Maryland Muslim Cleric Hate
FBI probes Md. terror link in Detroit case
The Detroit News
September 22, 2016
— FBI agents are investigating an alleged conspiracy involving Detroit
terror suspect Sebastian Gregerson and believe he was plotting violent
jihad with a Maryland imam, The Detroit News has learned.
The conspiracy angle is revealed in more than 200 pages of sealed
federal court records obtained by The News that offer new details about
an FBI counterterrorism investigation spanning at least three states.
The investigation emerged July 31 when Gregerson of Detroit was
arrested in Monroe after allegedly buying fragmentation grenades from
an undercover FBI agent and amassing an arsenal of weapons.
Maryland Imam Suleiman Bengharsa allegedly helped finance the arsenal,
which included two AK-47s, handguns, seven rifles, a shotgun and
thousands of rounds of ammunition, according to the court records. It
is unknown whether the imam was financing weapons purchases in other
parts of the country.
“Based on the totality of the aforementioned information and evidence,
there is reason to believe that Bengharsa and Gregerson are engaged in
discussions and preparations for some violent act on behalf of (the
Islamic State),” an FBI agent wrote in a Jan. 7 search warrant
The scope, targets and number of people involved in the investigation are unclear, but the case also involves Virginia.
Bengharsa, 59, of Clarksburg, Md., laughed away most of the FBI’s
allegations, which he called “ridiculous,” and denied being an Islamic
“No, no, no, that is absolutely untrue,” Bengharsa said during a phone
interview with The News on Wednesday. “It might appear that way. I am
an advocate of the United States and the West getting the hell out of
the Middle East and the Muslim world.
“It’s ridiculous. All I can say is it’s ridiculous,” he added. “If this was the case, why haven’t they come to arrest me?”
Bengharsa, who also is known as Sheikh Suleiman Anwar, has not been charged with a crime during the ongoing investigation.
“It feels like McCarthyism,” Bengharsa said.
The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment about the allegations and investigation.
Search warrant affidavits that disclosed the focus on the imam were
briefly unsealed recently in federal court. The records were obtained
by The News before a federal magistrate judge resealed the filings.
The affidavits reveal FBI counterterrorism agents have spent months
analyzing bank records, social media accounts, phone records, emails
and messages involving Gregerson, 29, and the imam.
Gregerson, meanwhile, is an Islamic State supporter who fantasized
about killing local Muslim religious leaders and others, the FBI said.
Gregerson, aka Abdurrahman Bin Mikaayl, is being held without bond and
faces up to 10 years in federal prison if convicted of unregistered
possession of a destructive device and unlicensed receipt of explosive
He has not been charged with a terror-related crime amid the ongoing investigation.
Gregerson’s court-appointed lawyer David Tholen declined comment about the allegations involving Gregerson and the imam.
FBI agents likely are investigating whether the imam bankrolled weapons
purchases for anyone else and if there are plans underway for attacks,
said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former
“With terrorist financing, there is so much money flowing around the
world that it’s hard to find the transactions,” Henning said.
Bengharsa is the founder and director of the Islamic Jurisprudence
Center, an independent legal resource center near Baltimore that
promotes understanding of Sharia law.
The center has issued several fatwas, or religious edicts, including
one calling supporters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations
disbelievers and traitors to Allah.
“(Islamic Jurisprudence Center) management firmly believes and
propagates that Islamic law is divine law, and therefore, unequivocally
superior to man-made laws,” according to the center’s website.
Bengharsa appears to have extreme views, said Dawud Walid, executive
director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic
“He is on the very far fringe of the Muslim community,” Walid said. “
I’ve never heard of this guy before and if he was a prominent member in
the Muslim community, I would definitely know who he is.”
The investigation into Gregerson and the imam started approximately 18
months ago after a tipster told the FBI that Gregerson had grenades and
bazookas and supported the Islamic State and its violent methods,
according to court records.
Gregerson grew up near Ann Arbor, and converted to Islam after high
school. He is married, the father of 4-year-old twins and, until his
arrest, worked retail at a Target store.
Gregerson and the imam met about five years ago in Maryland, the FBI alleges.
“Suleiman Bengharsa is the former imam of a mosque Gregerson attended
while living in Maryland,” an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit.
