March 15 (Bloomberg) -- A New York man and Algerian native was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being arrested in a local sting operation for plotting to attack synagogues and churches in Manhattan.
Ahmed Ferhani, 28, pleaded guilty Dec. 4 before New York Supreme Court Justice Michael Obus to 10 counts, marking the first conviction under state terrorism laws passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The federal government generally takes the lead in terror probes and had declined to participate in another case brought under the same state law, a person familiar with the matter said.
Ferhani claimed he was entrapped by undercover detectives in a probe conducted by the New York City Police Department and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. In addition to his prison term, he was sentenced today to five years of supervision.
“This defendant was convicted and sentenced under anti-terrorism laws that enabled local police and prosecutors to protect our communities form terrorist threats,” Vance said in a statement. “Violent plots like Ahmed Ferhani’s endanger all New Yorkers. Fortunately, as a result of the collaboration between state prosecutors and local police, we prevented him from carrying out his violent plan against our city.”
Ferhani was arrested in May 2011 with Mohamed Mamdouh, 22, a Moroccan immigrant, and accused of conspiring to bomb synagogues and churches. They were apprehended following an eight-month undercover operation after buying two Browning semi-automatic pistols, a Smith & Wesson revolver, ammunition and an inert grenade, police said.
Ferhani and Mamdouh pleaded not guilty in June 2011 to a grand jury indictment. The grand jury declined to indict them on a more serious conspiracy count that they were charged with after their arrest, one that would have carried a sentence of life in prison. Mamdouh’s next court appearance is March 29.
Ferhani said in a statement read in court during his plea hearing that he and Mamdouh developed a plan to attack and damage a synagogue in Manhattan or elsewhere using explosives for the purpose of “intimidating and coercing the Jewish population of New York City.”
Ferhani said he met a fellow Muslim in October 2010 named “Ilter,” who turned out to be an undercover detective, and talked about his anger toward Jews because of what he said was their “mistreatment of Muslims around the world.”
Mamdouh, Ferhani and the detective agreed to purchase three loaded guns and a grenade, and traveled into Manhattan from the borough of Queens on May 11, 2011, to buy the weapons from a dealer, Ferhani said. The gun dealer was actually another undercover detective.
Obus had agreed to sentence Ferhani to 10 years in prison and five years of post-release supervision pending a presentencing report. Ferhani could have faced as long as 25 years in prison if convicted at trial of the most serious charge.
“Ferhani posed a real threat to New York’s Jewish community, eagerly purchasing a hand grenade, two guns and 150 rounds of ammunition from an undercover officer as part of Ferhani’s stated intention to attack and then ‘blow up a synagogue in Manhattan, and take out the whole entire building,’” New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in a statement.
Prosecutors had asked Obus to impose a 14-year prison term, citing the seriousness of the alleged offenses and his criminal history. Assistant District Attorney Gary J. Galperin said the sentence was necessary “to send a strong message of general deterrence.”
“This defendant walked far across the bridge of and to terrorism,” Galperin said at today’s sentencing hearing. “The bridge is crossed, so this defendant must stand and watch it burn.”
Defense lawyers have argued that Ferhani was entrapped by police and that he wanted the weapons so he could resell them. His attorney, Lamis Deek, said during today’s hearing that Ferhani had recently been released from prison when he met the undercover officer and was “desperate” due to a lack of income and a threat of foreclosure on his home.
“Mr. Ferhani is not a violent person and therefore is not what he is made out to be by prosecutors,” Deek said.
Ferhani, who came to the U.S. with his parents and two siblings in 1995, will probably be deported after his sentence ends, Obus said at the plea hearing in December. He apologized to his family in court, saying they were “humiliated, attacked and harassed on a daily basis” over the past two years.
While the government has tried to portray him in the “worst light,” “that is far from who I am,” Ferhani said.
“My goals and dreams have only been postponed,” Ferhani said during today’s hearing, dressed in an orange Department of Corrections jumpsuit. “I will use this time to strengthen my mind and character. My spirit has not been broken and never will be.”
Obus said he considered Ferhani’s personal background and his willingness to accept responsibility for his actions in determining his sentence.
“The idea of agreeing to the kind of things you agreed to, that would not occur to almost anybody,” Obus said.
A presentence report prepared by a forensic psychologist found that Ferhani suffers from “a serious mental disorder from excessive exposure to physical and sexual trauma and stimuli in his early childhood, secondary behavioral difficulties throughout the remainder of his childhood and his teens, and consequent drug abuse throughout his teens.”
Informants were key to arrests in about 62 percent of the 50 most serious alleged terrorist plots between Sept. 11 and 2010, the Center on Law and Security at the New York University law school has said.
The entrapment defense was raised in about 28 percent of those cases, including that of a man convicted of plotting to bomb a subway station in Manhattan before the 2004 Republican National Convention.
In 2011, New York prosecutors charged a Manhattan man and alleged al-Qaeda sympathizer with plotting to bomb government offices and police vehicles in the metropolitan area as part of an effort to kill federal employees and military personnel.
Jose Pimentel, who was later indicted, was under police surveillance for more than a year. He was allegedly motivated in part by the federal government’s assassination of a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was affiliated with al-Qaeda, and whose online magazine, “Inspire,” published bomb-making instructions.
An unemployed resident of Washington Heights and a native of the Dominican Republic, Pimentel’s arrest followed by almost two months Kelly’s statement that authorities were on alert for revenge attacks following al-Awlaki’s killing in a drone strike in Yemen. The cleric had followers in the U.S., including in New York, Kelly said at the time.
New York police repeatedly approached the Federal Bureau of Investigation to have them take part in the case, a person familiar with the matter said. The FBI didn’t participate due to the possibility of entrapment tied to a police informant, said the person, who declined to be identified because the matter isn’t public.
Pimentel is scheduled to return to court on April 23.
The case is New York v. Ferhani, 2461/2011, New York State Supreme Court, New York County (Manhattan).
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