WNYC has learned the lack of Federal participation in the high-profile case of two Queens men allegedly involved in a plot to blow up New York City synagogues and churches was related to concerns it was not a bona fide terrorism case.
Two Federal law enforcement sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, 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. They also expressed concern the case would ultimately not hold up in court as terrorism case. "Should guys that want to buy guns be off the street, absolutely," one of the Federal officials said.
Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne rejected the Federal critique and said "When somebody acquires weapons and plans to bomb the largest synagogue in Manhattan he can find, what do you call it, mischief?"
At the press conference announcing the arrests of Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh, local officials said the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force had the right of first refusal on all terrorism cases, but had opted out of this one. Officials characterized the case as one involving a "pair of lone wolves" who were not part of a broader global terrorism conspiracy.
Both Federal and local terrorism officials have been increasingly concerned about the potential proliferation of such "home-grown" independent actors, like
Faisal Shahzad who tried to set off a car bomb in Time Square to avenge the death of Muslim civilians in US counter-terror strikes.
In this latest case, both young men have pleaded not guilty. They are being prosecuted by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance under a state terrorism statute passed in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks.
New York's Federal Joint Terrorism Task Force is an elite and highly-regarded collaboration that includes some 300 investigators from the FBI, the NYPD and 50 other local and Federal agencies.
Over the years, there have been tensions between the FBI and the NYPD. The NYPD maintains its own sophisticated counter-terrorism unit and has a thousand officers committed to intelligence gathering and infrastructure protection. It also has detectives deployed in several major cities around the world.
Its intelligence unit draws on the NYPD's unparalleled multi-racial and multi-lingual make-up. The long list of NYPD officers' countries of origin reads almost like the attendance list at the UN General Assembly. With scores of officers who speak dozens of languages, including the strategic Middle Eastern ones, the NYPD also maintains robust counter-terrorism Internet monitoring.
TERROR TURF WAR?
Criminal defense attorney Allan Zegas worked on the elaborate Federal missile sting case that snagged Indian businessman Hemant Lakhani on terrorism charges.
He says for a defense attorney, the lack of Federal engagement in this latest case is a major red flag. "Its odd and it is troubling,' said Zegas. "One of the things you don't want to see happening in these cases is for the state and federal governments to become involved in turf wars."
But for security consultant Nick Casale, a former NYPD detective and counter-terrorism boss with the MTA, the local prosecution is a sign that both the Feds and local authorities are learning from the past.
"But this also shows that the Obama Administration has full faith and confidence in the abilities of municipal and local authorities to develop and prosecute cases," said Casale.
The seven-month undercover probe culminated with the arrest Wednesday in Manhattan of 26-year-old Ahmed Ferhani after he allegedly bought an inert hand grenade, three handguns and ammunition in an NYPD sting operation.
His alleged accomplice, 20-year-old Mohammed Mehdi Mamdouh, was arrested nearby. Mamdouh is a livery car dispatcher.
Ferhani had previous brushes with the law and has spent time at Rikers, but a Manhattan Grand Jury refused to indict him on a previous, unrelated criminal case. Details of that case have been sealed.
MEANWHILE, BACK IN QUEENS
Terror suspect Ahmed Ferhani lived in a quiet well maintained neighborhood in Queens near the Whitestone Expressway. No one answered the door at his residence, but a woman who lived upstairs from the family said she rented her apartment from them.
The high profile terrorism case has made the residents of this suburban neighborhood reluctant to speak with the media.
At a nearby shopping center, some workers recalled seeing the young man. One woman, who would only give her name as Rose, said he used to come in to the Raindew Family Center and buy cigarettes on a regular basis.
"It's very scary. I saw it on TV last night and I knew it was him," said Rose. "He shopped here. Very polite and gentlemen-like. Always clean-shaven and well-dressed you know."
According to news reports, Ferhani had at one point worked selling cosmetics and aspired to be a model.
One man who refused to give his name said he lived across the street from Ferhani and would see him several times a week.
"Standing outside, just hanging around shooting the breeze with his neighbors. Looked like he was in search of a life. Looked like he had no job."
Ferhani immigrated to the U.S. from Algeria as a grade-schooler in August of 1995 with two siblings and his parents who had applied for asylum. Officials say Ferhani was here legally with permanent resident status but was facing possible deportation for failing to appear before an immigration judge to explain prior run-ins with local law enforcement.
Mamdouh, the younger suspect, is from Casablanca and also came to the U.S. during grade school. He immigrated to the U.S. with his parents in August of 1999 and is a U.S. citizen by virtue of his parents' naturalization.
Just this weekend, Mamdouh gave the New York Daily News a jailhouse interview. The Daily News Web headline declares "A weepy terror suspect declared his innocence, saying his accused buddy was to blame for chatter about a synagogue."
With additional reporting by Cindy Rodriguez.