Since 9/11, the FBI and NYPD have solved dozens of terror plots that its own agents and assets manufactured, including some against synagogues. Even if the plots were less than real, the foiled “attacks” have greatly impacted both the defendants and their alleged victims, spreading fear among Jewish-Americans and triggering panicked reports about heightened threat against Jews.
The arrest this April of James Medina, a recent convert to Islam with an extensive criminal history, may be the latest evidence of the disturbing practice. An FBI affidavit showed an FBI source suggesting that Medina bomb the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in Hollywood, Florida on a Jewish holiday.
The source even encouraged Medina to claim the attack in the name of ISIS—a group he had no affiliation to. “Yeah, we can print up… something and make it look like it’s ISIS here in America,” Medina said, one of a series of statements evincing an erratic mental state.
“Aventura, watch your back,” he continued. “ISIS is in the house.”
The FBI ultimately gave Medina a fake bomb and arrested him. He is now on trial for planning to commit an act of terror with a weapon of mass destruction, a charge that could land the 40-year-old in prison for life.
Although there is still much to be known about Medina’s case, it appears to be part of a broader pattern. Before his arrest, there were several other Muslim men, most of whom had mental illnesses or developmental disabilities, who were drawn into FBI dragnets and encouraged by federal law enforcement agents to attack Jewish institutions.
Among the most shocking cases was that of Ahmed Ferhani, a young, clinically bipolar Muslim teen currently serving a 10-year sentence in prison for terrorism-related charges.
“The synagogue bomber,” that’s what his lawyer, Lamis Deek, remembers the press calling Ahmed Ferhani.
On May 13, 2011, Ferhani and his co-defendant, Mohamed Mamdouh, were arrested and charged with planning to dress up as Hasidic Jews and plant a bomb in a Manhattan synagogue.
Many New York Jews were horrified. “It takes only 1 percent of the people we don’t catch for tragedy to strike our community… We are just so grateful that the police caught it in time,” Rabbi Eli Shifrin of the ultra-Orthodox Chabad sect told the Bayside-Douglaston Patch after Ferhani and Mamdou were arrested.
But as with most domestic terrorism cases, especially those supposed plots in which undercover cops or informants play a role, the truth was much more complicated than it first seemed.
In an interview with AlterNet, Deek explained how it was the undercover NYPD detective—and not the defendants—who introduced the idea of bombing the synagogue, and manipulated the vulnerable, clinically bipolar Ferhani into making anti-Semitic remarks.
This April, Ferhani tried to hang himself in his jail cell, a result of the constant torment he endured from prison guards as a result of his alleged crimes, according to Deek. Her client is currently in a medically induced coma and may not survive—and if he does, he may suffer from permanent brain damage.
As Ahmed Ferhani’s family keeps vigil at his bedside, questions continue to mount about the alleged plot that brought him there.
A Case of Entrapment?
The story of Ferhani’s path to prison begins in 2010, when a friend introduced him to a man who called himself name Ilter Ayturk.
Ayturk was really an undercover NYPD officer with a history of initiating potentially illegal activities before his intended targets, so much so that the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF)—the multi-agency federal force charged with preventing attacks—had previously declined to get involved in his investigations.
Ayturk and Ferhani quickly grew close. “He was my twin, my best friend,” Ferhani told the Nation in 2013. Ferhani is bipolar, according to his mother Kheira, and was hospitalized on and off as a teenager. Kheira would sometimes have to call 911 when her son got out of control, so the NYPD was well familiar with him, even before Ayturk was introduced into his life.
An October 2012 article published in the New York Review of Books analyzed Ferhani’s case alongside several other plots “foiled” by the NYPD. “Mentally unstable people may be capable of great harm and paid informants may help detect serious crimes,” noted writer Michael Greenberg.
“But the facts in these cases warrant critical attention.”
According to press reports, the undercover detective, Ayturk, soon started suggesting various schemes for Ferhani to make money and spoke to him about what was happening in Palestine and across the globe.
Next, Ayturk began introducing the anti-Semitic angle. “Ilter would start riling up Ferhani, and start trying to blame all these horrible things on the Jews,” explained Deek. “Then he would try to get Ahmed Ferhani to say something along those same lines.”
According to Deek, soliciting these kinds of comments from Ferhani was crucial for the prosecution to work. Overtly political or anti-Jewish statements would enable the government to “overcome the entrapment defense, because now they’ve established predisposition,” she explained.
Eventually, Ferhani met with an undercover agent posing as a weapons dealer, and paid $100 in exchange for 150 rounds of ammunition, three semiautomatic pistols and an inert hand grenade, supposedly to be attack a Manhattan synagogue.