Gregerson lived in Windsor Mill, Md., from 2011 to 2014.
During that time, Bengharsa was imam at the Masjid Umar mosque in
Woodlawn, Md. – less than three miles from Gregerson’s apartment –
according to the imam’s LinkedIn page.
The mosque is located in an industrial building between a body shop and an insurance agency.
By 2015, Gregerson had moved to Detroit and started amassing an arsenal
of weapons that included tactical knives, according to the FBI.
“(Islamic State) members have used knives that appear similar to those
purchased by Gregerson in beheadings, such as those seen in the videos
of ‘Jihadi John’ beheading western hostages,” an FBI agent wrote in one
search warrant affidavit.
Gregerson is a gun enthusiast, hunter and survivalist who has no
criminal record, his lawyer said during an earlier court hearing. The
firearms in question were bought legally, he added.
Gregerson also purchased numerous tactical training items, including rubber hand guns, dummy rounds and training knives.
“The nature of Gregerson’s purchases roughly correlate with
instructions given by (the Islamic State) to individuals living in
western countries on how to prepare to commit violent jihad in those
countries,” the FBI agent wrote in a filing.
The FBI subpoenaed Gregerson’s phone records and learned he was in
frequent phone contact with Bengharsa while amassing the arsenal.
Bank records obtained by the FBI showed the imam wrote a $1,300 check to Gregerson on June 24, 2015.
In the memo line on the check was the word “zakat,” a word referring to
the Muslim obligation to give charity, according to the FBI.
Gregerson cashed the check days later and deposited $800 in his
checking account, the FBI said. It was the largest deposit Gregerson
had made since opening the account.
“An analysis of Gregerson’s bank account reveals that the $800 provided
by Bengharsa financed several of the purchases ...,” including tactical
knives, dummy rounds and Japanese swords, the FBI agent wrote in court
The imam said he frequently gives money to needy people, particularly former members of his mosque.
“If that individual turns around and wants to use that money for
something else that’s illegal, the person who gave the money cannot be
held responsible,” Bengharsa said. “It’s pathetic if they are making
those connections. If that’s what this country has become, I’d rather
be in jail.”
The bank transaction described by the FBI lacks sophistication, Henning said.
“This is not out of the terrorist playbook,” he said. “It’s a little on
the amateurish side. You generally don’t write personal checks to buy
weapons for an attack.”
The imam had substantial assets, records show.
From January 2014 to August 2015, Bengharsa received 12 wire transfers
into his bank account totaling $902,710, according to the FBI. The
source of the funds is not identified in court records.
imam made several “substantial” cash withdrawals during that period and
wired money three times to an individual in Sana’a, Yemen, according to
“I cannot comment,” Bengharsa said, adding that he has been “blessed with money.”
Social media postings by both men led the FBI to conclude Gregerson and the imam support the Islamic State.
The FBI drew the conclusion after obtaining a search warrant in October
for Gregerson’s Facebook account. Gregerson only had eight Facebook
friends at the time, including the imam.
“Christians are not believers they are kafirun (infidels) and will
enter hellfire,” Gregerson wrote in an August 2014 post on Facebook.
In February 2015, Gregerson allegedly wrote on Facebook: “Ignorant
kuffar (infidels) will target those who cannot defend themselves. If
they see strength they will run like the cowards they are...”
Gregerson also was interested in Ahmad Jibril, a Dearborn cleric cited
as an inspirational leader for Syrian militants, according to court
After reviewing Facebook posts, the FBI also concluded Bengharsa was
“an avid (Islamic State) supporter and disseminator of (Islamic State)
propaganda,” an FBI agent wrote in a court filing.
On June 10, 2015, Bengharsa posted video from the Islamic State and a
photo of a soldier having his throat cut with a knife, the FBI said.
Days later, Bengharsa posted a link to a story about Egypt’s top prosecutor being killed in an attack.
“Bengharsa commented ‘Allahu Akbar!!’ (meaning, God is great),” the FBI agent wrote in a court filing.
Bengharsa, who worked as a prison imam for the Maryland prison system
from 2008-09, also linked to an Islamic State video of a Jordanian
pilot being burned alive in a cage, court records allege.
