeting those locations"; Hari's schedule and travel patterns since July 2017; any email communications meant to obstruct law enforcement investigations; and the identity of people with whom he may have communicated about his crimes, including records that help reveal their whereabouts.

The FBI's Barbara Robbins said in an affidavit in support of the warrant that she believed Hari used the email account to "further his criminal activity and to attempt to prevent detection of his criminal online activity and conspiratorial contacts from law enforcement."

Robbins said one of Hari's co-defendants — Michael J. McWhorter, 29, of Clarence — was interviewed following his March 13 arrest, telling FBI agents that Hari had a Proton email account that masked the IP address he used. According to Robbins, McWhorter said he believed that Hari used the email account to send an extortion demand to the owner of railroad tracks in southern Illinois that his group damaged using an incendiary device.

McWhorter said Hari demanded the payment of a "substantial sum of money to prevent additional sabotage in the future," Robbins said.

Another of Hari's co-defendants — Joe Morris, 23, of Clarence — later told FBI agents that Hari would use the email account to communicate with some 13 other militia groups similar to the White Rabbits, as well as "higher-ups" from whom Hari would receive his next "missions," two of whom Hari had identified to Morris.

"Hari told Morris that if Hari ever got arrested, Morris should assume control over the illinoispatriot@protonmail.com account," Robbins said.

Morris said that Hari had given him the username and password for the account and then told agents the username and password during the interview, Robbins said.

Besides Hari, McWhorter and Morris, also charged in U.S. District Court in Urbana in connection with the militia group's activities is Ellis Mack, 18, of Clarence.

Last Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Colin Bruce agreed to push back the trial of the four men from August to Nov. 13.

The four men continue to be jailed in the Central District of Illinois on charges of conspiracy to interfere with commerce by threats and violence and possession of a machine gun for crimes they allegedly committed in Illinois and Indiana last year.

Hari, McWhorter and Morris are also charged with attempted arson for trying to burn down the Women's Health Practice, 2125 S. Neil St., Champaign, on Nov. 7. The homemade explosive device employed in the attempt fizzled before it could do any damage.

The three older men have also been indicted by a federal grand jury in Minnesota for civil rights and hate crime violations in connection with the Aug. 5 firebombing of the Dar al Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minn., which set off a fire that damaged the office but did not injure anyone.

Will Brumleve is editor of the Ford County Record, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit fordcountyrecord.com.

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