Did the NYPD Entrap Ahmed Ferhani?
Ahmed Ferhani. Courtesy: Kheira Zahaf
Here’s what New York City authorities want you to think about the Ahmed Ferhani case: that after an eight-month-long undercover operation, the New York Police Department caught a dangerous “lone wolf” before he and his partner, Mohamed Mamdouh, could blow up a large Manhattan synagogue, and possibly the Empire State Building. Ahmed—driven by anti-Semitism, they say—was the mastermind behind a plot to terrorize Jews and Christians for the mistreatment of Muslims throughout the world.
It’s true that the NYPD has tapes of Ahmed saying reprehensible things about Jews. With an undercover agent, he discussed plans to attack a synagogue—the building, not the occupants, as a grand jury determined in June of 2011. He was caught buying three guns, ammunition and what he believed was a live grenade from another undercover officer. After the arrest, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance held a press conference praising the investigation.
On December 4, 2012, more than a year and a half after his arrest, Ahmed took a plea bargain. On March 15, he will be sentenced to ten years in prison—far less than he would have faced had he gone to trial. In exchange, he admitted guilt to nine terrorism-related charges and one hate-crime charge. He’s the first person to be convicted under a New York State terrorism law—NY Penal Law 490—passed shortly after 9/11, which states that the “crime of terrorism” involves an attempt to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population.” Legislators who passed the law invoked seven examples of terrorism; six were acts of violence by Muslims against the West.
So justice has been done, we’re told, and New Yorkers are safer thanks to the operation that caught Ahmed Ferhani.
But that’s not the full story.
The full story involves a series of multi-year investigations based on a premise so shaky that the FBI—no stranger to dubious terror prosecutions—refused to get involved. These investigations, which often went nowhere and sometimes comically failed, included botched attempts to infiltrate a Palestinian rights group. At the center of the story is a young Muslim man from Algeria with a hustler’s attitude and a history of psychiatric problems, well known to the NYPD. Despite his guilty plea, Ahmed and his attorneys believe that the police set out to entrap him, and his attorneys also believe that Ahmed never would have seen the plan through.
Sitting in court in December, Lamis Deek, Ahmed’s lead counsel, rested her hand gently on her client’s back as he entered his plea. Judge Michael Obus lectured Ahmed from the bench, saying, “This is not the way anyone should conduct themselves in the civilized world.” Minutes later, Ahmed’s mother, Kheira, stood outside the courthouse at 100 Centre Street. She has long maintained that her son was entrapped and struggled to contain her emotions, saying that if Ahmed is deported after he serves his sentence—as seems inevitable—it would be OK. “He’s gonna have a better life [in Algeria]. You think this is a life here?” Five minutes later, she burst into tears.
“They destroyed my son,” she cried, as Shahina Parveen Siraj, a friend who also believes Kheira’s son was entrapped, stood quietly at her side. “Look, look at how handsome he was two years ago.” She showed me a photo of him with his grandfather. She was right: he was very handsome. “Now he looks like an old man.”
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The main player in the case against Ahmed is an undercover officer, known officially as UC242, who went by the name Ilter Ayturk. Over the course of the operation, Ilter became one of the most important people in Ahmed’s life. “He was my twin, my best friend,” Ahmed told me in an exclusive interview on Rikers Island, where he has been held in advance of his sentencing. “Ilter would drive me around, buy me food, buy my dog food, drive me to doctor’s appointments.”
Ilter and his CIA-trained handler, NYPD Detective Steve Pinkall, used to be regulars at pro-Palestinian rallies, where, according to Deek, Pinkall would act as an agent provocateur. Ilter often met activists through the group Al-Awda, a national grassroots coalition dedicated to Palestinian refugees, which has a chapter in New York. One Al-Awda activist named Dima Abi Saab recalled, via e-mail, being at a protest, after which Ilter “approached me and started showing me pictures of him carrying guns.
“I asked him why he had that and told him that he could get in a lot of trouble for the photos. He made a few jokes, and I told him I would report him. Only then did he tell me that they were from a gun show he attended and that they weren’t his.”
Ilter has a history of failed operations and an apparent pattern of initiating illegal actions before his targets do. One, according to Deek, involved a Turkish man identified to me only as “Kazim.” After Ilter and Kazim discussed the possibility of making a bomb, Ilter suggested that they place it in midtown Manhattan. Initiating this idea could be considered an example of creating the predisposition to commit terrorism—an important part of an entrapment defense—and would likely have weakened the state’s case. Kazim was subsequently deported back to Turkey.
Another of Ilter’s failed cases revolved around a group of Turkish men who reportedly wanted to send money to Gaza to be used for guns. The Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF)—the multi-agency unit run by the Justice Department and the FBI—declined to get involved upon discovering that Ilter, in one conversation, brought up Hamas before anyone else did, a fact that would have weakened any eventual case. The operation fell apart after one of the Turkish men fled with the money that had been collected.
The FBI’s refusal to get involved suggests Ilter’s investigations were particularly problematic, since the agency has been accused numerous times after 9/11 of solving plots of its own making. “The Ahmed Ferhani case is unusual in that the entrapment of a vulnerable young Muslim man by the NYPD was so blatant and egregious that even the FBI could not stomach the stench of injustice and refused to participate in the prosecution,” said Sharmin Sadequee of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, an alliance of civil rights groups whose work includes tracking entrapment cases.
“The JTTF repeatedly informed the NYPD that they found Ilter to be both unreliable and to have initiated the plots,” Deek said in an e-mail. “This underscores the insidious role the NYPD played in manufacturing the plot [against Ahmed].”
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