Three members of a Kansas militia with a hatred of Muslim immigrants have been found guilty of plotting to blow up a mosque and apartment complex that housed Somali refugees in order to “wake people up”.
A federal jury in Wichita convicted Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright and Curtis Allen on charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights.
Wright was also convicted of lying to the FBI. The men, who pleaded not guilty, face up to life in prison when they are sentenced on 27 June.
Their plot developed against a backdrop of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign intensified ahead of the November 2016 election.
According to prosecutors, the group decided to detonate explosive-filled vehicles at corners of an apartment complex with many Somali residents.
After a tip-off from a paid informant – another militia member, whose covert recordings were played in court – the FBI began a months-long domestic terrorism investigation of militia groups known as the Kansas Security Force and the Crusaders.
In phone conversations and meetings in the city of Liberal, authorities said, the accused referred to Muslims as “cockroaches” and denigrated Somali women.
They schemed to destroy the complex in Garden City, a place with 27,000 inhabitants about 210 miles west of Wichita that was once held up as a beacon for ethnic diversity in the rural midwest because of an influx of immigrants working at a meat-packing plant.
“Their ultimate goal was to wake people up and to slaughter every man, woman and child in the building,” the assistant US attorney Anthony Mattivi said in his closing argument in federal court in Wichita on Tuesday.
Authorities said the bombing was to have been timed for the day after the election because the conspirators feared that an attack before the vote would boost turnout for Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“We cannot let Hillary back into the White House,” Stein allegedly said in text messages to an undercover agent. “If she was to be elected, it would be very soon after the election, ‘game on.’”
In an apparent echo of Trump’s pre-election claim that the vote was being “rigged” against him, a lawyer for Stein said in 2017 that his client believed that Barack Obama would have declared the outcome invalid and introduced martial law if the Republican candidate won, and so was preparing to “defend” himselffor a period of social unrest.
In January this year the judge denied a request from the defendants’ attorneys to increase the number of Trump voters in the jury pool.
Defense lawyers argued that the men were merely expressing views, not developing concrete plans, that they were propelled by unfair government tactics and that “we all have the right to hate”.
According to the criminal complaint, the men “routinely expressed a hatred for Muslims, individuals of Somali descent, and immigrants. Prosecutors said they chose the target because of their hatred of these groups, their perception that these groups represent a threat to American society, a desire to inspire other militia groups, and a desire to “wake people up”.
Stein, armed with a pistol and assault rifle, wearing a ballistic vest and holding a night vision scope, conducted surveillance on a mall popular with Somali shoppers, on a mosque and on cars occupied by Muslims.
He is said to have told the informant that he had the same explosive components as those used by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people in 1995.
Described by law enforcement as a leader of the group, Stein discussed various possible attacks, including shooting Muslim refugees in a revenge attack for the 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre, blowing up Somali people in their apartments using rocket-propelled grenades, and burning down mosques and churches that have helped refugees.
He allegedly said: “The only fucking way this country’s ever going to get turned around is it will be a bloodbath” and “The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim”.
Wright had dropped pins on Google Maps of locations of possible targets. In October 2016, after Allen’s girlfriend contacted local police to make an assault claim, agents executed a search warrant at Allen’s house and found bomb-making materials, guns and “close to a metric ton of ammunition”.
Hate crime incidents rose across the US in 2016, according to FBI statistics, with Muslims frequently targeted.
Mursal Naleye, the president of Garden City’s African community center, said the verdict would bring relief to Garden City’s 500-strong Somali refugee
The mosque is located within an apartment complex in Garden City, Kansas. Photograph: Stringer/Reuters
“I’m so happy. Everybody in this community will feel safer,” he said.
“If they found them not guilty, people would have started leaving to get away from the city. But now everyone is saying: ‘OK, we feel safe.’”
Naleye said the community had been on edge since the foiled attack was announced by US prosecutors shortly before the 2016 election. “As soon as it happened, when we found out there were people trying to attack our community, everyone felt different. It opened up a lot of nerves.”
Two high-profile, fatal hate-related crimes have taken place in Kansas in recent years. Last month a white man pleaded guilty to the fatal shooting of an Indian immigrant in a bar in Kansas City in February 2017. Witnesses said that Adam Purinton yelled “get out of my country!” before firing at two men who worked as engineers.
In 2015 a white supremacist who said he wanted to murder Jews and that “diversity is a code word for white genocide” was convicted of murdering three people, including a 14-year-old boy, outside Jewish centers.
Moussa Elbayoumy, of the Kansas branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, warned that America’s current political atmosphere was making open expressions of hate seem more acceptable.
“We have seen the negative perceptions of Islam and expressions of that have definitely increased over the last year,” he said. “We feel that the political atmosphere did not incite these feelings as much as made it easier for them to go out in the open. It became acceptable to express those feelings where in the past people had them but did not actually act on them or take them out in public.”
Speaking after the sentence, he said: “We hope that this decision will be a forewarning for any people that have any hate ideas in their heads or want to act on those feelings in a violent way, that they will be held accountable.
“As much as we see a small minority of people being vocal against immigrants and refugees, we are finding a larger number of people with a louder voice expressing support and welcoming immigrants and refugees, so there’s a silver lining.”
Ifra Ahmed, another prominent member of Garden City’s Somali community, said that the town had rallied together throughout the weeks of proceedings.
“Sometimes people say things that are hurtful. But that doesn’t mean it’s how you should see things. I think we’re able to look past that because the reality is that there’s a lot of good people in this town. And people have been good to us.”
“I love this place,” he said. “This town is my home.”