“Absolutely,” said Deek, when I asked if Ayturk had also suggested the idea of attacking the synagogue. “He introduced everything.”
Deek’s insistence that Ferhani’s case amounted to entrapment—in the spirit of the law, if not the letter—is echoed by some press coverage of the trial. ”The government says he is a terrorist,” penned John Knefel is his March 2013 Nationarticle. “But his conversations with undercover police tell a different story.”
Since the federal government had refused to take on the case, Ferhani and his co-defendant were charged under a little-known state terrorism statute. In June 2011, a grand jury declined to indict them on the most serious charges put forward by the government, but indicted Ferhani and his co-defendant on lesser offenses, including planning to blow up an empty synagogue.
In December 2012, Ferhani pled guilty to nine terrorism-related charges and one hate crime charge. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
It wasn’t the first time an undercover operative in a counter-terrorism sting would encourage the plot’s anti-Jewish turn.
In 2007, FBI informant Shahed Hussain was sent to infiltrate the Masjid al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh, New York, where he soon introduced himself to a local resident, James Cromitie. Although Cromitie tried to ditch Hussain, the informant was persistent, and with time Hussain started encouraging Cromitie to adopt hateful views. Jews “are responsible for all the evils in the world,” Hussain told his target in one October 2008 conversation.
Later that same day, Hussain tried to compel Cromitie to action: “When I feel these Moishites, these Yahud, in Palestine, killing Muslims, or killing people in Iraq or in Afghanistan, one of our brothers, I always think about going for a cause, for a cause of Islam.”
“Have you thought about that brother?” he asked Cromitie.
At the behest of Hussain, Cromitie recruited three other men as lookouts by offering them with substantial sums of money. The promises made by the informant sometimes appeared to exploit the men’s greatest vulnerabilities. David Williams, for example, agreed to get involved after Hussain offered to help him secure the cash to pay for his brother’s liver transplant.
On May 20, 2009, the day of the planned attack, Cromitie and Hussain placed three inert explosive devices in a Mazda and parked outside of the Riverdale Jewish Center, while the other men acted as lookouts. The defendants have since said they never planned to set the bombs off, but rather swindle Hussain out of the cash.
The “bombs” had been built by the FBI and provided to the Newburgh Four through Hussain, and the government had selected the target.
Soon, cops swooped in to arrest.
It’s a case that’s been sharply criticized. “There would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it, and brought it to fruition,” US District Judge Colleen McMahon told the court when she sentenced Cromitie and his co-defendants to the mandatory minimum of 25 years.
In a Guardian opinion piece published in June 2011, then-director of the Center on Law and Security at NYU’s Law School, Karen Greenberg, wondered whether Hussain’s hateful actions and words were really in the public interest: “Who really thinks that tax dollars are well spent to support utterances of anti-Semitism as a means of bonding with potential criminals and turning them into attempted terrorists?”
A History of Manufacturing Anti-Semitism
There are other questions, too—like whether it was the undercover operatives, their handlers, or higher-ups in the NYPD or FBI, who guided the plots towards their anti-Jewish end.
“I definitely suspect that there was a lot of detailed instructions in this case,” for Ayturk, said Deek when I asked her what she thought.
It’s a startling image: a group of cops or FBI agents sit around an office table and plot the details of an “attack” on Jews.
The idea sounds implausible, even conspiratorial. But the FBI has previously made calculated decisions before to exploit anti-Semitism as a means of managing perceived national security threats.
As Kenneth O’Reilly writes in his landmark text Racial Matters: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America, “one of the FBI’s favourite tactics was to accuse the Panthers and other black nationalists of anti-Semitism, a tactic designed to destroy the movement’s image ‘among liberal and naive elements.’”
In late 1969, the FBI devised a plan to establish contact with Rabbi Meir Kahane, head of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), for “counter-intelligence purposes.” The ultra-nationalist JDL that had already held several highly publicized protests against “Black anti-Semitism,” and at the time, Kahane was writing a column for the Jewish Press.
The FBI soon began sending Kahane anonymous messages intended to depict the Black Panther Party (BPP) as violently anti-Semitic, material that Kahane integrated into his column. One such letter to Kahane declared: ‘We will get you one by one. Israel will have to be destroyed. Too much Jewish Political Power now. In the future it will be Black power.”
Tensions grew so high that a street battle almost broke out between the BPP and the JDL in May 1970. “The FBI… was pleased” with this development, narrates Robert Friedman in his 1990 biography about Kahane’s life. “Kahane was the perfect stooge.”
