Ferhani and Mamdouh- Hate Crime or Terrorism?

The recent arrest of Mohamed Mamdouh and Ahmed Ferhani on charges of plotting to attack a New York synagogue has received much media attention, not because of the crime being planned, but because the FBI NY JTTF opted to not be involved in the case. There is much speculation about the politics of the FBI/NY JTTF/NYPD working relationship, and anonymous law enforcement sources have suggested that the case will not hold up to terrorism charges in federal courts.

This speculation is extremely interesting because of the FBI’s definitions of international and domestic terrorism (excerpts below taken from www.fbi.gov) .

FBI definitions

There is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism. Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).
The FBI further describes terrorism as either domestic or international, depending on the origin, base, and objectives of the terrorist organization. For the purpose of this report, the FBI will use the following definitions:

  • Domestic terrorism is the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.
  • International terrorism involves violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any state, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or any state. These acts appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping. International terrorist acts occur outside the United States or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to coerce or intimidate, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.

It is important to note that terrorism by definition requires “furtherance of political or social objectives”. This means hate crimes (like anti-Semitic attacks, plans to bomb synagogues/churches/mosques) or attacks by clinically crazy people are not considered terrorist acts; they get prosecuted under hate crimes and various other criminal statutes instead, and carry softer sentences than anything related to terrorism. The meager information released about the case so far, along with the FBI/JTTF (in)actions raise the possibility that these two individuals were driven by sheer hate, and not terrorism. This would make it similar to the Sandlin Mathews Smith case, where the suspect was not charged with terrorism even though he had bombed a Florida mosque in 2010.

The second aspect of note is its completely domestic nature; there does not appear to be any foreign influence in this particular case. If there had been inspiration or involvement with any foreign organization, like the Shabab, Al Qaeda (central) or any of the Al-Qaeda affiliate/partner networks, the international terrorism statutes could/would have been applied.

A detail to remember is that this incident should not be considered a “lone wolf” terrorism case as it involved two individuals, even if they are not affiliated with any groups. Parallels are also drawn to Faisal Shahzad (Times Square bomber) however he too was not a lone wolf; whereas he implemented the bombing attempt by himself, he was actually affiliated with TTP who were part of the training, planning and funding of the operation (a true lone wolf case is the Unabomber).

The case of the make-up salesman/aspiring model Ferhani and taxi dispatcher Mamdouh on state terrorism charges (rather than federal), has the potential to dissolve into an entrapment case about terrorism because the perpetrators are Muslim and it involves the NYPD, rather than being treated as a hate crime like the Sandlin Smith case. Once again, we will have to wait and see what plays out.

Mohammed Junaid Babar- Donnie Brasco or Frank Lucas?

In 2004, Mohammed Junaid Babar was arrested for helping set up an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan and logistical support. He pled guilty and cooperated with law enforcement agencies. Acting as a witness in indictments of ten more people in the US, UK and Canada, he was finally sentenced in December 2010 to time served (a mere 4 years 8 months), 10 years supervised probation and a $500 fine; he could have been sentenced up to 70 years.  Junaid Babar, who has expressed remorse for his prior actions, was actually released on bail some 2 years ago in 2008.

There are many unanswered questions around this case as most of the court documents are sealed.

Judge Marrero mentioned that Babar was cooperating with law enforcement before his 2004 arrest. Was Babar a Donnie Brasco, working undercover for law enforcement, to catch terrorists?

Alternatively, if reports about Operation Crevice and Hassan Butt by Shiv Malik and Jon Gilbert have any credibility, Babar was looking for a way out, while avoiding spending the rest of his life in jail for his al-Qaeda activities. Given his incarceration for almost 5 years it is more likely that this was a Frank Lucas style deal or a David-Headley-style-informant-operation (1) that actually worked. 

Are some of the 10 people that were indicted because of Babar’s testimony in the same boat as Niazi in the Monteilh/FBI fiasco in California, or were they all genuinely involved in terrorism? At least two of the accused have had all charges against them dropped.

Assuming that Babar was really a terrorist and not acting in an undercover capacity, does cooperating with law enforcement count as an expression of de-radicalization or is it merely a self-preservation tactic? Can a man who helped set up a training camp for al-Qaeda be de-radicalized because of fear of a 70 year sentence?

The questions swirling around Babar’s conduct and sentencing have been dealt with by the courts, and it seems they will remain unanswered for the rest. Even his lawyer had not seen all the documents and notes from the prosecution side related to his case as Babar pled guilty and there was no discovery needed! 


(1) In the David Headley case, he was a paid informant who actually got radicalized during his sting activities, and was involved in the Mumbai bombing. Even when reports of his radicalization were coming in, the law enforcement community gave him free rein  because they assumed that it was part of his cover.

The Curious Incident of Emerson Begolly in the Car

On January 4, 2011, 21 year old Emerson Begolly was arrested in his mother’s car on charges of carrying a loaded gun1 and biting two FBI agents when they tried to question him; his defense claims that he has autism and the agents opening the car door and reaching for him caused his biting response that drew blood.  Mr Begolly was being investigated by the FBI due to his online postings and social network alliances that indicated he was a Nazi-turned-radical-extremist with a worrying interest in killing people. Reminiscent of the 2002 movie “Minority Report”2 that depicts a world where a “PreCrime” police unit exists to stop crimes before they happen, the FBI is now in the impossible position of prosecuting a man for a potential crime that he was fantasizing about committing.

Whether he is eventually charged and convicted on terrorism-related offences will be determined by the courts, but what is hard to ignore is the need for “deradicalizing” Mr Begolly and others like him. Preventing extremists from becoming operational is better for our society than having to deal with the consequences once people are committed to violence. Intervention and rehabilitation programs have been known to succeed in other countries, even with hardened criminals, and can do the same here.

There is an assumption that any rehab program would necessarily include religion, and the separation of religion and state is the reason our government cannot get involved; however this should not mean there is no role for the government in rehabilitation efforts. While they should not be teaching or advocating versions of any particular religion, they can certainly play a part in encouraging public/private partnerships with psychologists, religious clergy, families and communities. The model can be similar to the way many churches are involved in prisoner re-entry, safe havens for youth leaving gangs and refugee resettlement programs. Partnerships such as these would help strengthen the relationships between the American Muslim community and law enforcement, and create a more trusted environment for community policing.

In an ideal world, when a case like Mr Begolly shows up on the law enforcement radar, it would be better if he is counseled away from his warped world view as the first step; arrests and jail time should be our last resort and used only in cases where it is clear that the extremist is operational and planning an attack.


  1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/06/AR2011010602303.html
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minority_Report_(film)