An admitted “soldier” of the Islamic State whom the FBI accused of plotting violent jihad has been sentenced to less than four years in prison in a case that even mainstream media outlets have said “leaves lingering questions about his network of radical supporters.”
The 45-month sentence handed down last week for Muslim convert Sebastian Gregerson, 30, of Detroit, puts an end to a prolonged federal probe involving Islamic State supporters, radical threats and an imam who helped Gregerson amass a weapons cache.
Gregerson was never charged with a terrorism-related crime despite FBI investigators’ belief that he was plotting violent jihad with a 60-year-old foreign-born imam, Suleiman Bengharsa, who lives in Clarksburg, Maryland, and ran a prison ministry in the U.S. for years. The imam, a native of Libya, has taunted federal prosecutors, almost daring them to arrest him, saying he was only sending money to Gregerson as someone would send alms to the poor. That, despite his own radical background, seems to have held the FBI at bay, as they have in more than two years of investigation never filed any charges against Bengharsa even though they have questioned whether he may be financing similar weapons purchases elsewhere in the U.S.
The case is reminiscent of another in Minneapolis in which two Muslim brothers were arrested after they were discovered by police, quite by chance, with an arsenal of weapons in their car, including bomb-triggering devices. That case, which broke in May, has seen several court appearances by the brothers delayed.
Gregerson, who changed his name to Abdurrahman Bin Mikaayl, did not react to the sentence and declined to address U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow, the Detroit News reported.
The FBI called him an unrepentant jihadist loyal to ISIS. But his lawyer said Gregerson never plotted an attack and merely exercised his First Amendment rights of free speech while praising terrorist attacks on social media and amassing a cache of weapons that included a grenade, multiple AK-47s, rifles, shotguns, handguns and thousands of rounds of ammo. He also had purchased several Japanese swords and tactical knives of the type used by ISIS.
Gregerson worked as a stock boy for Target earning a paltry $9.50 an hour.
“I don’t know how dangerous you are but your conduct has not created an action event that could be called dangerous,” the judge said. “If your language is accurate and meaningful, the only way to deter you is to put you in prison for the rest of your life.”
But even federal prosecutors didn’t asked for such a stiff sentence, the judge noted.
“Will you be deterred” from committing another crime, the judge asked. “I don’t know. I’m not a mind reader.”
The sentence came five months after Gregerson reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors.
Prosecutors wanted Gregerson to spend five years in prison for a gun crime and acquiring an unregistered destructive device, a fragmentation grenade he bought from an undercover FBI employee last summer.
“He approves of terrorist attacks by ISIS and views himself as a soldier in that war,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Cathleen Corken told the judge.
Corken said social media posts and conversations recorded by an undercover FBI employee during a 16-month investigation proved Gregerson supported ISIS. She cited several comments Gregerson made, including one in which he critiqued ISIS attacks and suggested ways to boost the body count.
“That is beyond creepy,” Corken said. “This is chilling. When he walks out of prison, will he be anything else but an ISIS adherent?”
Gregerson is not an ISIS supporter, his lawyer said.
The Detroit man was merely exercising his First Amendment rights and stockpiling weapons while preparing for doomsday, his lawyer said Wednesday.
“Someone close to (Gregerson) said he talks a lot of crap. I agree,” defense lawyer David Tholen said. “Mr. Gregerson and everyone in the U.S. is entitled to unpopular speech. Ultimately, that’s what the government has.”