Two arrested in NYC synagogue terror plot

Ahmed Ferhani, left, 26, and Mohamed Mamdouh, 20,

Ahmed Ferhani, left, 26, and Mohamed Mamdouh, 20, stand before a judge during their arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court in Manhattan. They allegedly aspired to bomb synagogues, churches and the Empire State Building. (May 12, 2011) (Credit: Getty Images / pool)

Two Queens men born in North Africa, upset that Muslims worldwide were being treated "like dogs," were arrested Thursday on charges they aspired to bomb synagogues, churches and the Empire State Building, authorities said.

Police and city prosecutors said the suspects -- Ahmed Ferhani, 26, a native of Algeria, and Mohamed Mamdouh, 20, from Casablanca, Morocco, both of Whitestone, Queens -- were busted on the West Side of Manhattan after they bought weapons in an undercover sting.

The unemployed Ferhani had just purchased two Browning .380-caliber semi-automatic pistols, a Smith and Wesson handgun, ammunition and an inert hand grenade from an undercover NYPD officer when he was grabbed around 6 p.m. Wednesday by Intelligence division officers, said NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly.

Mamdouh, a livery dispatcher and U.S. citizen, was arrested soon after, said Kelly at a City Hall news conference with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Both suspects were ordered held without bail in Manhattan Criminal Court. Their lawyers told The Associated Press the men said they were innocent.

"Mr. Ferhani tells me he hasn't committed any crime at all," lawyer Stephen Pokart said. Mamdouh's attorney, Steven Fusfeld, said even under the prosecution theory, Mamdouh's role was less than Ferhani's and the men should not be treated equally. "My client says he is not guilty of these crimes," he said.

While city law enforcement officials have been wary since the death of Osama bin Laden about possible retaliation by terrorists, the men don't appear to have direct ties with organized terror groups including al-Qaida. Kellysaid they were "lone wolves" and said no specific houses of worship were targeted.

Police made the arrest because "We were concerned about the accelerating pace [of rhetoric]," said police spokesman Paul Browne.

A man identifying himself as Mamdouh's father said in a brief phone interview it "is not the time, because things are just in the beginning. We don't know what's going to happen." As for the charges, he said, "I'm surprised. For a boy 21 years old to think like that? It's unbelievable. We are not like that. We're against any terror in the world.".

The two -- whom Vance called "Islamic extremists" -- were charged with conspiracy and weapons charges as state terrorism offenses. Vance said Ferhani "was very clear in what he wanted to do: get guns, get explosives, blow up synagogues and kill Jews . . . He was committed to violent jihad, and his plans became bigger and more violent with each passing week."

To penetrate a synagogue, Ferhani discussed with the undercover officer growing a beard and ritual curls known as payos to disguise himself as a Hasidic Jew, said Kelly.

Vance's office first began investigating Ferhani last fall after a bar incident that didn't result in criminal charges. Then, with an informant's help, the NYPD began targeting Ferhani for an undercover operation, said police.

The federal Joint Terrorism Task Force was involved early on in the probe but basically decided it wasn't interested, clearing the way for the NYPD and Vance's office to develop a case under state terrorism laws, said Browne.

Thursday, neighbors of Ferhani in Whitestone, where he lived with his parents, brother and sister, said he is a friendly aspiring actor and model who loved his dogs and rapping in a small recording studio outside his house. "They're really nice people," said neighbor John Eusini, 30.Police said Ferhani had talked of getting martial arts training to help people in Gaza fight against Israelis. He also said if he wanted to travel to Pakistan for jihadist training he would need a fake passport.

With Emily Ngo and

Olivia Winslow

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