Targeted and entrapped: Why Ahmed Ferhani is a symbol of the NYPD’s abuses

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Ahmed Ferhani (on the left) in court with lawyer Lamis Deek. (Photo via DNAinfo.com)

The controversial case of a Queens man accused of plotting a bombing attack on synagogues in New York City headed for a close yesterday, as Ahmed Ferhani pled guilty. Ferhani, an Algerian-born 27-year-old immigrant to the U.S., will likely get 10 years in prison. The case attracted attention because of charges that Ferhani, a mentally disturbed and unemployed man, was entrapped by the New York Police Department (NYPD) after Intelligence Division officers scoured Palestine solidarity events for Muslims who they thought were potential extremists. Ferhani’s case has become a prominent example to many of the NYPD’s excesses.

Ferhani was arrested in May 2011 after purchasing weapons and ammunition for the attack he was allegedly to carry out with the encouragement of an NYPD agent.

Yesterday, Ferhani pled guilty in state court, and admitted wrongdoing. “By targeting a synagogue … I intended to create chaos and send a message of intimidation and coercion to the Jewish population of New York City, warning them to stop mistreating Muslims,” Ferhani said in a prepared statement. He pled guilty to ten charges, nine of them related to terrorism and one of them a hate crime charge.

Ferhani, who has bipolar disorder according to those close to him, was targeted by an undercover agent who befriended him and gave him money, credit cards and transportation to hospitals to deal with a kidney problem.

The judge in the case indicated that Ferhani would be sentenced to ten years plus five years of probation, though he may be deported to Algeria after his sentence. The ten years is less than what prosecutors wanted. Ferhani originally could have faced life in prison, but the most serious charges of the case were dropped in 2011. The charges against Ferhani’s co-defendant, Mohamed Mamdouh, are still pending.

The Manhattan District Attorney, Cy Vance, praised the ruling. “His case speaks to the fact that this lone wolf terrorist threat is very real and that it is very important that state actors like the Manhattan District Attorney act proactively to prevent men like Ahmed Ferhani from conspiring to murder Jews and commit acts of terrorism in our communities,” the New York Daily News reported Vance saying.

Lawyers for Ferhani say that his guilty plea was the best option for him, given that entrapment cases are notoriously hard to prove and that Ferhani would face more time in prison if he went to trial. Still, lawyers say Ferhani was unfairly targeted, one of many poor or unstable Muslim men the NYPD goes after in terrorism cases. And while the judge in the case, Michael Obus, did not have a problem with the investigation, he did admit that “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,” as ColorLines’ Seth Freed Wessler reported.

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Ahmed Ferhani in his home (Photo courtesy of Kheira Zahaf)

“He was willing to plead because…we cannot go to trial. We don’t have money,” Ferhani’s mother, Kheira Zahaf, told Mondoweiss in a phone interview. “They picked on the minority, hard-working family and also he cannot, if he goes to trial, he will never, never, never, never win the case.”

The case traces back to late 2008, at the height of Israel’s offensive against the Gaza Strip. The New York City Muslim community had mobilized in an impressive way, organizing protests and rallies that attracted thousands of people. But the NYPD sent an undercover agent, then known as UC 242 in NYPD papers, to look for extremists who police thought were potential terrorism suspects. UC 242 was eventually revealed to be an NYPD undercover detective who goes by the name Ilter Ayturk.

As Lizzy Ratner noted in Mondoweiss, one of Ferhani’s lawyers, Elizabeth Fink, obtained details of UC 242’s activities and released them to Leonard Levitt’s NYPD Confidential website as part of her defense of Ferhani. (Ferhani’s other lawyer is civil rights attorney Lamis Deek.) UC 242 attended rallies against the Gaza assault, “portraying himself as a Turkish Muslim who had been part of that community since 2008, and a fervent sympathizer with the Palestinian cause,” as Fink put it. “For many months, UC 242 was a continual presence within these student groups, providing constant support and doing anything to ingratiate himself with the activist group that supported Palestine. Over time he attended several student conferences outside New York City. He constantly engaged in provocative and violent rhetoric to the plight of the Palestinians. It is obvious that all of this activity must have generated hundreds of NYPD reports, summaries and related documentation.”

But Fink noted that UC 242’s activities did not produce anything. “What they needed was someone to arrest for ‘terrorist’ activities and UC 242’s efforts to obtain that person or persons had been totally unsuccessful,” said Fink.

So then Ferhani got caught up in Ayturk’s (UC 242’s) scheme. Ayturk met with Ferhani and Mamdouh, and began planning a spectacular attack in New York City targeting Jews. Ferhani’s mother said that Ayturk pushed Ferhani to plan out the attack for a number of months, and was “manipulated.” Ferhani’s early life was filled with calls to 911 due to his mental instability.

