Ahmed Ferhani, 27, was one of two men arrested in a May 2011 weapons-buying sting. Authorities called him a home-grown terrorist out to avenge abuse of Muslims around the world.
He envisioned posing as a Jew so he could infiltrate a synagogue and leave a bomb inside, prosecutors had said in court documents. At a meeting to arrange the gun buy, Ferhani said he needed the weapons "for the cause," according to a court complaint.
"By targeting a synagogue ... I intended to create chaos and send a message of intimidation and coercion to the Jewish population of New York City, warning them to stop mistreating Muslims," Ferhani, an Algerian immigrant, said Tuesday, reading from a prepared statement.
Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Michael Obus said he planned to sentence Ferhani to 10 years in prison, four years fewer than prosecutors had wanted. He would likely face deportation after serving the term.
Given that Ferhani had faced up to 32 years behind bars if convicted at trial, the 10-year sentence "is in his best interest," said his attorney, Lamis Deek.
Ferhani's lawyers initially portrayed him as a mentally unstable man entrapped by police. They also cited reports that federal investigators had declined to pursue the case because it was too flimsy.
Most terror cases are federal, but Ferhani and co-defendant Mohamed Mamdouh were charged under a rarely used state law passed shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
On Tuesday, District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. called the case "groundbreaking," adding that the plea showed that "the threat of terrorism from these lone wolf radicals is real."
Ferhani and Mamdouh were arrested after Ferhani bought three handguns, ammunition and an inert grenade from an undercover detective, police said.
Mamdouh, a 21-year-old American citizen of Moroccan descent, had been dropped off nearby before the buy and was arrested soon afterward, according to police. He has pleaded not guilty.
A grand jury declined to indict the two men on the initial top charge against them, a high-level terror conspiracy count. But they were indicted on other terror and hate crime charges.
The judge said Tuesday that he had "no problem" with the investigation.
"It stopped what could have been a dangerous situation," he said.
Sentencing was scheduled for Jan. 30.
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