WASHINGTON - Federal authorities yesterday arrested a 29-year-old Moroccan man in an alleged plot to carry out a suicide bombing at the US Capitol Building, the latest terrorism-related arrest 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 yesterday, 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 Qaeda, 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. Yesterday afternoon, he made an initial court appearance in US District Court in Alexandria, where 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 Qaeda,’’ said Neil MacBride, US 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.’’
‘There is no doubt that this guy was committed.’Anonymous law enforcement official
But officials said yesterday 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 having failed to pay rent.
The landlord of that apartment, Frank Dynda, a retired patent lawyer, said, “He was getting mysterious packages labeled ‘books,’ but I didn’t think there were books in them.’’
Dynda said he thought Khalifi was “suspicious and hostile,’’ and Dynda reported Khalifi to police.
Two officers visited Dynda’s apartment building soon after the report but told him there was no reason to pursue the matter, he said.
It was unclear how Khalifi came to the attention of federal authorities. According to the criminal complaint filed in court, 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 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 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 spree in a restaurant. That restaurant, like the synagogue, was not identified in court documents.
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.
Yesterday, 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.
Afterward, Khalifi began walking alone toward the Capitol but was quickly arrested, authorities said.
“There is no doubt that this guy was committed,’’ said a law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.
Following the arrest, FBI agents and police raided a red-brick rambler in Arlington, Va. Agents were seen going in and out of the house and searching the back yard.
Arlington police said they were assisting with a search warrant.
As news of the arrest spread, several members of the mosque Khalifi visited expressed concern that they could be thrust into the spotlight once again, even though Khalifi was not believed to have been a regular worshiper at the mosque.
Dar Al-Hijrah has weathered repeated criticism for ties to worshipers who were later found to have been terrorism suspects.
The mosque’s leaders have noted that, as one of the largest mosques in the mid-Atlantic, it attracts worshipers from all over, including many who attend infrequently.