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.

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