WASHINGTON — A Moroccan man was arrested Friday as he tried to carry out an Al-Qaeda suicide bombing in the US Capitol, under the watch of the FBI which was conducting a sting, officials said.
The FBI said it conducted an undercover operation as part of a longstanding terrorism probe of the suspect, who was arrested blocks from the Capitol building as he allegedly hoped to detonate what he believed to be live explosives.
“Explosives the suspect allegedly sought to use in connection with the plot had been rendered inoperable by law enforcement and posed no threat to the public,” the Federal Bureau of Investigation said in a statement.
The Justice Department identified the man as Amine El Khalifi, a 29-year-old immigrant from Morocco living illegally in the US state of Virginia, which borders the capital Washington.
“Amine El Khalifi sought to blow himself up in the US Capitol Building,” US Attorney Neil MacBride said in a statement.
“El Khalifi allegedly believed he was working with Al-Qaeda and devised the plot, the targets and the methods on his own.”
The Justice Department said Khalifi had originally considered several different targets, including US military offices, a synagogue, and a restaurant frequented by US military officials, but eventually settled on the US Capitol.
He spent the better part of a month scoping out the building, venturing inside several times to conduct surveillance, and asking a man the thought was an Al-Qaeda operative — but who was in fact a US undercover agent — to remotely detonate the bomb should he encounter problems with security officers.
The Justice Department said undercover agents were with Khalifi on Friday when they drove to a parking garage, where the suspect took possession of an automatic MAC-10 pistol “and put on a vest containing what he believed to be a functioning bomb.”
He then walked toward the Capitol “where he intended to shoot people and detonate the bomb,” but Khalifi was arrested and taken into custody before exiting the parking garage, the department said.
Khalifi made an initial appearance Friday before a federal judge, and was charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against US property. He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.
Authorities briefed US lawmakers — who gather in the Capitol building to debate and vote on legislation — on the arrest.
“The brazen nature of this plot — targeting the US Capitol building with the aim of killing innocent people and desecrating a symbol of our democracy — is disturbing,” Republican Senator Susan Collins said in a statement.
“This plot appears to be yet another example of radicalized extremists attempting to attack Americans from within our borders.”
Collins, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, pointed to figures which show a sharp rise in such thwarted plots in recent years.
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 US residents, compared to 21 such plots between September 11, 2001 and May 2009.
Friday’s arrest was startling in that it marked a plot by a US-based suspect apparently intent on blowing himself up, whereas several previous sting operations foiled plots that did not necessarily involved a suicide attack.
While US authorities have been on alert to terrorism plots in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, in which terrorists flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, “I think we have this false sense that a suicide bombing… is unlikely to happen here,” said Frances Townsend, former homeland security advisor to president George W. Bush.
“We shouldn’t assume that we’re immune from it here,” she told CNN.
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