The FBI on Friday arrested a man who they allege was going to "blow himself up" in a suicide bombing attack at the U.S. Capitol, home to the U.S. Congress.
FBI agents posing as members of the Al-Qaeda provided fake ammunition to the 29-year-old Moroccan, Amine El Khalifi, who thought he had a loaded automatic weapon and a suicide vest packed with explosives. This is the latest in a series of undercover sting operations carried out by the FBI.
Khalifi, who arrived in the U.S. on a tourist visa in 1999 at the age of 16, was living as an illegal immigrant in Alexandria, VA, and had been planning to attack targets for more than a year. He was arrested around lunchtime as he headed towards the Capitol building from a nearby parking garage. He had a MAC-10 automatic pistol and a bomb vest, both "rendered inoperable" by undercover agents. Because of that, the incident "posed no threat to the public," the Federal Bureau of Investigation said in a statement.
El Khalifi appeared briefly in a federal court in Alexandria on Friday where a bail hearing has been set for Wednesday. He is charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against federal property owned by the United States. The maximum penalty if convicted would be life imprisonment.
The plot has been under close surveillance by the federal authorities since January 2011 when it came to their notice that Khalifi had met with persons in Arlington who were in possession of weapons and the meeting was to discuss "war on terrorism" with the main sentiment being that it amounted to "war on Muslims" and that the "group needed to be prepared in case of war". Khalifi was reportedly in unison with the sentiment and "sought to be associated with an armed extremist group".
A statement by the Department of Justice says: "Last December he was introduced by a man he knew as 'Hussien' to an individual named 'Yusuf,' who was, in reality, an undercover law enforcement officer. Throughout December 2011 and January 2012, El Khalifi allegedly proposed to carry out a bombing attack. His proposed targets included a building that contained US military offices, as well as a synagogue, US Army generals, and a restaurant frequented by military officials."
Court documents say Khalifi practised detonating explosives in a quarry in Virginia in the presence of undercover agents who he thought were Al-Qaeda accomplices. On settling upon the U.S. Capitol as his target for bombing he allegedly visited the building to work out details of the attack.
Khalifi considered himself on a "martyrdom mission" and on Friday he prayed at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Northern Virginia before setting out to do what he believed would ensure him a place in paradise.
Federal investigators in the U.S. routinely carry out such sting operations in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks. Experts say that the FBI sometimes walks a fine line in such cases where they provoke suspects or provide possible tactics or targets for assault. But officials claim otherwise.
Khalifi "allegedly believed he was working with al-Qaeda," said Neil H. MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Khalifi "devised the plot, the targets and the methods on his own."
Such undercover operations have assisted in arrests of quite a few potential terror suspects. There has been a sharp rise in thwarted terrorism attempts in recent years, says Republican Senator Susan Collins.
According to the Congressional Research Service, between May 2009 and February 9, 2012, arrests were made in connection with 36 homegrown plots by Americans or legal permanent U.S. residents, compared to 21 such plots between September 11, 2001 and May 2009.
The attempted "lone wolf" terrorist attack on the U.S. soil is not new as there have been a series of such attacks since 9/11. But the nature of this assault was unusual as the intent of the attacker was intended suicide.
The White House has confirmed that the FBI had made President Barack Obama aware of the arrest on Thursday.
Check out this video coverage of the incident.