“Every time I call 911, NYPD took him to the hospital,” said Ferhani’s mother. “His life was not easy, and this is how they found the right target. And they entrapped him. This is entrapment.” Ferhani has been institutionalized by the NYPD in the past.

Everything came to a head in May 2011, when Ferhani was arrested after purchasing weaponry. After news of the arrest broke, it emerged that the federal government wanted nothing to do with this case, despite the fact that the FBI works with the NYPD on many other terrorism cases. WNYC reported that “two Federal law enforcement sources…said the FBI did not take the case of the two alleged Queens terrorists because the undercover operation was problematic and the end result was being over-hyped.”

And in June, a state grand jury declined to indict the two men on the most serious charges, noting that Ferhani wanted to blow up a synagogue while there was nobody inside.

The Ferhani case ends amidst an ongoing controversy about how the NYPD treats the issue of terrorism. The police department has spied on innocent Muslims throughout the Northeast, as well as on activists. And Ferhani is by no means the only case where entrapment was a big issue.

Zahaf, Ferhani’s mother, remains heartbroken over the case of her son.

“It was a bogus case….Everything was set up,” she said. “They destroyed my American dream.”

    • The government has to show that the accused had a prior inclination to commit the crime, so theoretically there are some checks against abuse, but in practice these checks are very feeble.

      Our legal system is based semantic games that legalize crimes of the government. The prime example is that it is illegal to offer anything of value in exchange for testimony. But then we have paid informants, and informants for who the government drops prosecutions.

      The other issue is that if a well dressed rich person with a good lawyer claims entrapment, there are some chances of convincing the court. But a radical dressed in orange prison garb and so dangerous that police has to stand one step behind him?

  1. Thanks for the mention of Leonard Levitt, the very model of “police reporter” who is supposed to report on the police rather than for them, which is the usual case. I suspect Newsday was glad to be rid of him.

  2. A very disturbing aspect is praying on vulnerabilities, especially on people with mental problems. In a nutshell, however radical you may be, you need to be an idiot to fall for the tricks of the provocateur. A person with a bipolar disorder, oscillating between craving for approval and feeling of grandeur may be a perfect patsy. About 1% of the population has some mental problems, you can find patsies in any community.

  3. So the defendant was entrapped into purchasing weapons? Maybe the defendant took a plea because his lawyers saw they had no defense against that charge.

    “By targeting a synagogue … I intended to create chaos and send a message of intimidation and coercion to the Jewish population of New York City”. Sounds like the very definition of terrorism.

    • From the article about the guilty plea:

      The judge said Tuesday that he had “no problem” with the investigation. “It stopped what could have been a dangerous situation,” he said.

      However, if the investigation manufactured the “dangerous situation” that it is hard to see social good in it. This is where the preying on the most vulnerable occurs. Moreover, a real “lone wolf” could not be entrapped in such simplistic manner. For starters, such an individual would know about entrapment stories and prepare a good cover, like developing a gun hobby, which is very popular in USA. For example, get a job in a rural region and behave like local people. On the other hand, people who are intelligent and effective ordinarily find something better in life then paranoid plots, this is why there are so few Breiviks.

    • Uhh….9/11? Uhh…the 1993 World Trade Center attack? Uhh…the Pakistani-American guy who left a car bomb in Times Square?

      Uhh….the JEWS!

      • Uhh….the JEWS!

        so obsidian, what do you think of your tax dollars funding the NYPD sending an undercover agent out to encourage people to attack synagogues as a way of flushing out extremists? do you think that’s helpful. or are you positing it didn’t happen.

        “For many months, UC 242 was a continual presence within these student groups, providing constant support and doing anything to ingratiate himself with the activist group that supported Palestine. Over time he attended several student conferences outside New York City. He constantly engaged in provocative and violent rhetoric to the plight of the Palestinians. It is obvious that all of this activity must have generated hundreds of NYPD reports, summaries and related documentation.”

        But Fink noted that UC 242’s activities did not produce anything. “What they needed was someone to arrest for ‘terrorist’ activities and UC 242’s efforts to obtain that person or persons had been totally unsuccessful,” said Fink.

        So then Ferhani got caught up in Ayturk’s (UC 242’s) scheme. Ayturk met with Ferhani and Mamdouh, and began planning a spectacular attack in New York City targeting Jews. Ferhani’s mother said that Ayturk pushed Ferhani to plan out the attack for a number of months, and was “manipulated.” Ferhani’s early life was filled with calls to 911 due to his mental instability.

  4. Annie.

    The NYPD has a job to do, which includes setting up undercover ‘sting operations’ to catch would-be terrorists. Unfortunately, it seems that the undercover agents(UC’s) the NYPD have been using are not the highest quality. Maybe that is all the NYPD has to work with.
    Were these young Moslem men guilty? I don’t know. The government’s cases against them make me uneasy and I am equally uneasy of criticizing the NYPD’s efforts to thwart terrorism in New York City.