NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two men pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges that they bought guns and a hand grenade and plotted to blow up synagogues and other buildings in New York City.
Ahmed Ferhani, 26, an Algerian, and Mohamed Mamdouh, 20, a Moroccan-born U.S. citizen, were indicted on weapons and terrorism charges in state Supreme Court in Manhattan.
Prosecutors say the two men conspired between October 2010 and May 2011 to dress as Jewish worshippers and bomb synagogues and churches in Manhattan.
According to authorities, they met with an undercover detective on several occasions, expressed a desire to kill Jews, and eventually purchased semiautomatic handguns, ammunition, and an inert grenade.
"Their desire to commit violent jihad against Jewish Americans is not only an act of terrorism, but also a hate crime," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in a statement.
Elizabeth Fink, who represents Ferhani, said the charges were politically motivated and used by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the police in order to "drive a wedge" between New Yorkers of different backgrounds.
Fink pointed out that the most serious charges had been downgraded, from second-degree conspiracy charges to charges in the fourth degree. That, she said, reflects the weakness of the evidence against her client, who she said suffers from psychiatric problems. She also said the case was one of "entrapment."
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The defendants' May 10 arrest came just over a week after the killing of Osama bin Laden, though authorities made it clear the alleged plot had begun months earlier. The police have said the two men appear to have been working alone, without any ties to established militant groups.
In an unrelated case two years ago, four men were arrested for placing what they thought were explosives outside synagogues in the Bronx. The men were videotaped making vitriolic anti-Semitic statements to an FBI informant, though their defense lawyers argued they were entrapped.
They were convicted following a trial in Manhattan federal court and await sentencing.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Greg McCune)