By Connor Adams Sheets
Two East Elmhurst men from North Africa were arraigned and ordered held without bail Thursday on terrorism charges in connection with an alleged plot to blow up synagogues and other targets in New York City, the Manhattan district attorney said.
Ahmed Ferhani, 26, who is unemployed and moved to America from Algeria, and livery dispatcher Mohamed Mamdouh, an American citizen from Morocco, were arrested about 6 p.m. Wednesday at separate locations in Manhattan, the DA said.
They will face a grand jury Tuesday on charges connected to an alleged plan to bomb any of a number of sites they identified, including an unnamed church in Queens, the Empire State Building and an unidentified “major synagogue” in Manhattan, according to the DA.
“The defendants were arrested at the conclusion of an investigation that revealed that they intended to bomb synagogues because of their hatred of Jews,” Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Margaret Gandy said in Criminal Court in Manhattan.
The DA said the two men, who were charged with conspiring to commit arson and a hate crime, were lone wolves and had no direct ties to al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.
The DA, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly focused most of their remarks at a Thursday afternoon press conference on the threat to the synagogues, which appeared to be the most immediate, judging by recorded conversations.
According to the charges, Ferhani and Mandouh had plotted to disguise themselves as Hasidic Jews who would attend services at an unnamed synagogue in Manhattan, hide a bomb and then leave, based on a discussion with an undercover agent in April. The men also discussed making bombs with the agent, the criminal complaint said.
The men were arrested Wednesday after Ferhani allegedly gave an undercover NYPD detective $100 as a down payment for $700 worth of weapons, including a grenade, three handguns, two magazines and two boxes of ammunition, according to court testimony and the charges. Just before being arrested, Ferhani allegedly said he wanted to purchase more guns, silencers, a box of hand grenades, bullet-resistant vests and police radios, Kelly said.
“We decided to make the arrest at this time because of Ferhani’s interest in obtaining weapons and his expressed desire to construct increasingly powerful bombs,” Kelly said.
They are being charged with criminal possession of a weapon as a crime of terrorism and attempted criminal possession of a weapon as a crime of terrorism in connection with the alleged transaction. Mamdouh was not present for the transaction, which allegedly took place in Ferhani’s car on a Midtown Manhattan street, but allegedly knew about and endorsed the purchase, according to recorded conversations from that evening. Both men face life in prison with no possibility of parole if they are convicted of all the charges they face.
In a conversation seven months ago with an NYPD undercover agent, Ferhani said: “We will blow up a synagogue in Manhattan and take out the whole building,” according to the DA. The defendants also talked about blowing up a church in Queens, the complaint said.
Both men’s attorneys said that their clients deny taking part in any criminal activity.
“He denies the charges. If he had his druthers, he’d prefer to get out,” Mamdouh’s attorney, Steven Fusfeld said in front of the court house after the hearing Thursday evening. “
Mamdouh, who wore a white sweatshirt and held a red baseball cap behind his back in court Thursday, attended Flushing High School, according to his Fusfeld. Mamdouh came to America in 1999 and lived in Queens at the time of his arrest, according to Kelly.
Ferhani, who wore a dark grey suit and held a black Yankees cap behind his back in court Thursday, is a permanent resident of the United States who has served time at Rikers Island. He has lived with his family in Queens since coming to America in 1995, Kelly said.
“Nobody knows what kind of mayhem they could have caused, but they certainly weren’t out to be nice people,” Bloomberg said.