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Md. imam’s cheering of ISIS lands him at center of terror probe

Suleiman Anwar Bengharsa once told a court during a custody dispute that he worried his ex-wife’s new husband was too close to Islamic radicals under FBI investigation and she might raise their child in an “extremist environment.”

A little over a decade later, the Maryland man became the thing he once feared. The onetime Commerce Department trade analyst had remade himself into something rare in the United States: a radical imam publicly supporting the Islamic State.

Bengharsa celebrated ISIS killings and immolations on Facebook and issued a blistering fatwa against feminism through a sharia law center he started in Montgomery County, Md., not far from the nation’s capital. He criticized fellow Muslims who assisted authorities in terrorism investigations.

The stunning transformation culminated last month when FBI search warrants mistakenly unsealed in a Michigan terrorism case alleged that Bengharsa, 59, provided money to Detroit resident Sebastian Gregerson, who authorities say used it in 2015 to buy weapons.

“There is reason to believe Bengharsa and Gregerson are engaged in discussions and preparations for some violent attack on behalf of [ISIS],” an FBI agent concluded in the warrants, first reported by the Detroit News.

But roughly a year after the first warrant was filed, Bengharsa, a onetime Maryland prison chaplain, has not been charged. It is unclear whether the investigation is still active, and federal officials declined to comment. Gregerson is facing explosive charges.

Bengharsa did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but denied any wrongdoing in an interview with The Detroit News.

“It’s ridiculous. All I can say is it’s ridiculous,” Bengharsa told the newspaper. “If this was the case, why haven’t they come to arrest me?”

Former federal prosecutors and legal experts said the most likely reason is that authorities do not have the evidence to charge Bengharsa, but said the case illustrates the challenge of dealing with religious leaders who spout rhetoric in the service of the nation’s enemies.

Free speech rights give imams such as Bengharsa wide latitude to push followers toward radicalism as long as they stop short of calling for violence or providing material support to terrorist groups.

“It is rare to find an imam, who has such a strict interpretation of Islam and who is so willfully willing to call out others in the community as apostates,” said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “That is pretty remarkable.”

The status of the investigation is just one of the mysteries surrounding the case, which stretches from Michigan to Maryland and may have ties to Virginia and Yemen.

A search warrant claims Gregerson purchased AK-47 magazines on behalf of a Sterling, Va., man who has not been charged in the case. Authorities requested Gregerson’s emails to the man to see if they discussed ISIS.

Another question is how Bengharsa, who told a judge four years earlier he had no job and income, got more than $900,000. The search warrants claim the money was wire-transferred into his account from an unnamed source and Bengharsa transferred part of the sum to an unnamed individual in Yemen.

Finally, there is Bengharsa’s radicalization. A friend and ex-wife remembered him as not overly religious, saying he liked to party in college and spent years as an oil industry analyst and Commerce employee, before becoming an imam.

Bengharsa holds a master’s degree in public policy and speaks five languages, according to his resume and court documents. A number of officials with Muslim groups said he was little-known in the local community. Experts who track extremism said he only recently came on their radar.

Bengharsa first came to the attention of authorities via Gregerson, according to court documents. Gregerson lived in Windsor Mill, Md., from 2011 to 2014 and met Bengharsa at a mosque in the area, court documents show. The name of the mosque is not mentioned, but Bengharsa lists working as an imam at Masjid Umar in Woodlawn, Md., during that period.

The tiny, storefront mosque is situated in a scruffy industrial park, next to an auto body shop. Worshipers there on a recent day said they did not recall Bengharsa or Gregerson. Mosque officials did not respond to requests for comment.

After Gregerson moved to Michigan, an individual told the FBI in April 2015 that Gregerson had weapons, expressed support for ISIS and evicted his wife’s family from their home because they were not true Muslims, according to court documents. He also talked of moving his family to ISIS-controlled territory.

The FBI launched a probe, tracking Gregerson over the next 15 months as he amassed an arsenal and tactical equipment that included 700 rounds of AK-47 ammunition, three guns, knives and training videos, according to charging documents. Gregerson’s phone records showed he had substantial contact with Bengharsa during the period of the purchases, according to the search warrants.

FBI officials described Bengharsa as an “avid” supporter of ISIS, who frequently posted about the group on his Facebook page.

