WASHINGTON — Federal authorities on Friday arrested a 29-year-old Moroccan man in an alleged plot to carry out a suicide bombing at the U.S. Capitol building, the latest in a series of terrorism-related arrests resulting from undercover sting operations.
For more than a year, Amine El Khalifi of Alexandria, Va., considered attacking targets including a synagogue, an Alexandria building with military offices and a Washington restaurant frequented by military officials, authorities said. When arrested a few blocks away from the Capitol around lunchtime on Friday, he was carrying what he believed to be a loaded automatic weapon and a suicide vest ready for detonation.
The gun and vest were provided not by al-Qaida, as Khalifi had been told, but by undercover FBI agents who rendered them inoperable, authorities said.
They said Khalifi had been the subject of a lengthy investigation and never posed a threat to the public. On Friday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, he was charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against federal property. He faces life in prison if convicted.
Khalifi "allegedly believed he was working with al-Qaida," said Neil MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Khalifi "devised the plot, the targets and the methods on his own."
In several recent terrorism sting operations, critics have accused federal investigators of provoking suspects and, in some cases, suggesting possible targets or tactics. Legal experts say the FBI sometimes walks a fine line in such cases.
"You want to be very sure that the narrative is not substantially provided by the government," said Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, who studies terrorism sting operations. "There's a lot of gray area in these cases."
But officials said Friday that Khalifi, who allegedly conducted surveillance on the Capitol and engaged in methodical planning, was no unwitting victim.
Khalifi arrived in the United States when he was 16 and was living as an illegal immigrant in northern Virginia, having overstayed his visitor's visa for years, officials said. In 2010, he was evicted from an apartment after failing to pay rent.
It was unclear how Khalifi came to the attention of federal authorities. According to the criminal complaint filed in court Friday, a confidential source reported to the FBI in January 2011 that Khalifi had met at a residence with individuals, one of whom produced what appeared to be an AK-47 assault rifle, two revolvers and ammunition.
When one of the other individuals expressed the sentiment that "the 'war on terrorism' was a 'war on Muslims' and said that the group needed to be ready for war," Khalifi reportedly agreed, according to the complaint.
Khalifi "sought to be associated with an armed extremist group" and was introduced on Dec. 1, 2011, to a man called Yusuf, who was an undercover law enforcement officer.
According to the criminal complaint, during meetings with the undercover officer, Khalifi indicated his desire to conduct an operation in which he could carry out a shooting rampage in a restaurant.
On Jan. 15, Khalifi told undercover agents that he had modified his plans for the attack and wanted to conduct a suicide bombing at the Capitol, according to the complaint. It said that on that same day, at a quarry in West Virginia, Khalifi carried out a test bombing using a cellphone as a detonation device; the test bomb exploded, and Khalifi expressed a desire for a larger explosion in his attack.
On Friday, before preparing for what he allegedly considered a "martyrdom" mission, Khalifi prayed at Dar Al-Hijrah, a northern Virginia mosque, according to the prayer leader there. He was driven into downtown Washington by Yusuf and another man who was working undercover with the FBI.
Khalifi began walking alone toward the Capitol but quickly was arrested, authorities said.
In the past year, federal agents have arrested at least 20 people in the United States on terrorism-related charges, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Washington has been the alleged target in at least two cases.
In one, a Massachusetts man of Bangladeshi descent was accused of plotting to fly explosives-packed model planes into the Pentagon and the Capitol. In the other, Farooque Ahmed, a Pakistani American from Ashburn, Va., was accused of trying to bomb Washington-area Metro stations.
In both of those cases, the FBI relied on undercover agents.