Widening Divisions Between Muslims and Jews
While the Black Panther Party may no longer be “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”—as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once said—today those same worlds could quite easily be applied to Muslim “extremists.”
There is no evidence to suggest there is a coordinated scheme within the NYPD or the FBI to drive divisions between Muslims and Jews—but for families directly affected by the plots, it seems like the writing is on the wall.
Shahina Parveen is the mother of Matin Siraj, who is currently serving 30 years on terrorism-related charges, another instance in which the government informant played a key role and induced his target into adopting anti-Semitic beliefs. Parveen is also close friends with Ferhani’s mother.
“Hate is like a wildfire,” Parveen told AlterNet. “It is the police informants and undercovers who start these fires through manipulating impressionable young people to not only manufacture these cases, but also to cause mistrust across our communities.”
“Is this a part of their duties?” she lamented.
The informant in Siraj’s case, Osama Eldawoody, acted as a religious guide for her son, Parveen told me when I interviewed her several years ago. The two men met in 2003, at the Islamic bookstore in Bay Ridge where Siraj worked.
He was an impressionable young man who had struggled in school and was often described as a little slow. Siraj quickly became attached to his older friend.
“Eldawoody’s play was that there’s a war on Muslims, and that America and Israel are at the heart of it,” explained Siraj’s attorney, Martin Stolar, when I spoke to him over the phone. “And that the war on Muslims being perpetrated in Iraq and Afghanistan and against the Palestinians, required a true Muslim to take action.”
When Eldawoody encouraged Siraj to plan an attack, Siraj suggested bombing the 34th St. Herald Square subway station. Eldawoody offered to acquire weapons, but the plan never got past its initial stages, and it is clear from other recordings that Siraj had mixed feelings about moving forward.
At one point Siraj told Eldawoody that he wanted to ask his mother for permission before proceeding, and he later informed Eldawoody he wanted out of the plan completely.
But the government didn’t back off. Siraj and his co-defendant, James Elshafay, were arrested in late August 2004, and the recordings of Siraj making anti-Semitic statements were played at his trial and reported by the press.
“Comments like that would affect the jury, and they definitely affected the judge,” said Stolar when I asked how the remarks played out.
“[The judge] was angered by those kinds of comments—her background is Jewish,” explained Stolar. Siraj was found guilty and sentenced to 30 years.
Laura Whitehorn is a Jewish left-wing activist who served time in prison for her political activities during the era of COINTELPRO.
“In my experience, the claim that someone—especially an alleged ‘terrorist’—was motivated by anti-Semitism seems calculated to silence any questioning, any doubt,” she told AlterNet. “It’s a way to try to slam dunk the target, ensuring that the public will not sympathize with them or question the evidence against them.”
Undercover operatives in the cases also appeared to elide the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, even if that meant editorializing over material critical of the occupation.
“In none of the films or the literature that the undercover was sharing, or using, with Ferhani or Mamdouh—in none of them was there an iota of anti-Semitism, or a blaming of the Jews in any of the propaganda that he used,” explained Deek.
“However,” added Deek, “when [Ilter] would refer to them, that’s how he would talk—and he would push Ferhani to say these things, to say anti-Semitic things, especially as it relates to Palestine.”
Ayturk had infiltrated Palestine activist groups in New York City as early as 2008, and was actually spying on the local chapter of Al-Awda, the Palestine right to return coalition, when he met the mutual friend who subsequently introduced him to Ferhani.
Government Grants to Targets of FBI-Manufactured Plots
Oren Segal, the Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said that he felt debates about entrapment were worthwhile, but that no one should forget the impact of the alleged plots on Jews.
“Whether or not that case was handled as best as possible—let people debate that, they should,” said, referring to the Newburgh Four case. “We should always hold our law enforcement accountable for what they’re doing.”
“But I will tell you, there’s no debate that case had an impact on the security and safety of the Jewish community, and how they felt about it. When we’re talking about the issue of anti-Semitism, and the role it played there, at the end of the day people tried to plant some bombs in front of Jewish institutions,” he added.
Fearful people want protection, and protection is pricey—so in the years since 9/11, American Jews have pushed for government funds.
The Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP), which was created by Congress in 2005, “provides funding support for target hardening and other physical security enhancements and activities to non-profit organizations that are at high risk of a terrorist attack.” As of FY 2014, Jewish organizations and institutions have received the vast majority of the $151 million awarded, including 74 percent of the funds distributed between 2007 and 2010, 81 percent in 2011, 97 percent in 2012 and nearly 90 percent of the money given out in 2014.
“This disproportionate distribution is no accident,” wrote Eileen Reynolds and two other Jewish Daily Forward journalists in an extensive investigationpublished in September 2011.
