FBI in­ves­ti­gated ex-prison imam

Probe of al­leged at­tack plan in Mich. in­cluded man who min­is­tered to Md. in­mates

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Ian Dun­can

An imam who once min­is­tered to Mary­land prison in­mates has been in­ves­ti­gated by the FBI in con­nec­tion with an al­leged Is­lamic State-in­spired plot in Detroit, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

Agents ob­tained a search war­rant for Suleiman Beng­harsa’s Face­book ac­count in Novem­ber af­ter telling a judge that agents sus­pected the imam had helped a man named Se­bas­tian Gregerson to amass an ar­se­nal of weapons.

“There is rea­son to be­lieve that Beng­harsa and Gregerson are en­gaged in dis­cus­sions and prepa­ra­tions for some vi­o­lent act on be­half of ISIL,” an FBI agent wrote, us­ing the gov­ern­ment’s pre­ferred acro­nym for the Is­lamic State.

The con­nec­tions the FBI says it found be­tween the two men are laid out in a series of fed­eral search war­rant ap­pli­ca­tions that were mis­tak­enly un­sealed in Michi­gan. The Detroit News first re­ported on the doc­u­ments, which are no longer pub­licly avail­able.

Beng­harsa, 59, has not been charged with a crime. In a brief in­ter­view at the door of his home in Mont­gomery County, Beng­harsa said he “of course” de­nied the al­le­ga­tions in the court doc­u­ments. He said his lawyer — whom he de­clined to iden­tify — had told him not to say more. Beng­harsa

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in Mary­land de­clined to com­ment. The Detroit of­fices of the U.S. at­tor­ney and the FBI could not be reached.

The sta­tus of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Beng­harsa is not clear. The FBI con­tin­ued to in­ves­ti­gate Gregerson af­ter search­ing his Face­book and email ac­counts, and he was ar­rested in July af­ter he al­legedly tried to ob­tain high-ex­plo­sive grenades from a pair of un­der­cover agents. Gregerson is wait­ing to stand trial in Detroit. His lawyer did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Beng­harsa — who some­times goes by the name Suleiman An­war — was a chap­lain in the Mary­land prison sys­tem un­til 2009 when he in­jured him­self mov­ing a box of books, ac­cord­ing to a work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion claim he filed with the state. The Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety and Cor­rec­tional Ser­vices was un­able to pro­vide fur­ther de­tails Thurs­day about Beng­harsa’s em­ploy­ment.

Beng­harsa said that he tried to find other chap­laincy jobs af­ter his in­jury, ac­cord­ing to court records, but had not had any luck af­ter al­most a year of look­ing. Even­tu­ally he be­came an imam at a mosque in Wood­lawn. It’s then that the FBI be­lieves he came into con­tact with Gregerson, who lived nearby.

The mosque is not named in the fed­eral court pa­pers. In state busi­ness records, Beng­harsa is listed as di­rec­tor of the Umar Is­lamic Cen­ter Inc., a small prayer hall lo­cated in an in­dus­trial area abut­ting the Bal­ti­more Belt­way. Wor­shipers there Thurs­day af­ter­noon said they were not fa­mil­iar with Beng­harsa.

Beng­harsa and Gregerson re­mained in close con­tact in early 2015, by which time Gregerson had moved to Detroit, and spent hours on the phone with each other, an FBI agent wrote in the war­rant ap­pli­ca­tions.

In June last year, Beng­harsa wrote Gregerson a check for $1,300, in­clud­ing a memo that it was for “za­kat,” or char­ity, the agent wrote. In­ves­ti­ga­tors say Gregerson used the money to help buy a stash of sup­plies that in­cluded sev­eral tac­ti­cal knives and 700 rounds of AK-47 am­mu­ni­tion.

About the same time, Beng­harsa posted on his Face­book page two videos of Is­lamic State mem­bers ex­e­cut­ing pris­on­ers, in- clud­ing one that showed a Jor­da­nian mil­i­tary pi­lot be­ing burned alive in a cage.

“Beng­harsa posts ex­ten­sively to his Face­book page, of­ten mak­ing mul­ti­ple post­ings daily, al­most all of which re­late to ISIL,” the FBI agent wrote.

The FBI agent wrote that there was prob­a­ble cause to be­lieve that a more thor­ough search of Beng­harsa’s Face­book ac­count would re­veal com­mu­ni­ca­tions about Gregerson’s weapons pur­chases and the two men con­spir­ing to carry out a vi­o­lent plot.

A LinkedIn page in Beng­harsa’s name lists a three-year stint work­ing in the Mary­land pris­ons and ties to sev­eral Is­lamic in­sti­tu­tions in the area. He is cur­rently di­rec­tor of the Is­lamic Ju­rispru­dence Cen­ter in the Clarks­burg area of Mont­gomery County, which he in­cor­po­rated in Au­gust. Its ad­dress is a UPS store near Beng­harsa’s home. The cen­ter is “an in­de­pen­dent Is­lamic law re­source cen­ter for Mus­lims liv­ing in pre­dom­i­nantly non-Mus­lim so­ci­eties,” ac­cord­ing to its web­site.

The site also warns vis­i­tors against at­tend­ing 11 mosques in the Bal­ti­more area and the Wash­ing­ton sub­urbs based on sev­eral re­li­gious in­junc­tions the cen­ter has is­sued against di­vi­sive in­sti­tu­tions and evil lead­ers and schol­ars.

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