FBI probes Md. terror link in Detroit case
Detroit — 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 application.
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 State supporter.
“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 materials.
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 federal prosecutor.
“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 Relations.
“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 records.
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.
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.
“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 records.
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 submission.”