WASHINGTON — A 29-year-old Moroccan man, who believed he was working with al-Qaida, was arrested Friday near the U.S. Capitol as he was planning to detonate what he thought was a suicide vest, given to him by undercover operatives, officials said.
Amine El Khalifi of Alexandria, Va., was taken into custody with an inoperable gun and inert explosives, according to a counterterrorism official.
He arrived near the Capitol in a van with the two undercover operatives, and walked toward the building, according to court papers. He was arrested before he left the parking garage.
El Khalifi made a brief appearance in federal court in Alexandria, on Friday afternoon, wearing a green shirt and black pants and holding his arms together behind his back. A judge set a bail hearing for Wednesday. FBI agents in blue jackets raided a red brick rambler home in Arlington, Va., after the arrest. A police car blocked the entrance.
A criminal complaint charges him with knowingly and unlawfully attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against property that is owned and used by the United States. The charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
El Khalifi, who was under constant surveillance, expressed interest in killing at least 30 people and considered targeting a building in Alexandria and a restaurant, synagogue and a place where military personnel gather in Washington before he settled on the Capitol after canvassing that area a couple of times, the counterterrorism official said. During the investigation, El Khalifi went with undercover operatives to a quarry in West Virginia in January to practice detonating explosives, according to court documents.
He believed he was working with an al-Qaida operative on the plot, according to an affidavit.
El Khalifi came to the U.S. when he was 16 years old and is unemployed and not believed to be associated with al-Qaida. He had been under investigation for about a year and had overstayed his visitor visa, which expired in 1999, making him in the country illegally, according to court documents.
According to the affidavit filed by an FBI agent, El Khalifi told acquaintances in January 2011 that he agreed the "war on terrorism" was a "war on Muslims" and that they needed to be ready for war.
Before settling on a plot to conduct a suicide bombing in the Capitol, El Khalifi considered blowing up an office building in Alexandria, where military officials worked and a restaurant in Washington to target military officials who gathered there. He even purchased supplies including nails for the operation, according to the affidavit.
Later, when he settled on bombing the Capitol, El Khalifi asked his associates for more explosives that would be detonated by dialing a cellphone number.
In January, he unknowingly told authorities he wanted to know if an explosion would be large enough to destroy an entire building.
El Khalifi met with an undercover law enforcement officer, who gave him an automatic weapon, which had been rendered inoperable. El Khalifi carried the firearm around the room, practiced pulling the trigger and looking at himself in the mirror.
A former landlord in Arlington said he believed El Khalifi was suspicious and called police a year and a half ago.
Frank Dynda said when he told El Khalifi to leave, the suspect said he had a right to stay and threatened to beat up Dynda. Dynda said he thought El Khalifi was making bombs, but police told him to leave the man alone. Dynda had El Khalifi evicted in 2010.
El Khalifi had several men staying with him and based on packages left for him, Dynda said. It appeared that he was running a luggage business from the apartment, though Dynda never saw any bags.
"I reported to police I think he's making bombs," Dynda said. "I was ready to get my shotgun and run him out of the building, but that would have been a lot of trouble."