“Yeah, well, journalists do that all the time,” Bengharsa said Wednesday. “Are they being investigated?”
The allegations involving Gregerson and Bengharsa are unique, said
Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University's
Program on Extremism.
“We’ve seen the importance of so-called ‘spiritual sanctioners’ in past
homegrown terrorism cases but this one seems somewhat unique in its
scope,” Hughes said. “While more details will need to be forthcoming,
Mr. Gregerson clearly reached out to like-minded individuals in both
the online and offline realm. He appears to have found ideological
assurances in both places.”
The imam questioned the FBI’s motives for pursuing the investigation.
“At the end of the day, they have to have something and if they don’t
... they will look like an idiot in front of the system,” Bengharsa
said. “We Muslims, especially those of us in a public forum ... know
this is part of the deal. Part of the game is to scare you into
Extremist Imam Tests F.B.I. and the Limits of the Law
By SCOTT SHANE and ADAM GOLDMAN
SEPT. 30, 2016
The New York Times
— For more than a decade, Suleiman Anwar Bengharsa has served as a
Muslim cleric in Maryland, working as a prison chaplain and as an imam
at mosques in Annapolis and outside Baltimore. He gave a two-week
course in 2011 on Islamic teachings on marriage at the Islamic Society
of Baltimore, where President Obama made a much-publicized visit this
in the last two years, Imam Bengharsa’s public pronouncements have
taken a dark turn. On Facebook, he has openly endorsed the Islamic
State, posted gruesome videos showing ISIS fighters beheading and
burning alive their enemies and praised terrorist attacks overseas. The
“Islamic Jurisprudence Center” website he set up last year has
condemned American mosques as un-Islamic and declared that homosexual
acts should be punished by death.
is not all. An affidavit filed in federal court by the F.B.I. says that
Imam Bengharsa, 59, supplied $1,300 in June 2015 to a Detroit man who
used it to expand his arsenal of firearms and grenades. The man,
Sebastian Gregerson, 29, a Muslim convert who sometimes calls himself
Abdurrahaman Bin Mikaayl, was arrested in late July and indicted on
a year ago, in fact, the F.B.I. said in a court filing — accidentally
and temporarily made public in an online database — that agents
suspected the two men were plotting terrorism. “Based on the totality
of the aforementioned information and evidence, there is reason to
believe that Bengharsa and Gregerson are engaged in discussions and
preparations for some violent act on behalf of” the Islamic State, an
Imam Bengharsa has not been arrested or charged. It appears that the
authorities do not have clear evidence that he has broken the law. His
inflammatory statements are protected by the First Amendment, and
agents appear to have no proof that he knew Mr. Gregerson planned to
buy illegal explosives. In his checkbook, next to the notation for the
$1,300 check, Imam Bengharsa wrote “zakat,” or charity, the documents
bureau was sharply criticized for not acting more aggressively on prior
warnings about the men who carried out attacks in Orlando, Fla., in
June and in New York and New Jersey last month. And in early August,
the F.B.I. arrested a transit police officer from Fairfax, Va., after
watching him for six years before charging him with providing support
to the Islamic State. It was another case that raised questions — even
among agents — about why the F.B.I. and federal prosecutors waited so
long to act, potentially putting the public at risk.
testimony before Congress this week, the F.B.I. director, James B.
Comey, said the challenge for F.B.I. agents was determining when
someone has crossed the line from speech to criminal activity. “It’s
even protected speech to say I’m a fan of the Islamic State so-called,”
Mr. Comey said.
When the suspect is a cleric, like Imam Bengharsa, the matter is especially delicate.
very possible that he’s never crossed the legal threshold,” said Seamus
Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George
Washington University, who has closely followed the imam’s story. But
Mr. Hughes called the situation “perplexing and concerning.” The imam
“can take his supporters right up to the line. It’s like a making a
cake and not putting in the final ingredient. It’s winks and nods all
Bengharsa appears to have plenty of money. Court records say he
received $902,710 in wire transfers in 2014 and 2015, possibly an
inheritance. He told The Detroit News that he often helped needy people
like Mr. Gregerson. “If that individual turns around and wants to use
that money for something else that’s illegal, the person who gave the
money cannot be held responsible,” Imam Bengharsa said. “It’s pathetic
if they are making those connections. If that’s what this country has
become, I’d rather be in jail.”
