Two Queens men arrested last month and charged with planning to blow up synagogues, churches and the Empire State Building got a break Wednesday when it was disclosed a grand jury cut out the most severe counts carrying life prison sentences.
Still, Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh face charges carrying substantial prison terms, officials disclosed Wednesday.
The state terrorism indictment unsealed in Manhattan State Supreme Court revealed that Ferhani, 26, and Mamdouh, 20, face a top charge of conspiracy in the fourth degree as a crime of terrorism, instead of the more serious conspiracy in the second degree, which was listed in the original criminal complaint in May.
The second-degree conspiracy count carried a potential life term, while the indicted fourth-degree count is punishable by up to 7 years, said a spokeswoman for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.
Both Ferhani, an unemployed actor, and Mamdouh, a livery dispatcher, now also face weapons-possession charges as a terrorism offense, which carry possible 25-year prison terms, the spokeswoman said. The defendants pleaded not guilty at their arraignments before State Supreme Court Judge Michael Obus and were ordered held without bail.
The men, both born in North Africa, have been in custody since their May 12 arrests on the streets of Manhattan by NYPD undercover intelligence officers after officers said they bought weapons in an undercover sting operation.
Both men were branded "Islamic extremists" by Vance at the time. Vance said the men wanted to "blow up synagogues and kill Jews." NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said last month that the men even talked about targeting the Empire State Building.
Prosecutors wouldn't comment about why the grand jury didn't indict the pair on the more serious conspiracy charge. But a comparison of the original criminal complaint with the indictment showed that prosecutors now don't accuse the defendants of conspiring to commit arson in first degree as originally suspected in May. First-degree arson involves the use of a firebomb and the defendants originally were charged with plotting to use hand grenades. The indictment now mentions arson in the third degree, criminal mischief and weapons possession.
Defense attorneys didn't return telephone calls for comment late Wednesday.