MILWAUKEE -- The man accused of plotting to attack a Milwaukee Masonic temple in the name of Islam has pleaded not guilty to federal gun charges in the case. Samy Mohamed Hamzeh made the plea in court Tuesday.
The building houses a Children's Dyslexia Center and a bar/restaurant called the Double Eagle Pub. Federal Bureau of Investigation officials in January arrested Hamzeh, 23, who was charged with possessing machine guns and a silencer, CBS affiliate WDJT reported.
In a statement, the FBI said agents received a tip in September that Hamzeh had planned to travel to Israel to attack Israeli soldiers and citizens in the West Bank, but abandoned the plan as too difficult and later decided on a domestic attack.
A criminal affidavit said Hamzeh toured a Masonic center in Milwaukee on Jan. 19 with two confidential informants and was tape-recorded discussing his plans to attack it in the name of "defending Muslim religion."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Kanter said at today's arraignment that the recordings of Hamzeh speaking Arabic with government informants were made between October and January. He handed the stack of discs to defense attorney Craig Albee at the conclusion of the hearing.
Hamzeh had been under investigation since September 2015, according to CBS affiliate WDJT.
Hamzeh was been charged with receiving and possessing improperly registered firearms. Authorities say he purchased two fully automatic weapons and a silencer from undercover federal agents on Jan. 25. He faces up to 30 years in prison if found guilty, Kanter said in court.
Hamzeh teared up before the hearing when he saw his mother walk in the courtroom crying. He was more composed when U.S. Marshals escorted him out of the courtroom after the hearing. His mother blew him a kiss as he passed. Both of his parents declined comment, but Khawla Hamzeh has told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel newspaper that she believes her son was set up.
Hamzeh's attorney declined to talk about whether his client should be released on bail, saying more time was necessary to review evidence against Hamzeh.
Prosecutors say Hamzeh told FBI informants that he wanted to kill at least 30 people to spark more mass shootings in the U.S. and show that "nobody can play with Muslims." According to the criminal complaint filed last month, he targeted the Freemasons because "they are playing the world like a game." Masons are members of a fraternal organization that carries out a variety of activities including charity work.
In the years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the FBI has routinely relied on undercover operations similar to the one that led to Hamzeh's arrest.
The FBI sees sting operations as vital tools in preventing acts of terrorism and appropriate to use against those who have expressed an inclination toward violence. The targets come to the attention of authorities in various ways, sometimes through information from a confidential FBI informant or via online writings that promote jihad or profess allegiance to terrorist groups.
Defense attorneys frequently challenge the operations in court, contending that their clients were entrappedand suggesting that agents are taking advantage of a defendant's misguided thoughts or mental illness. They accuse investigators of effectively grooming clients into plotting acts of terror.
Some judges have criticized the FBI's tactics. In 2011, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon in New York said in sentencing one defendant to 25 years in prison that the government "created acts of terrorism" out of fantasies, bravado and bigotry.
The public defender's office has said Hamzeh's attorneys are likely to focus on the actions of the FBI in the sting operation and whether he was coerced.
The next hearing in the case was set for March 29.