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Lone Wolves or Sheep?

March 19, 2012

Defense attorney Elizabeth Fink last week underscored an ugly truth about the NYPD’s three key terrorism cases.

In each case, terrorism suspects have turned out to be mentally unstable young men. At least two of them have histories of psychiatric treatment.

One of them was schizophrenic.

A third had an IQ of 78, considered borderline intellectual functioning, a step above mental retardation.

Arguably, people with diminished mental capacities are vulnerable enough to be talked into wild, violent schemes.

That’s the entrapment scenario Fink suggested last week for suspect Ahmed Ferhani, a troubled young man with a history of mental problems who stands accused of plotting to bomb a Manhattan synagogue.

Fink claimed the NYPD had targeted the 27-year-old Ferhani precisely because of his troubled past, which includes, she said, 30 involuntary commitments to psychiatric wards since age 17.

“A surface examination of Mr. Ferhani’s record reveals his extensive mental health records, including involuntary commitments facilitated by the NYPD beginning when he was 17 years old, and his criminal record,” Fink stated in court papers.

Those papers seek disclosure of all Ferhani’s conversations with the main NYPD undercover officer who investigated him, a man who called himself Ilter and is known officially as “UC 242.”

“Clearly there exist scores of reports and summaries that memorialize the NYPD’s selection of Mr. Ferhani as their target,” Fink charged

Fink also charged that the police were aware of Ferhani’s mental history because of repeated 911 calls his mother had made to get help subduing him.

“It will be our contention,” say Fink’s court papers, “that Ahmed Ferhani was specifically selected for his vulnerability — his mental state, his anti-social record and his drug use — and over a six-month period entrapped into buying weapons so that another ‘terrorist’ could be paraded before the press and public….”

Police consider Algerian-born Ferhani and his 21-year-old, Moroccan-born co-defendant Mohamed Mamdouh “lone wolf” terrorists, not affiliated with any radical Muslim group, like Al Qaeda.

The pair were arrested May 11, 2011, and charged with planning to bomb a synagogue to avenge what they saw as mistreatment of Muslims around the world.

At a City Hall news conference the next day, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance accused the two of plotting to blow up the largest synagogue in Manhattan and to kill as many Jews as possible.

Yet the FBI refused to get involved in the case.

Law enforcement sources said that the Joint Terrorist Task Force — those FBI agents and NYPD detectives mandated specifically to investigate all acts of terrorism — distrusted the NYPD informant, Undercover Officer UC 242.

Furthering its distrust, the NYPD refused to allow the JTTF to question UC 242, the sources said.

Instead, Ferhani and Mamdouh were indicted under a state terrorism law passed after 9/11 that had never been used before.

A grand jury declined to indict them on the most serious charge brought against them — a high-level terror conspiracy count that carried the potential for life in prison without parole. They were indicted on lesser state terror and hate crime charges, including one punishable by up to 32 years in jail.

In two other terrorism cases, the NYPD has also been accused of entrapping mentally unstable people.

In its first high-profile case in 2004, on the eve of the Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden, police arrested, also with great fanfare, a Pakistani immigrant, Shahawar Matin Siraj, and charged him with plotting to bomb the nearby Herald Square subway station.

The NYPD never informed the FBI of its investigation until the end of the case when police needed a federal warrant.

Evidence revealed that the police had paid $100,000 to a confidential informant, who was 20 years older than Siraj. The informant gained Siraj’s trust, and encouraged him in his plot.

A co-defendant, James Elshafay, described himself as schizophrenic and said he had spent time in a psychiatric ward. Shortly after his release from his treatment, he said he plotted with Siraj.

Immediately after his arrest, Elshafay agreed to testify against Siraj.

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Jurors rejected Siraj’s entrapment defense. He was convicted and is now serving 30 years in prison.

Then there is Jose Pimentel, another alleged lone-wolf terrorist. Arrested last November, police charged him with making a bomb intended for police and army targets in retaliation for the killing of the American-born, radical Muslim cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki.

Again the FBI refused to take the case. The JTTF questioned the actions of the NYPD informant, who smoked marijuana with Pimentel and helped him build the bomb in the informant’s apartment.

The FBI also had doubts whether Pimentel, who was broke and unemployed, had the mental capacity to carry out the terror plot. While no formal mental tests on Pimentel have emerged, it seems that there are questions about his ability to reason, at least enough to make the FBI back off the case.

To prove entrapment, Ferhani's lawyers last week asked prosecutors for transcripts of all recorded conversations between Ferhani and the NYPD’s undercover officer, UC 242.

“UC 242 first appeared at student rallies protesting Israel’s campaign against Gaza more than two years ago, portraying himself as a Turkish Muslim who had been part of that community since 2008, and a fervent sympathizer with the Palestinian cause.

“For many months, UC 242 was a continual presence within these student groups, providing constant support and doing anything to ingratiate himself with the activist group that supported Palestine. Over time he attended several student conferences outside New York City. He constantly engaged in provocative and violent rhetoric to the plight of the Palestinians. It is obvious that all of this activity must have generated hundreds of NYPD reports, summaries and related documentation….”

However, said Fink, “these two years of effort brought about no tangible results, other than the acquisition of information by the NYPD. What they needed was someone to arrest for ‘terrorist’ activities and UC 242’s efforts to obtain that person or persons had been totally unsuccessful.”

Then, Fink said: “Enter Ahmed Ferhani.”

No comment from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

For more than three years, the NYPD has been up in Buffalo, apparently spying on that city’s 1,000-person community of Somalis.

NYPD Confidential reported three weeks ago [See column of Feb. 27] that a sergeant, captain and lieutenant from Intel’s Strategic Intelligence Unit [SIU] turned up in Buffalo on December 30, 2008, according a secret NYPD Intelligence Division “briefing report.”

They were meeting with Erie County Undersheriff Richard Donovan regarding what the briefing report described as the “Somalia Project.”

Although Donovan told the NYPD officers he didn’t know of any crime trends attributed to Somalis in the Buffalo area and although the line out of City Hall and One Police Plaza is that the department “only follows leads,” the NYPD appeared to set up shop in Buffalo.

According to the briefing report, a fourth NYPD officer, a detective, became “the lead investigator for SIU in the Buffalo area.”

The spying continues to this day.

According to Sunday’s Buffalo News, Donovan’s successor as Undersheriff , Mark N. Wipperman, who took over in July 2010, says the newest NYPD liaison arrived in January and he has met with four or five different NYPD officers since then.

One law enforcement agency the NYPD apparently did not meet with, according to the Buffalo News article, was the Buffalo area's Joint Terrorism Task Force, a cooperative effort that includes the FBI, state and local law enforcement agencies.

"If I had still been up there that would have bothered me a lot," Buffalo News reporter Matthew Spina quoted Peter J. Ahearn, who headed the FBI office in Buffalo from 2001 to 2006. "With the reputation the NYPD does have, and I know this factually, they will do different things in cities around the country and not even let law enforcement know they are there.”

The Buffalo News reported that the NYPD did not return calls asking about the reasons for the Somali surveillance.

Neither Paul Browne nor his top aide Deputy Inspector Kim Royster returned calls to this reporter.

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Copyright © 2012 Leonard Levitt