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Former Maryland prison imam was investigated over alleged Islamic State plot

FBI calls Maryland imam an "avid" Islamic State supporter who spread propaganda.

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 in court documents, 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.

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 one another, 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, including 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. He called the imam "an avid ISIL supporter and disseminator of ISIL propaganda."

The FBI agent wrote that there was probable cause to believe that conducting 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 — including at least one where Bengharsa once worked — based on several religious injunctions the center has issued against divisive institutions and evil leaders and scholars.

Bengharsa does not appear to have always followed a religious vocation.

In a hearing before the workers' compensation commission, according to a transcript filed in court records, Bengharsa said that in addition to a master's degree in theology he had a degree in economics and had once worked for the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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