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.”