Time for Trump to end fraudulent religious visa program being exploited by radical imams

Sebastian Gregerson had help from MD imam Suleiman Bengharsa in purchasing arsenal
Sebastian Gregerson, left, had help from Maryland imam Suleiman Bengharsa in purchasing an arsenal of military-grade weapons.


The number of mosques operating in the United States has exploded by more than 150 percent since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to the point where more than 3,200 now operate in all 50 states.

But who is leading these mosques?

Almost without fail, the imams in mainline Sunni mosques are not Americans. They come from the Middle East and, to one degree or another, would like to see America transformed into a society more akin to the one they left.

They are on “hijra,” the Arabic term for migration, just as their prophet Muhammad made hijra from Mecca to Medina in the seventh century to spread his new religion and legal system.

While President Trump has talked about gaps in our immigration system with regard to the border wall, the refugee program, the diversity visa lottery and chain migration, he has yet to say anything about what may be the most dangerous open gate of all for Islamic radicals.

The “R” class of visas for so-called religious workers apparently flies completely under the radar of the Trump administration. Shockingly, the number of such visas issued grew during Trump’s first year in office and was 3.7 percent higher than under President Obama’s final year.

The R-1 and R-2 visa programs are operated as if on autopilot by career civil servants working deep within the underbelly of the U.S. State Department. R-1 visas are issued to foreign religious workers, which includes clerics and religious lay persons, while the R-2 visas are given to their spouses and children. These visas carry a 30-month term and can be renewed once for a total of five years. At the end of five years many religious workers have established a work history that allows them to obtain a green card offering permanent legal residency and a pathway to U.S. citizenship.

The last time the government audited the religious-visa program was in 2006 and 2009, and on both occasions it found lots to be concerned about. Fraudulent applications ranged from 30 to 33 percent. [What Do You Do with A Visa Program with A Fraud Rate of 30-33%?, by David North, Center for Immigration Studies, Feb. 4, 2010]

 The screening process is relatively light for religious clerics. And there have been some high-profile terrorists slip into the country this way.

Omar Abdul-Rahman, the so-called blind Sheikh and mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing, entered the U.S. from Egypt with an R-1 religious visa.

The FBI’s 2004 indictment against the terrorist-fundraising Holy Land Foundation stated that the now defunct charity was largely created by religious leaders who submitted falsified R-1 visa applications on behalf of dozens of Arab immigrants. [Jihadis using Religious Visa to Enter the US, Experts Warn, by Hollie McKay, Fox News, March 14, 2017]

Muhammad Khalil, convicted in 2004, ran a mosque in the basement of a Brooklyn store, from where he filed more than 200 fraudulent applications for fake religious jobs.

Khalil charged $8,000 per application, submitting applications that used fabricated names, fake occupations, non-existent universities and bogus religious training certificates.

Congressman takes lonely stand

But when did fraud and abuse ever stop Congress from funding a popular program? Hence, the “R” visas keep rolling off the printing presses at a rate of nearly 5,000 a year. Apparently, Congress believes there is no reason to worry that the next big terror attack will be inspired by a foreign-trained imam teaching in one of America’s more than 3,200 mosques.

Only one Congressman has ever raised an alarm about the program: Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. He introduced the Religious Worker Visa Reciprocity Act of 2015.

King’s bill, reintroduced in January 2017, would prohibit DHS from approving a religious-worker visa application if DHS determined that the applicant’s country of origin:

  • is identified as a Country of Particular Concern or a country where religious freedom is of significant interest in the 2013 International Religious Freedom Report, or

  • does not extend reciprocal immigration treatment to Americans who are seeking to work in a religious vocation. In other words, if Saudi Arabia doesn’t open up its country to American Christian missionaries, then their imams would not be issued visas to come and preach in the United States.

The GOP leadership under House Speaker Paul Ryan has made sure this bill stays buried in committee.

King issued a statement which read:

“This is a sensible opportunity to narrow the R-1 visa and make a stand for religious freedom. All U.S. religious workers should have the same access to a foreign country as that country’s religious workers have to the U.S. This is a sensible solution that both limits waste, fraud and abuse by lowering the number of considered petitions and promoting religious freedom.”

 The King staffer who researched and wrote the bill, Suanne Edmiston, failed to return calls or emails seeking comment on the bill last week.

The vast majority of American imams come from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, “but Pakistan and Turkey are also sending over imams to teach in U.S. mosques,” said Philip Haney, who worked in the Department of Homeland Security’s National Targeting Center before retiring in 2015.

Haney estimated more than half of all applicants for R-1 visas during his tenure came from Islamic countries.

David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies who has written about religious visa fraud, says there are very few controls on this program and data listing the number of imams versus Christian pastors or Jewish rabbis is impossible to find.

“Breakouts by faith? The State Department very carefully doesn’t keep track of that,” North told me, at least not for public consumption.

Inspiring others to jihad

Perhaps more concerning than a few terrorists slipping into the country as religious workers is the far more likely scenario that nobody is talking about. What if imams—who never become violent themselves—teach, cultivate and inspire others to become warriors for Allah, preparing them for the day, at some point in the future, when the call to violent jihad goes ringing out from the growing multitude of mosques?

This is how Western Europe became a danger zone, through the steady growth of mosques, staffed by Middle Eastern imams who cultivated sleeper cells that were activated years later.

There is already evidence that this insidious process is underway in the U.S.

Take the case of Sebastian Gregerson in Detroit.

Gregerson is a 30-year-old American-born citizen who converted to Islam while in high school.

