Detroit — An Islamic State “soldier” accused of plotting violent jihad was sentenced to almost four years in federal prison Wednesday in a case that leaves lingering questions about his network of radical supporters.
The 45-month sentence for Detroiter Sebastian Gregerson, aka Abdurrahman Bin Mikaayl, capped a prolonged FBI investigation involving Islamic State supporters, radical threats and an imam who helped Gregerson amass a weapons cache.
Gregerson, 30, did not react to the sentence and declined to address U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow. He also declined to clarify dueling portraits drawn by the government –which called him an unrepentant radical ISIS supporter – and his lawyer who said Gregerson never plotted an attack and merely exercised his free speech rights while praising terrorist attacks worldwide and amassing a weapons arsenal.
“I don’t know how dangerous you are but your conduct has not created an action event that could be called dangerous,” the judge said. “If your language is accurate and meaningful, the only way to deter you is to put you in prison for the rest of your life.”
Neither the government nor defense asked for such a stiff sentence, the judge noted.
“Will you be deterred” from committing another crime, the judge asked. “I don’t know. I’m not a mind reader.”
The sentence came five months after Gregerson reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors.
Prosecutors wanted Gregerson to spend five years in prison for a gun crime and acquiring an unregistered destructive device, a fragmentation grenade he bought from an undercover FBI employee last summer.
“He approves of terrorist attacks by ISIS and views himself as a soldier in that war,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Cathleen Corken told the judge.
Corken said social media posts and conversations recorded by an undercover FBI employee during a 16-month investigation proved Gregerson supported ISIS. She cited several comments Gregerson made, including one in which he critiqued ISIS attacks and suggested ways to boost the body count.
“That is beyond creepy,” Corken said. “This is chilling. When he walks out of prison, will he be anything else but an ISIS adherent?”
Gregerson is not an ISIS supporter, his lawyer said.
The Detroit man was merely exercising his First Amendment rights and stockpiling weapons while preparing for doomsday, his lawyer said Wednesday.
“Someone close to (Gregerson) said he talks a lot of crap. I agree,” defense lawyer David Tholen said. “Mr. Gregerson and everyone in the U.S. is entitled to unpopular speech. Ultimately, that’s what the government has.”
Gregerson was never charged with a terrorism-related crime despite FBI investigators’ belief that he was plotting violent jihad with a Maryland imam, Suleiman Bengharsa.
The FBI has been “nipping at the heels” of Bengharsa but it does not appear that investigators have enough evidence to charge him with a terrorism-related crime, said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University's Program on Extremism.
“It would be out of turn if the FBI wasn’t looking at him,” Hughes said. “Either there is not a public case yet or not enough to build a case.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed sealed documents as part of Gregerson’s sentencing process and would not address the status of the investigation into Bengharsa.
The case is unusual because Gregerson was not acting alone and, according to prosecutors, was part of a broader group of Islamic State supporters.
“(Gregerson) was a bit more networked than the normal ISIS in America case,” Hughes said. “He got some level of spiritual sanctioning through (Bengharsa) – an in-person recruiting or radicalization.”
The Detroit News previously revealed that the FBI was investigating Bengharsa, who was identified in search warrant affidavits accidentally unsealed in federal court in September. The News obtained copies of the affidavits, which said Bengharsa financed part of Gregerson’s weapons arsenal, before they could be sealed by a judge.
The imam gave Gregerson $2,500, according to the government.
Bengharsa, who also is known as Sheikh Suleiman Anwar, told The News the $2,500 he gave Gregerson was charity and denied being an Islamic State supporter.
The money helped finance a weapons cache found at Gregerson’s apartment, including two AK-47s, handguns, seven rifles, a shotgun and thousands of rounds of ammunition, according to court records.
The money Gregerson spent was significant considering he made $9.50 an hour stocking shelves at Target, prosecutors said. One gun purchase roughly equaled the amount of his $489.16 bi-weekly paycheck.
“The defendant spent an increasing proportion of his small salary on weapons and weapon-related accessories in answer to ISIS’s call to amass weaponry, rather than on necessities for his wife and two young children,” the prosecutor wrote.
Gregerson and the imam met about six 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.
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.
The imam made several “substantial” cash withdrawals during that period and wired money three times to an individual in Sana’a, Yemen, according to the FBI.
Social media postings by both men led the FBI to conclude Gregerson and the imam support the Islamic State.
“Christians are not believers they are kafirun (infidels) and will enter hellfire,” Gregerson wrote in an August 2014 post on Facebook.
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 also linked to an Islamic State video of a Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage, court records allege.
Prosecutors reminded the judge that one of Gregerson’s associates, Virginia terror suspect Yusuf Wehelie, was sentenced to 10 years in prison this summer – more than three times the amount sought by prosecutors.
Wehelie, 26, was convicted of a gun crime but prosecutors allege he talked about massacring military recruits in Springfield, Virginia.
The government does not detail the link between Gregerson and Wehelie but called the Virginia man a “known associate.”
In Gregerson’s case, there was no specific plot or target, his lawyer wrote in a court filing.
Gregerson should spend three years and one month in prison, he argued.
Gregerson is remorseful and has been punished already by being jailed for 13 months since his arrest, his lawyer wrote in a court filing Wednesday.
“...the government has systematically overstated its case and attempted to support its pre-conceived theory of the case by cherry-picking facts, frequently out of context, and ignoring any plausible alternative explanation to the events in question,” Tholen wrote.
Nationwide, 133 people have been charged with offenses related to the Islamic State in the last three years and 76 have pleaded guilty or been found guilty, according to George Washington University's Program on Extremism.
The average sentence was 14.3 years in prison.
“Sentencings have been all over the map in the U.S.,” Hughes said. “It’s scattershot.”