* Plot far from operational, police say
* ‘Lone wolves’ bought guns, grenade in sting
* Also wanted to blow up Empire State Building - police (Adds no plea entered, men ordered detained, paragraph 9)
By Basil Katz
NEW YORK, May 12 (Reuters) - New York police arrested two North African-born men in a sting operation after they bought a hand grenade and guns wanting to attack synagogues, kill Jews and blow up the Empire State Building, authorities said on Thursday.
Algerian Ahmed Ferhani, 26, and Mohamed Mamdouh, 20, a Moroccan-born U.S. citizen, were arrested after they bought three pistols, ammunition and an inert grenade from an undercover officer, concluding a seven-month sting operation, police and Manhattan prosecutors said.
“In addition to discussing the bombing of synagogues ‘one after another,’ Ferhani also expressed interest in bombing the Empire State Building,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told a news conference.
New York has remained a target for al Qaeda and police went on heightened alert following the May 2 raid in which U.S. special forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Wednesday’s arrests foiled the 13th planned attack by Islamist militants on New York City since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The plot began months before bin Laden was killed, Kelly said.
“We established no direct ties between them and al Qaeda or other operational terrorist groups,” Kelly said, calling the suspects “lone wolves.”
They were charged under state terrorism statutes and if convicted, face up to life in prison. They were also charged with hate crimes. The men had discussed growing beards and curls to disguise themselves as Hasidic Jews, Kelly said.
The men were ordered detained by a Manhattan criminal court judge at a hearing on Thursday. Their lawyers told reporters they would fight the charges, but the men did not enter a plea. They are expected back in court on May 17.
In a separate case two years ago, four men were arrested for placing what they thought were explosives outside synagogues in New York City’s Bronx borough. The men, who were caught in an FBI sting operation, were videotaped making vitriolic anti-Semitic statements to an FBI informant. They were convicted following a trial in Manhattan federal court and await sentencing.
A poll released on Thursday showed 89 percent of New Yorkers approve of how police handle the threat of terrorism.
The Quinnipiac University poll taken May 4-9 was likely influenced by the U.S. killing of bin Laden but was also in line with previous polls about the New York Police Department, said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. (Additional Reporting by Bernd Debusmann Jr; editing by Mohammad Zargham)