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].”
* * *
In 2009, Ilter met a young Palestinian man I’ll refer to as W, who agreed to speak on the condition that The Nation not publish his name. W and Ilter met at a pro-Palestinian rally; when W suggested getting drinks afterward, Ilter offered to treat.
At the beginning, Ilter “played it real smooth,” W said. But after a few months, he started bringing up religion and politics a lot. “He asked me if I would participate in the international defense of our Muslim brothers and sisters,” W said, sitting in a McDonald’s in Queens and regularly looking over his shoulder because he suspects he may be under police surveillance. At one point, Ilter talked about going to a gun show in Las Vegas, saying he could pay for it. “He showed me pictures of the gun show, and he’d try to lure people in with gifts and stuff like that.”
One of the last times W saw Ilter, the latter brought up Israel and accused W of going soft. “He tried to get [me] involved in assassinating the prime minister of Israel,” W said, laughing incredulously. “Crazy stuff.”
Well before Ahmed was arrested trying to purchase the guns and grenade, he had been picked up for a parole violation. Ahmed said—and Deek confirmed—that undercover officers visited a friend of his before he was released on the violation, asking whether or not Ahmed might be interested in political crimes of terrorism.
According to W, he and Ahmed had met in 2006, went their separate ways, and then started hanging out again by early 2010. W introduced Ilter to Ahmed, a decision he says he’s “regretted ever since.”
The three of them hung out quite a bit, sometimes at a makeshift music studio in Astoria, Queens. At one point they discussed selling T-shirts to raise money “for Gaza,” according to W. Ahmed, who was also attempting to get a jewelry business off the ground, was going to design the shirts. He had previously been a salesman at Saks Fifth Avenue.
“There were times when he, Ilter, would instigate animosity toward not only Zionists, but all Jews,” W said. (W didn’t recall any kind of anti-Semitism from Ahmed when they first met in 2006.) Ilter would also bring up various outlandish schemes.
Of these, Ahmed seemed most interested in ones that would turn a profit. He was particularly intrigued by the possibility of exporting cars to be sold on the black market. Sitting at a bright green plastic table in the West Facility of Rikers Island, Ahmed described how Ilter told him they could sell a Dodge Nitro in Turkey—where Ilter claimed to be from—for $90,000 or more. The two of them had already talked about buying and selling guns, but upon hearing about the truck scheme, Ahmed said he asked Ilter, “So why are we messin’ with the guns then?” According to Ahmed, Ilter said the gun sale would just be to tide them over until the truck scheme could get under way.
Ahmed says he should have known better than to go through with the gun purchase. He had a nagging feeling something wasn’t right with Ilter, but he didn’t act on it. One time, the two of them went to Ilter’s apartment, which was almost totally empty but had a security system. “I’m like, ‘Why you got a security system?’” Ahmed said. “‘You don’t got anything.’”
Ilter also pressed Ahmed repeatedly to attend pro-Palestinian rallies, so much so that at one point Ahmed remembers yelling at him to shut up about the protests already. Dima, the Al-Awda activist, suspects that if Ilter had succeeded in connecting Ahmed to the groups involved, “it would have given the NYPD and the government the opportunity to criminalize the organizations, all of their members, and even community folks who have attended rallies.”
In the weeks leading up to the arrest, W said that things were getting “fishy” and that he barely heard from Ahmed or Ilter. According to the indictment, from April 12 to the time of the arrest, Ahmed, Mohamed Mamdouh and Ilter were discussing bombing synagogues, including a plan to “dress up as a Jewish worshipper.”
But the transcripts of their conversations, not previously disclosed, paint a more complicated picture.
On April 30, eleven days before the arrest, Ilter offered to drive Ahmed to the hospital for a doctor’s appointment. Toward the end of the conversation, Ilter brought up a large synagogue he’d recently passed on Fifth Avenue. But Ahmed was more focused on the reason for his doctor’s visit: the bumps on the back of his head and arm that he was increasingly worried about. Ilter tried a couple more times to interest him, describing how big the synagogue was, to which Ahmed responded distractedly: “yeah” and “alright man, no doubt.” They also discussed selling drugs and buying guns.
On May 3, eight days before the arrest, Ahmed admitted that he was contemplating flipping all the guns. “I been thinking about it, maybe we just gonna sell the fucking guns,” he said, telling Ilter, “people willing to pay a lot for them.”
On May 5, Ahmed met with “Mohammad,” an undercover agent posing as a weapons dealer, who, despite the supposed plan to blow up the synagogue, had to remind Ahmed that he had grenades to sell. “Oh yeah,” Ahmed said, asking the price and adding that Ilter had told him about them, but “I forgot.” It’s clear from the transcript that Ahmed thought he could easily find buyers for the grenades, since they were very difficult to acquire. “[O]nly very few, like, very few, like, know what I’m saying, can get [grenades]. Very few, man,” he said to Mohammad.
