By SCOTT SHANE and ADAM GOLDMAN
WASHINGTON — For more than a decade, Suleiman Anwar Bengharsa has served as a Muslim cleric in Maryland, working as a prison chaplain and as an imam at mosques in Annapolis and outside Baltimore. He gave a two-week course in 2011 on Islamic teachings on marriage at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, where President Obama made a much-publicized visit this year.
But in the last two years, Imam Bengharsa’s public pronouncements have taken a dark turn. On Facebook, he has openly endorsed the Islamic State, posted gruesome videos showing ISIS fighters beheading and burning alive their enemies and praised terrorist attacks overseas. The “Islamic Jurisprudence Center” websitehe set up last year has condemned American mosques as un-Islamic and declared that homosexual acts should be punished by death.
That is not all. An affidavit filed in federal court by the F.B.I. says that Imam Bengharsa, 59, supplied $1,300 in June 2015 to a Detroit man who used it to expand his arsenal of firearms and grenades. The man, Sebastian Gregerson, 29, a Muslim convert who sometimes calls himself Abdurrahaman Bin Mikaayl, was arrested in late July and indicted on explosives charges.
Nearly a year ago, in fact, the F.B.I. said in a court filing — accidentally and temporarily made public in an online database — that agents suspected the two men were plotting terrorism. “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 agent wrote.
Yet Imam Bengharsa has not been arrested or charged. It appears that the authorities do not have clear evidence that he has broken the law. His inflammatory statements are protected by the First Amendment, and agents appear to have no proof that he knew Mr. Gregerson planned to buy illegal explosives. In his checkbook, next to the notation for the $1,300 check, Imam Bengharsa wrote “zakat,” or charity, the documents show.
The case poses in a striking way the dilemma for the F.B.I. in deciding when constitutionally protected speech crosses into inciting violence or conspiring to commit a terrorist act.