A closely watched case that’s steeped in ongoing controversy over New York City’s anti-terrorism policing practices approached an end yesterday in a Manhattan courtroom when Ahmed Ferhani, a 27-year-old Algerian immigrant who lived in Queens for most of his life, pleaded guilty to state terrorism and hate crimes charges.
He told a judge that he joined in a plot to explode a bomb in New York City synagogues and churches, to "create chaos and send a message of intimidation and confusion to the Jewish population of New York City." Reading from a prepared statement in court on Tuesday, Ferhani said he intended to send a "warning" to Jews "to stop mistreating Muslims."
The charges under a rarely used New York State anti-terrorism law to which Ferhani pleaded guilty could have carried a much longer sentence. New York Supreme Court Justice Michael Obus said in court yesterday that Ferhani would face 10 years in prison after pleading, four years less than the prosecution asked for and less than half of the maximum sentence if the case had gone to trial. At the end of his sentence, Ferhani will be likely be deported to Algeria, a country he left as a young boy.
The admission of guilt may silence courtroom deliberations about the nature of the investigation into the planned attacks. But while the seriousness of the charges against Ferhani is not contested, civil liberties advocates and the defendant’s attorneys say the case and others like it are not the clear-cut homegrown terrorism prosecutions NYPD professes, but rather are studies in entrapment. City police, civil liberties advocates say, target young, vulnerable men who would never have considered acts of terrorism without the cops’ prodding and coaxing them into concocting plots, so their arrests can then be trumpeted as victories in the war on terror.
Ferhani’s attorneys have said it is not at all clear that the plot Ferhani admitted to would ever have emerged without the initiative of police informants, who goaded the plots into existence.
‘The Perfect Entrapment Victim’
Ferhani, his head shaved and wearing a bright orange jump suit, was led into court on Tuesday afternoon in handcuffs. He came straight from Rikers Island, where he’s been held since he and another young man, 21-year-old Moroccan American Mohamed Mamdouh, were arrested on May 11, 2011, in an arms-buying sting.
Ferhani said in court that the men planned to explode the bombs inside of New York City synagogues. Yet until yesterday, Ferhani maintained his innocence and his legal team planned to fight their client’s case on the grounds that he was a highly vulnerable man whom the NYPD fooled into participating in a plot that never existed.
"We think this is a case that was brought in bad faith to justify the illegal and unconstitutional campaign of the police and the district attorney’s office to further their agendas … and to criminalize the Muslim community," one of his attorneys, Elizabeth Fink, told the AP in June.
Assistant District Attorney Gary Galperin, on the other hand, described a man who took the lead in expressing a desire to blow up a Manhattan synagogues and buy weapons. Galperin, who tried the case, said in court, "The defendant hatched this conspiracy 10 years after 9-11. The only thing that stood between him and his scheme … is that fact that he got arrested in May 2011."
Lamis Deek, one of Ferhani’s attorneys who led the defense in recent hearings, has said her client was targeted and cultivated because the police already knew him to be vulnerable. "Here he was, the perfect entrapment victim," Deek told me in after an October hearing in the case. The informant "resorted to targeting a vulnerable suspect in this case, a man with a very long history of mental illness."
For a period of time in his late teenage years, Ferhani was often driven by NYPD officers to nearby psychiatric hospitals, sometimes after his family reported to police that he’d tried to harm himself, Deek said. Over the months leading up to his arrest, Ferhani met with the police informant who identified himself as Ilter Ayturk. After repeated conversations with the informant, the men planned to buy guns and explosives to attack religious institutions.
In May, Ferhani and Mamdouh were arrested as they handed a $100 down payment to an arms dealer for a set of semiautomatic guns, 150 rounds of ammunition and a grenade. The dealer, whom they met on Manhattan’s West 57th Street, turned out to be a police detective.
A Shaky Case, and Troubling Pattern
The case resembles a number of other recent New York City terrorism plots that involve aggressive police informants pursuing young men the police call dangerous lone-wolves, but who may actually be sheep. So worrying were the tactics used by the informant in the Ferhani case that the FBI, which handles most terrorism investigations, declined to participate in the case.
According to documents released to the press, the informant had previously targeted other Muslim men using tactics that "concerned" federal authorities because he had initiated a conversation about Hamas.
In November of last year, the FBI again declined to pursue an investigation into a domestic terrorism case, this time against a Dominican American man named Jose Pimental, also 27, who like Ferhani reportedly struggled with mental instability. He is alleged to have planned attacks on New York City police stations and veterans with a self-assembled pipe bomb. Pimental’s case is ongoing and like Ferhani and Mamdouh, he’s been charged under state anti-terrorism laws.
Terrorism cases are normally tried in federal courts, but because the feds did not choose to press charges against Ferhani, Mamdouh and Pimental, the men are charged under state laws, which until this case had never been used before in a New York City terrorism prosecution. The state’s terrorism crimes statute, which passed after Sept. 11, 2011, allows judges to levy harsher sentences on defendants who intended to carry out acts "to intimidate or coerce a civilian population."
The FBI’s flight was not the only sign of a weak case. Soon after the arrests, the district attorney’s case against Ferhani and Mamdouh began to lose steam. A state grand jury declined to indict Ferhani and Mamdouh on the top charges of terrorism conspiracy to kill worshipers in a synagogue. Those charges could have carried life sentences. Instead, the grand jury charged the men for plotting to blow up a synagogue, but not while congregants were present.
In the end, Ferhani pleaded guilty yesterday to nine individual terrorism counts and one hate crime count. A final sentencing hearing is scheduled for late January. Lamis Deek said the plea was "certainly in his best interest," considering the possible outcome of a trial and a maximum sentence of at least 25 years.
Entrapment defenses, legal experts say, are hard to win, and in past cases like Ferhani’s, defendants who have tried to argue entrapment have invariably been sent to prison, usually for much longer than 10 years.
Speaking from the bench on Tuesday, Judge Obus acknowledged that the plot was always controlled by police. "As potentially dangerous as all of this was … it never had a chance to do that because of the nature of the undercover operation here." Despite that fact, the judge said he has no qualms about the investigation. The NYPD has justified the existence of its vast anti-terrorism infrastructure in part through cases like Ferhani’s.
As the Associated Press began reporting last year, New York City has implemented an extensive surveillance program since 2001 that’s focused on Muslim and Arab communities not only in the city, but in surrounding states. The city claims the surveillance program keeps New Yorkers safe, but there’s little evidence that the NYPD has itself stopped any terrorism plots that did not require the direct and active involvement of its informants to exist.
The 2010 Times Square bombing attempt by Faisal Shahzad inflicted no harm because the bomb planted in Shahzad’s trunk failed to explode–not because the police stopped or ever knew about the plot. And a plot by three Queens men to blow up the subway was investigated and prosecuted by federal officials, and there’s no reported indication of NYPD involvement. "There is no getting around the seriousness of these charges," the judge said, adding that "in the context of the world in which we live today, there have been very large incidents of terrorism, something like this is not supported in society."
After pleading guilty, Ferhani’s wrists were again cuffed and he was led out of the courtroom. He turned his head to look at his mother, Kheira Ferhani, who sat with family and friends in courtroom benches. Outside of the courthouse, Kheira Ferhani said through tears, "This is what they do to Muslims. They have ruined our lives."