“The coalition lobbying for the program was led by United Jewish Communities, now known as the Jewish Federations of North America, and by the Orthodox Union and several other Jewish groups.”
Some communities targeted by government-driven plots have benefitted directly. After the alleged attacks, the Riverdale Temple and the Riverdale Jewish Center each received a $25,000 grant “to upgrade their security systems.”
But the arrests have also been utilized by Jewish groups across the city to secure funding. In the NSGP application for the grant money, institutions are required to demonstrate that they or closely related organizations have been subject to threats or attacks by terrorist groups. The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York produces a comprehensive document to help Jewish groups establish risk.
“The Riverdale and Manhattan [Ferhani] bomb plots are exhibits of the continuing that of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and vehicle-borne IEDs,” notes the author in a section on how to establish high probability and high consequence threats.
“This Case Killed Him”
Of course, some terrorist groups do propagate the notion that Muslims are at war with America, and “the Jews.”
“I tell Muslims to believe in the victory of God and in Jihad against the infidels of the world,” said Osama Bin Laden in an October 2002 interview published byCNN. “The killing of Jews and Americans is one of the greatest duties.”
Jews have also faced real danger. During the November 2015 attacks on Paris, suspected gunmen Amedy Coulibaly stormed a kosher supermarket and killed four people. Six people were murdered in the attack on Mumbai’s Chabad House in November 2008, including a woman who was five months pregnant.
In the cases examined here, however, the defendants would likely never have been able to pull off an attack on their own, and they knew little or nothing about Judaism. “After Ilter had suggested that, they’re so angry, they should go bomb a synagogue, or they should do something at synagogue, Mamdouh actually looked at Ilter and said, ‘what the hell is a synagogue,’” Lamis Deek recalled.
Some American Jewish institutions see and cite these plots as proof of the danger posed by Muslim “extremists,” even though the primary person peddling the “extremist” ideology was the government agent. A 2013 ADL report entitled, “American Muslim Extremists: A Continuing Threat to Jews,” refers to both the Ferhani and the Newburgh arrests on its first page.
Progressive Jewish organizations operating outside the institutional tent have taken a different stance. “It is not uncommon for anti-Muslim sentiment or policies to be connected to the Islamophobic stereotype that Muslims hate Jews,” said Naomi Dann, the Media Coordinator at Jewish Voice for Peace. “It is particularly disturbing when this false stereotype is encouraged by actions of the state or law enforcement, and when accusations of antisemitism are used to justify Islamophobia.”
“Cases of entrapment, and the infiltration and surveillance of community groups that goes along with these practices, have very real and harmful impacts on Muslim communities, and should outrage all of us,” she stressed.
Being drawn into a government-manufactured plot has changed the lives of the defendants and their families irrevocably. A son behind bars means one less breadwinner in the home, and the often-exorbitant expense of visiting him behind bars can be taxing. The parents and siblings of the defendants have sometime endured surveillance from the police or FBI, even visits from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The day after her son was sentenced, Shahina Parveen, along with her husband and daughter, were picked up by ICE and placed in immigration detention, due to outstanding issues in Parveen’s husband’s legal status. All three were eventually released, but the experience was very difficult, Parveen told me.
Then there is Ahmed Ferhani, who wrote about the abuses he faced at the hands of prison guards in letters reviewed by the Nation. “At least 90 percent of the abuse that he suffered at the hands of the COs was a direct result of the charges that were brought against him, and that’s what drove him crazy,” said Deek when I asked her about the impact of the alleged plot.
“This case killed him, or near killed him, and it devastated his family,” she reflected, her voice trembling with sorrow.
Nefarious or not, the plots have driven a wedge between city residents of the two faiths.
“Jews feel like the victims of [these plots],” the ADL’s Segal told me when I asked him about Muslim community concerns.
In 2011, I interviewed Alicia McWilliams, the aunt of one of the Newburgh Four defendants. She recalled a visit to the rabbi at Riverdale Jewish Center just one week after the arrests:
“I told him, ‘The government manufactured this crime’, and he said, ‘Well, James [Cromitie] said some hurtful things’ [on the FBI tapes]… ‘You will not see us out there [supporting the accused]’ and we didn’t.”
McWilliams continued, “Then I met with him this past July, and I asked him how it would feel to be used. We were used, and you were used. The only difference is that you’re getting grants, and David and them are going away for life.”
Neither the NYPD nor the FBI have responded to requests for a response to the allegations raised in this article.
For now, the Newburgh Four remains behind bars, Matin Siraj counts down the days until his release, and Kheira Ferhani sits at her son’s bedside, praying for his recovery.