He became a follower of Suleiman Bengharsa, a Libyan-born imam based in Clarksburg, Maryland. Gregerson was arrested in 2016 after he amassed a cache of military-grade weapons, including grenades, AK-57s and thousands of rounds of ammunition, which he planned to use in acts of jihad. He pleaded guilty to weapons charges and was sentenced to four years but Bengharsa remains free, even though the FBI stated in court documents that it suspected the imam may have been quietly financing weapons purchases by radicals in Virginia as well as Michigan. [Maryland Imam Swept Up in Alleged ‘Conspiracy’ to Commit Jihad, by Leo Hohmann, WND.com, Sept. 22, 2016]

“The imams don’t want to be visible, they’re in positions of influence and authority, they’re enablers, they must have people who are Sharia trained, they have to be able to guide the community,” Haney said. “That’s why they bring so many in. They’re trained in Sharia and the hadiths, so they’re valuable to the non-Arabic speakers in the West and they provide the correct guidance for them according to the Quran and the hadiths.”

The top leadership of the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America, which issues fatwas and guidance for America’s more than 3,200 Sunni mosques, are almost all foreign born.

The leadership of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other Muslim Brotherhood organizations are similarly dominated by foreign-born individuals.

“They are transitioning to people like Linda Sarsour, who were born here but still have the same radical beliefs because they were trained by the previous generation that came from the Middle East,” Haney said.

Sarsour, a delegate to the 2016 DNC and organizer of the Women’s March on Washington, told American Muslims in a speech to the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America last summer they should not assimilate into American culture and should focus on waging jihad against the Trump administration. [Linda Sarsour Asks Muslims to Form ‘Jihad’ Against Trump, Not to Assimilate, by Ian Scwartz, Real Clear Politics, July 6, 2017]

Linda Sarsour

Ironically, it was the Christians who pushed Congress to create a visa for foreign religious workers, not the Muslims.

The R-1 visa was created in 1990, primarily to pacify the Catholic Church, whose celibacy rules created a severe shortage of priests and nuns. Church fathers hoped to ease the crunch by importing clerics from overseas.

Of course the government can’t create a visa program for one religious faith, so it created one for all. The door swung open for imams, rabbis, pastors and priests of all stripes.

The Hartford Institute conducted the only comprehensive study on American mosques in 2011 and found that 90 percent of full-time paid imams are foreign born or foreign trained. Only 3 percent were trained in the U.S.  The vast majority of imams in the U.S., regardless of their national origin, received their training in Sharia law from two Middle-Eastern universities—al-Azhar University in Egypt and the Islamic University of Madinah in Saudi Arabia. Significant numbers also come from radical madrassahs in Pakistan. And half of all foreign-born imams working in the United States have arrived since the September 2001 terrorist attacks. [The American Mosque 2011, by Ihsan Bagby, pages 12-14, The Hartford Institute, May 2012]

Foreign ‘Imam factories’ churn out American preachers of hate

Al-Azhar, the top producer of imams being shuttled into the U.S., Canada and Western Europe, is a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in 1928 with the goal of first strengthening the grip of Sharia on the Mideast and then exporting it to the world.

“Al-Azhar has been the center of Muslim Brotherhood thought leaders for a long time now,” Haney said. “It’s considered the mecca of Sunni learning, the center of the academic Islamic world for Sunni Islam.”

Take for example the case of Abdurahman Alamoudi. He was appointed by presidents Clinton and Bush to head up a panel that approved Muslim chaplains to minister in U.S. prisons. He was convicted on terrorism-related charges and is now serving a 23-year prison sentence.

“And he was putting all these imams into positions of influence,” Haney said.  “So this is where it started with the operatives who have influence over the rank and file Muslims.”

See details on Alamoudi at Discover the Networks.


Unlike most visa programs, the R-1 visa for religious workers has no cap or ceiling on the number of foreigners who can obtain one in a given year.

Between 2012 and 2016, the U.S. issued 23,029 R-1 visas – averaging 4,605 per year – as well as 7,637 R-2 visas for spouses and children, or about 1,528 annually.

In fiscal 2017, more than half of which fell under Trump’s watch, the number of R-1 visas increased for the second straight year to 4,942, up from 4,764 in 2016 and 4,572 in 2015. [U.S. State Department Annual Reports on Visa Travel, 2017]

North, the CIS fellow, said he is not confident the Trump administration is fully aware of how the visa program is being exploited by those with radical Islamic religious views. This doesn’t mean they are terrorists, but they preach a religious perspective focused on Sharia, an all-encompassing set of rules for daily living that includes various forms of honor violence against women, child marriage, polygamy, female genital mutilation, violence against homosexuals and other issues that don’t mesh with Western ideals of tolerance and individual freedom.

“I do not sense that the Trump administration has paid any attention to this program,” North told me. “As a former political appointee, I know that Trump has not filled most of the political jobs in DHS, and without politicals in key positions, less-urgent reforms do not take place.”

North adds that the Trump administration has shown itself to be “not strong on nuances. If there is continuing abuse in the R-1 program, as there may well be, it is a nuance to the Trump administration.”

Perhaps Mike Pompeo, the new Secretary of State, will bring more attention to details than his predecessor Rex Tillerson. Otherwise, America’s future may very well be transformed from one nation under God to one nation under Allah.


Leo Hohmann is a veteran journalist and author of the 2017 book “Stealth Invasion: Muslim Conquest through Immigration and Resettlement Jihad.” If you appreciate this type of original, fact-based and independent reporting, please consider a donation of any size to this website. We accept no advertising and are beholden to no one.


Published by


Independent author, researcher, writer.