UPDATE: Plot aimed at a ‘major Manhattan’ target, mayor announces; DA: suspect wanted to go to Gaza to fight Israelis.
New York City police on Thursday said they had arrested two Muslim men trying to buy weapons, including guns and a grenade, for an attack on New York City synagogues.
One of the men said he was enraged at the way Muslims are treated in the world and wanted to raise money to fight against Israel in the Gaza Strip, according to District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who is prosecuting the men. “They did it for jihad,” Vance said at a press conference at City Hall.
The arrests capped a seven-month investigation.
No specific target was named, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the men wanted to destroy a major Manhattan synagogue and then purchased several weapons and a hand grenade from an undercover officer.”
The suspects, both U.S. citizens, were identified as Mohammad Mamdouh, 20, a Moroccan native, and Ahmed Ferhani, 26, who was born in Algeria. Both suspects live in Queens and are charged with second-degree conspiracy to commit terrorism as well as conspiracy to commit a hate crime under recently passed state statutes, as well as weapons charges that could put them in prison for life. Neither entered a plea at arraignment Thursday.
The DA’s complaint said Ferhani and Mamdouh “systematically engaged in conversations with an undercover NYPD Officer, making clear his desire to obtain weapons and training to engage in terrorist activities in New York City” and were arrested “after purchasing two operable Browning semi-automatic pistols, one operable Smith and Wesson revolver, ammunition, and one inert grenade.
During the course of the investigation, Ferhani was recorded discussing his goal of providing financial support for the Palestinian cause in Gaza, and possibly traveling to Gaza to join the fight against Israel and to kill Israeli soldiers. Ferhani repeatedly expressed his belief in violent ‘Jihad.’”
Vance said that Ferhani introduced the undercover cop to Mamdouh and as time passed “began to express more immediate violent goals within New York City generally, and Manhattan specifically.”
Last month, Ferhani allegedly asked the undercover whether he would join him in a plan to bomb a synagogue, and the cop agreed in order to monitor the plan. “Ferhani and Mamdouh discussed learning to make bombs and planned visits to Manhattan’s largest synagogues, intending to disguise themselves as Jewish worshippers, attend services at a synagogue and, while pretending to pray, leave a bomb in the synagogue,” the DA said in the complaint. “He discussed learning to build bombs so he could blow up a synagogue, and proposed blowing up an empty synagogue. On other occasions, Ferhani and Mamdouh discussed wanting to blow up a synagogue with Jews or Zionists inside, as well as a church in Queens.”
The attacks are believed to have been planned in advance of the death of Osama bin Laden on May 1 and not as a reprisal for the U.S. action against the al Qaeda leader terror chief. A police source said the men are not believed to be connected either to any organized group or to other individuals. “They were lone wolves,” the source said.
Area Jewish institutions were told by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Secure Community Network to be on heightened security alert, the second such warning in two weeks following the bin Laden announcement by President Barack Obama.
A source told Fox Ferhani was dealing drugs to fund the purchase of weapons and possibly explosives for the attack.
The arrests come just a week short of the second anniversary of federal arrests of four men charged with plotting to blow up synagogues in Riverdale. That trial is still pending.
“The NYPD has cataloged over 50 cases of Americans who were radicalized to acts of violence and/or conspiracies over the last 30 months,” the JCRC said on its security blog. “This case may add to the total and those responsible for Jewish institution should review their security precautions and introduce steps to ensure heightened awareness.”
Police seem to have opted to act quickly to arrest the men rather than let the plot play out under surveillance, as in the Riverdale case in which four men were recruited by an undercover agent at a Newburgh mosque for an operation. The quick arrests may signal that police thought the attack was imminent and that the men were already sufficiently armed to carry out an attack.
“They were going from aspirational to operational,” said Paul Goldenberg, director of SCN. “Normally, police have to be compelled to terminate an investigation ... if they see these individuals look they are going operational and it is incumbent on them to take someone down before anyone can get hurt.”
He said the arrests indicate that homegrown “lone wolves” who are sympathetic to terrorist movements are increasingly looking for Jewish sites that are soft targets.
The Times reported that the FBI-NYPD joint terrorism task force chose not to become involved in the investigation for undisclosed reasons and that the charges will be tried in a state court by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr.
“The arrests of these suspects is a stark reminder that Jews and Jewish institutions continue to be a favorite target for extremists,” said Ron Meier, New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in a statement. “Since the target in this case might have been a synagogue, it is appropriate to include hate crime charges alongside the terrorism charges.”
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