The documents say he transferred money three times to an unnamed person in Yemen.
are also exploring contacts between Imam Bengharsa and other people
suspected of extremism or terrorism. One is Yusuf Wehelie, 25, a
Virginia man arrested in July and charged with weapons possession,
which would be illegal because he has a previous felony conviction for
Wehelie first came to public attention in 2010, when he and his
brother, Yahya Wehelie, both American citizens, were temporarily
detained in Cairo and prevented by the F.B.I. from flying home.
American officials said such delays were sometimes necessary to assess
whether a person posed a security threat. The American Civil Liberties
Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations protested that the
rights of such travelers were being violated.
Yusuf Wehelie’s detention hearing in July, the authorities said he had
told undercover agents that he supported the Islamic State and that if
he couldn’t join it overseas, he would attack a military recruiting
center, possibly using explosives. (Mr. Wehelie’s lawyer, Nina
Ginsberg, said that in later recorded conversations, he disavowed those
statements and later stopped replying to the undercover agents.)
Baltimore, another young man named Maalik Alim Jones was arrested late
last year and charged with joining a terrorist group in Africa. Imam
Bengharsa had preached on occasion at a Baltimore mosque Mr. Jones
attended, but it is not clear that they knew each other.
F.B.I. has been closely watching the imam for months, law enforcement
officials say. A spokesman for the bureau declined to comment.
authorities are concerned that Imam Bengharsa, who claims an impressive
list of scholarly credentials, may be spreading the Islamic State
message that violence can be justified against perceived enemies of the
faith. In view of the payment to Mr. Gregerson, they also fear he may
be financing other supporters of the Islamic State. The F.B.I. has said
in court that he is under investigation for conspiring and providing
material support to the Islamic State.
Bengharsa did not reply to emails, phone messages or a note left at his
townhouse in Clarksburg, Md., a town equidistant from Baltimore and
comments to The Detroit News, which first reported the link between Mr.
Gregerson and Imam Bengharsa last month, the imam said the government
was engaging in “McCarthyism” and that the accusations were
denied that he supported the Islamic State but said: “It might appear
that way. I am an advocate of the United States and the West getting
the hell out of the Middle East and the Muslim world.”
He added a question: “If this was the case, why haven’t they come to arrest me?”
Bengharsa, who was born in Libya, moved to the United States at age 10,
according to a biography he posted online. He claims to have received a
degree from Al Azhar University in Cairo, and additional degrees in
economics and Islamic studies.
lived in Texas and later, after embracing religion, worked as a
chaplain in Maryland prisons from 2006 to 2009, as an imam at the
Islamic Society of Annapolis from 2009 to 2010 and at Masjid Umar, a
small storefront mosque outside Baltimore, from 2011 to 2014. Last year
he created the Islamic Jurisprudence Center, whose street address turns
out to be a mailbox at the UPS Store near his home in Clarksburg. The
authorities said he also frequently visited another mosque, Dar
al-Taqwa, in the Baltimore suburb of Ellicott City.
Bengharsa appears to have long held very conservative views. In his
2011 lectures at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, for example, he said
Muslims must strictly follow the shariah, or Islamic law, no matter
where they live.
doesn’t help if you say ‘I’m now living in America’ or ‘I’m now living
in England,’ or ‘My culture says such and such.’ ” he said.
Imam Bengharsa’s harsh recent pronouncements set him much farther from
mainstream American Islam. On the Islamic Jurisprudence Center site in
April, he condemned by name the leading Muslim organizations in the
United States, 12 prominent clerics he called “evil scholars/imams,”
and a list of 22 mosques — including the two where he previously
worked. Since the court documents naming him were made public, he
removed those pages from his site, though they remain available in the
his standoff with the F.B.I., Imam Bengharsi appears to have scant
support in the American Muslim community. Muhammad Jameel, the
president of the Islamic Society of Baltimore, said that the imam’s
marriage lectures five years ago were his only connection to the mosque
and that his recent statements were “against all the tenets of Islam.”
“He’s a nut,” Mr. Jameel said. “He has freedom of speech. But if he’s a criminal, I want to see him in jail.”
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