- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 15, 2011

NEW YORK — The top terrorism charge brought last month under a rarely used state law against two New York City men in an alleged bomb plot has been dropped, authorities said Wednesday.

Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh pleaded not guilty Wednesday to lesser state charges including criminal possession of a weapon as a terror crime in a scheme to blow up city synagogues.

But a grand jury evidently rejected the initial top charge against the pair, second-degree conspiracy as a terror crime, which carried the potential for life in prison. The top charges now, including the weapons count, are punishable by up to 32 years behind bars; the men also still face a less-serious terror conspiracy count and hate crime counts.

“The charges have dropped a significant level in this case,” Mr. Mamdouh’s attorney, Aaron Mysliwiec, said in court. Another defense attorney called the case “entrapment.”

Mr. Ferhani and Mr. Mamdouh were arrested on May 11 on charges that include planning to strike a synagogue to avenge mistreatment of Muslims around the world. An undercover officer who investigated them reported that Mr. Ferhani wanted to become a martyr, and wiretap recordings caught the men calling Jews “rats” and other names.

Authorities say Mr. Ferhani, 26, who came to the U.S. from Algeria, was nabbed in a sting buying guns, ammunition and an inert hand grenade in Manhattan. Mr. Mamdouh, 20, an American citizen of Moroccan descent, was picked up a few blocks away.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. stressed Wednesday that the remaining charges still accuse the men of posing a legitimate threat to the city’s Jewish community.

“I’m not certain what happened in the grand jury, but we’ll accept the fact that the possible sentence is 32 years,” Commissioner Kelly told reporters.

In a statement Wednesday, Mr. Vance said the indictment demonstrated that “threats to the safety of New Yorkers will be addressed swiftly and aggressively by this office and our partners in the [New York Police Department].”

The arrests were announced last month at a City Hall news conference where Commissioner Kelly and Mr. Vance said they took the unusual step of prosecuting at the state level — using an obscure terrorism law passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — after the FBI was made aware of the investigation but decided not to get involved.

The FBI, a central player in past terror investigations, has declined to comment.

But a law enforcement official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, has told the Associated Press that the FBI had reservations about how the probe was conducted and concluded the allegations weren’t worthy of a federal terrorism case.

“This is a political case, brought by political people, for their own political purposes,” Elizabeth Fink, an attorney for Mr. Ferhani, said outside court.

The defendants remain held without bail and are due back in court Sept. 20.

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