Six days later, Ahmed was arrested around Fifty-eighth Street and Twelfth Avenue in Manhattan after attempting to purchase three guns and a grenade for a down payment of $100. According to the indictment, Ahmed had initially planned on paying $600 for two guns. And according to the transcripts, Ahmed at one point speculated that if he and Ilter could get a “clean” gun—new, never used in any crimes—for $300 to $500, they could resell it for double or triple that.
This means Mohammad sold Ahmed weapons that he perceived (rightly or wrongly) to have a street value of well over $2,000—three guns worth at least $600 apiece and a grenade worth a few hundred dollars—for just $100. According to Ahmed and his defense team, he believed he was being offered such a good deal because Ilter instructed him to tell Mohammad he was “doing it for the cause.”
The deal preoccupied Ahmed more than the plot. Money was constantly on his mind. “He was always trying to make a buck,” a friend of his—who didn’t want her name used—told me over the phone. At that price, she suspects, “they were just trying to put [the weapons] in his hands: ‘Take this, take this, take this.’”
When the cops took him to the precinct, Ahmed said, his phone started ringing. It was the buyer he had lined up, who was planning on purchasing at least some of the guns.
Mohamed Mamdouh was arrested several blocks away from Ahmed. He told the press that Ahmed was a drinking buddy of his and expressed skepticism that Ahmed would have gone through with the plot.
* * *
Ahmed Ferhani is a charming, funny, gregarious person who was dealt a complicated hand. He was raped by a teenage neighbor at the age of 7, when his family was still in Algeria. (“It’s cool—you can put that in your story,” he told me after sharing this. “I’m not ashamed.”) They moved to Queens in 1994 to escape the civil war ripping Algeria apart. His mom says he’s been bipolar since he was a teenager, though he’s never been properly diagnosed, and has been hospitalized on and off since then. Before the arrest, he smoked weed to self-medicate, saying that prescription pills make him feel hypnotized.
At home, Ahmed would act out: yelling, slamming cabinets, sometimes hitting his head against the wall. When his mother couldn’t control him, which was often, she called 911. These encounters ended with Ahmed in handcuffs more than ten times, according to his mom, and at least temporarily in police custody. The NYPD, to put it bluntly, is well aware of Ahmed’s psychiatric past.
Ahmed has a history of cutting himself and continued to do so at Rikers, though he says his girlfriend got him to quit. He showed me his left bicep, heavily scarred. He told me the cutting gave him a temporary sense of release, but he realized it “wasn’t normal.”
Raymond Brock-Murray, a therapist who specializes in providing counseling to Muslims, says that when it comes to people with psychiatric disorders, “ensnar[ing] them might be easier than it would be for someone who is a little more mentally stable.” Brock-Murray, who is Muslim, doesn’t know Ahmed and stressed that having a psychiatric disorder doesn’t preclude someone being a threat. The problem, he said, is how the NYPD then deals with those kinds of cases. He repeatedly stressed that if Muslims hear someone talking about violence, they should bring it to the attention of community leaders, because it could be a real threat—but also because it could be an undercover agent attempting to lure someone in.
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His warning is particularly relevant in light of revelations by the Associated Press that the NYPD’s intelligence division has spied on Muslims throughout the Northeast, infiltrating student groups and keeping tabs on mosques, bookstores and cafes. “I believe that many members of various organizations have a hard time trusting or believing anyone,” said Dima, the Al-Awda activist. “We all know that we are not doing anything wrong or illegal, but we understand that severity of having someone in a group who is trying to make you fall into a trap.”
The Manhattan district attorney’s office refused to comment on Ahmed’s case, and the mayor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. The NYPD simply said, “We’re confident that the outcome of his case reflects both the severity of the threat and the integrity of the investigation.”
But advocates say the real threat is to the Constitution, and it is posed not by a wayward hustler like Ahmed Ferhani, but by powerful agencies that target people like him because of their name, religion or place of birth.
“There’s always a scapegoat in this country,” said Jen Waller, an activist who worked for Ahmed’s defense team and now considers him a friend. “The most important thing, as people of conscience, is to defend the scapegoat.”
At the end of our conversation at Rikers, Ferhani said he is working on his mental strength and praying every day. Prior to this ordeal, he wasn’t very religious at all.
“What’s funny,” he said, “is that if I had stayed on the path of righteousness, none of this would ever have happened.”
In a radical assault on the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court has ruled that clients of the ACLU—including The Nation and Nation contributors Naomi Klein and Chris Hedges—could not challenge the sweeping surveillance law known as the FISA Amendments Act. See Roane Carey’s item in this week’s “Noted.”