WASHINGTON -- A Moroccan immigrant wearing what he thought was a suicide vest and carrying a military-style automatic weapon was arrested Friday in a parking garage near the U.S. Capitol, where federal authorities say he intended to carry out a terrorist attack in the name of al-Qaeda. The case is certain to raise new questions over what constitutes foiling terrorism and entrapment.
Amine El Khalifi, 29, an Alexandria, Va., resident and undocumented U.S. immigrant, was arrested Friday, accused of attempting to detonate a bomb in the Capitol building, the nation's symbolic heart that saw a 1998 shooting attack and was believed to have been a target on Sept. 11, 2001. He appeared in federal court, where he was charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against federal property. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Federal officials portrayed the case as the latest example of lone-wolf actors seeking to wreck havoc on U.S. soil. “Today’s case underscores the continuing threat we face from homegrown violent extremists,” said Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco. “Thanks to a coordinated law enforcement effort, El Khalifi’s alleged plot was thwarted before anyone was harmed.”
But the facts of the case, involving a prolonged undercover operation involving government informants-turned-terrorism-enablers, is likely to raise concerns similar to those voiced last fall when federal agents announced they'd foiled an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. In that case, skeptics wondered whether the scenario was plausible without the intervention of an FBI informant. And that wasn't the first time critics had accused the FBI of edging close to entrapment and goading vulnerable people into terrorism plots.
"It was another 'sting' operation with a mentally deficient guy who actually wanted to strike a blow against the U.S.," former CIA counterterrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro said via email. Yet he warned against those who would depict the accused as an innocent naif. "He was led on by an FBI asset, but he probably would have carried out an act of violence (however screwed up) if not picked up by the FBI and guided to the would-be suicide path," he said.
Robert Blitzer, a senior fellow with consulting firm ICF International who served 26 years as an FBI special agent, defended his old agency's actions. “The FBI does not ‘enable,’ the FBI ‘develops’ evidence that will convict someone of crimes," he said in an email. "In situations like this -- a controlled prevention -- the person is predisposed to act and the FBI will give him enough rope to hang himself. Courts have upheld this kind of action time after time.”
Indeed, El Khalifi attracted attention a year and a half ago when his suburban Virginia landlord called police after the man allegedly threatened to beat him. It wasn't until January 2011 though, according to court papers, that a confidential informant told the FBI that El Khalifi had said in a meeting in his apartment that the "war on terrorism” was a “war on Muslims” and warned the group it needed to be ready for war. Over the course of a year, under close surveillance, he allegedly proposed attacking U.S. military installations, Army generals, a synagogue, and a restaurant frequented by military officials.
But on Jan. 15, the affidavit states, El Khalifi decided to change his plans and carry out a suicide attack at the U.S. Capitol building. After he detonated a test bomb at a quarry in West Virginia using a cell phone and casing the Capitol on numerous occasions, he parked his car in a Capitol Hill parking garage Friday and set off with what he believed to be a functioning bomb strapped on his body. He was taken into custody before he got out of the garage.
“While we do not know all the facts surrounding this case, the willingness of the suspect to take custody of a suicide vest and head to a public area makes this a very serious case," said David Schanzer, a terrorism expert at Duke University. "Since 9/11, there have not been other suicide cases on U.S. soil, although the actions of Nidal Hasan (the accused Fort Hood shooter in 2009) and Hesham Hadayet (the Los Angeles Airport shooter in 2002) suggest they knew they would be killed in the commissions of their crimes.”
While El Khalifi's arrest is certain to reignite the debate over Muslim extremism, federal officials went out of their way to stress that his alleged actions shouldn't tar other Muslims.
“This individual allegedly followed a twisted, radical ideology that is not representative of the Muslim community in the United States,” said FBI Assistant Director in Charge McJunkin.
The arrest came a little over a week after a study was released that found homegrown terrorism perpetrated by Muslim-Americans to be on the decline.