The search warrants claim Bengharsa put up links to ISIS followers slitting a soldier’s throat and wrote “Allahu akbar!!” (God is great) in response to an article detailing how ISIS assassinated an Iraqi army chief with a bulldozer laden with explosives.

In June 2015, Bengharsa wrote a $1,300 check to Gregerson, inking “zakat,” the term for the Islamic obligation to give charitably, in the memo line, according to the search warrants.

The same month Bengharsa launched the Islamic Jurisprudence Center, which aims to promote the understanding of sharia law and is engaged in “fighting the anti-Islamic agendas of the kuffar [unbelievers] and munafiqeen [hypocrites] in the West.”

Bengharsa condemned homosexuality, declared that Muslims who take Christians or Jews as friends are disbelievers and attacked many mainstream mosques and Muslim groups, such as the Council on Islamic Relations (CAIR), as too beholden to Western values.

Bengharsa appears to be the sole force behind the organization, which was little more than a website. He is listed as IJC’s founder and manager and the organization’s address was a post office box in Clarksburg, Md., near his home. IJC’s website was taken down in recent weeks.

After receiving Bengharsa’s money, Gregerson talked with an undercover FBI agent about purchasing grenades and claymore mines, according to charging documents. Then at the end of July, authorities said, Gregerson swapped a handgun for fragmentary grenades provided by undercover agents. He was arrested.

Glen A. Kopp, a partner with the Bracewell law firm in New York and a former federal prosecutor, said there is a good chance the investigation into Bengharsa has stalled given the amount of time that has elapsed since the search warrants were filed.

“It is possible, as they got deeper into the investigation, they discovered while Gregerson necessarily had a relationship with the imam, the imam was not necessarily plotting the attack,” Kopp said.

The FBI did not present any direct evidence in the search warrants that Bengharsa knew of Gregerson’s alleged plans.

Kopp said it is less likely, but also possible, the investigation has grown larger because the FBI found links between Bengharsa and other terrorism suspects and they wanted to monitor those activities.

Whether Bengharsa committed a crime or not, he represents a troubling trend that presents a challenge for officials, said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

“The fact is that he brings his followers close to the line that’s important,” Hughes said. “He provides that mood music for individuals to make that jump into violence.”

A 2014 report by the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence found another American cleric – Ahmad Musa Jibril, of Dearborn, Mich. – and others fell into a similar category. A search warrant states Gregerson had also searched online for Jibril.

At the time, the report found Jibril was followed on Twitter by 60 percent of the foreign fighters in Syria. “It should be pointed out that Jibril does not openly incite his followers to violence,” the authors of the report wrote. “Instead, he adopts the role of a cheerleader.”

Bengharsa’s audience was far smaller. His posts on Facebook received only a smattering of likes, and many sermons posted on YouTube received only a couple hundred views.

Likewise, he seemed to have little clout locally. Zanaib Chaudry, outreach director for the Maryland chapter of CAIR, described Bengharsa as a fringe figure in the Muslim community.

Bengharsa gave sermons at mosques and with Muslim groups around the area. Before IJC, he tried and failed to launch an Islamic school for low-income students, briefly worked as an imam at the Islamic Society of Annapolis (ISA) and spent three years as a Muslim chaplain with the Maryland prison system.

Rashid Iqbal, president of ISA, said Bengharsa was let go after about four weeks because he did not provide the proper government documents for employment and rubbed members the wrong way.

“He was forcing his sayings on people,” Iqbal said. “He was too extreme for the community.”

It is unclear what triggered Bengharsa’s slide toward radicalism, but the previous 15 years were turbulent personally and professionally. He divorced three times and was embroiled in disputes with ex-wives over child support and custody.

He testified during a child support hearing in 2012 that he was fired from the Commerce Department for plagiarizing a document and was unable to find work for a long stretch because of his age and prejudice against Muslims.

Abdul Hammuda, a lifelong friend of Bengharsa’s, said he had a hard time reconciling the man he knew with the one described in the terrorist investigation. He and Bengharsa grew up in Tripoli, Libya, together, and both came to the United States.

“I’m just shocked,” Hammuda said. “He was always like the class clown. He was not even very religious.”

The Washington Post’s Dan Morse and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.