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Terror plot against New York synagogue busted

By Susan Candiotti, CNN National Correspondent
  • NEW: One suspect accused of selling drugs to finance plot
  • Suspects were "lone wolves," Bloomberg says
  • Police say they purchased three guns, ammunition and a grenade
  • Their arrests mark end of seven-month undercover operation

New York (CNN) -- Two men suspected of planning an attack on a Manhattan synagogue with guns and a grenade were arrested Wednesday, marking the end of a seven-month undercover operation by New York police officers.

The suspects, Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh, were detained in midtown Manhattan after buying two loaded Browning semi-automatic pistols, one Smith & Wesson revolver, ammunition and a grenade, according to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

At least a dozen police officers swarmed Ferhani, who was at the time placing the weapons in the trunk of his car. Mamdouh was arrested on a street nearby moments later.

Each faces terrorism and hate-crime-related charges and, if convicted, could confront the prospect of life behind bars without the possibility of parole.

Ferhani, a 26-year-old unemployed resident of Queens, is a native of Algeria who traveled to the United States in 1995, claiming asylum.

"Muslims are abused all over the world, and I ain't going to take it," prosecutors quoted Ferhani as saying; his conversations with an undercover police officer were secretly recorded.

Prosecutors say Ferhani sold narcotics in an effort to finance the planned attacks.

His defense attorney, Stephen Pokart, told Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Melissa Jackson that his client "hasn't committed any crime at all."

Mamdouh, 20, also a Queens resident, was previously arrested on a pending 2010 burglary charge. He worked for a local delivery service and came to the United States in 1999 with his family from Casablanca, Morocco.

Defense attorney Steven Fusfelda -- while not acknowledging the legitimacy of the charges -- asked for leniency given that the prosecutors' case appeared to hinge more directly on Ferhani, he said.

Both men's voices were captured on audio recordings plotting the attacks, District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said, but they had not selected which synagogue to target.

Neither man has been charged in connection with a terrorist cell. Both, however, were allegedly "committed to violent jihad," telling police that they wanted to kill Jewish people and also hoped to attack New York's Empire State Building, Vance said.

"While Osama bin Laden is dead, terrorism around the world is not," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday.

Such "lone wolves" are "the toughest to stop," the mayor said, noting that 12 other terrorist plots in New York have been thwarted since September 11, 2001.

"We know that, as an international symbol of freedom and liberty, New York City is and will always be a target."

Authorities said the suspects discussed disguising themselves as Jewish temple-goers, growing their beards and pretending to pray as a way to sneak inside a synagogue and place a bomb.

During the course of the police investigation, Ferhani was recorded discussing his goal of financing "the Palestinian cause in Gaza" and traveling to Gaza in an effort to kill Israeli soldiers, according to a district attorney statement.

The suspects offered no resistance during the arrest, and the plot appears to be more aspirational than operational, police said.

They were arraigned Thursday in Manhattan Criminal Court.

"Generally the federal government has a greater interest in prosecuting these matters," said former federal prosecutor Michael Wildes. "Their deferral here begs the question of the posturing and the behind-the-scenes politics that played out."

Wildes called it a "major accomplishment" for the state to try a terrorist suspect, rather than to proceed under federal jurisdiction.

Over the course of the investigation, prosecutors say, Ferhani discussed buying multiple guns while trying to learn how to build a bomb.

He allegedly proposed blowing up an empty synagogue, as well as a church in Queens. Later, Ferhani was recorded discussing ideas of blowing up a synagogue "with Jews or Zionists inside," the statement said.

"The defendants plotted and took concrete steps to bomb synagogues and kill Jewish New Yorkers as an act of terrorism," Vance said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Homeland Security officials continue to stress that lone wolves and homegrown terrorists are high on their list of concerns and can be just as dangerous as those with direct ties to al Qaeda or other extremist groups.

The terror threat "was on the radar screen" well before al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed May 2 in Pakistan, one law enforcement source said.

The arrests grew out of another investigation that also began long before bin Laden's death, officials said.

Jewish Federations of North America President and CEO Jerry Silverman released a statement Thursday saying his group was "disturbed by the news reports of a homegrown terror plot aimed at Jewish communal institutions in New York City."

In the wake of bin Laden's death, he says, the federation is endeavoring to help "communities be prepared, alert and secure against the heightened threat."

CNN's David Ariosto and Brian Vitagliano contributed to this report.