By Nedra Pickler
WASHINGTON — The Moroccan man accused of plotting to carry out what he thought would be a suicide bombing at the U.S. Capitol told acquaintances that America's war on terrorism was a war on Muslims and that they needed to be ready for battle, according to authorities.
Then the 29-year-old unemployed man started preparations of his own and believed he was working with an al-Qaida operative on the plot, according to court documents and an affidavit. A man brought him an automatic weapon. He got a suicide vest, scouted out targets and practiced setting off explosives, the documents say.
On Friday, Amine El Khalifi's goal to detonate the vest at the Capitol ended with his arrest in an FBI sting, said U.S. authorities who had been monitoring him for nearly a year. Undercover operatives — not an al-Qaida representative as he believed — gave him a gun and explosives that didn't work, according to an affidavit. He had those items with him when he was taken into custody at a parking garage near the Capitol, a counterterrorism official said.
He was charged in a criminal complaint with knowingly and unlawfully attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against property that is owned and used by the United States. He made a brief appearance Friday afternoon in federal court in Alexandria, Va., where a judge set a bail hearing for Wednesday.
El Khalifi, who is not believed to be associated with al-Qaida, expressed interest in killing at least 30 people, officials said. Two people briefed on the matter told The Associated Press the FBI has had him under surveillance around the clock for several weeks. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
He came to the U.S. when he was 16 years old and overstayed his visitor visa, which expired in 1999, making him in the country illegally, according to court documents.
Before settling on a suicide bombing plot, he considered targeting an office building in Alexandria, where military officials worked and a restaurant in Washington to target military officials who gathered there. He even purchased nails for the operation, according to the affidavit.
But he settled on the Capitol after canvassing that area a couple of times, the counterterrorism official said. He met with an undercover law enforcement officer, who gave him an automatic weapon that didn't work. El Khalifi carried the firearm around the room, practiced pulling the trigger and looking at himself in the mirror.
He later asked his associates for more explosives that could be detonated by dialing a cellphone number. In January, he told an undercover agent he wanted to know if an explosion would be large enough to destroy an entire building. The same month, he went with undercover operatives to a quarry in West Virginia to practice detonating explosives, according to court documents.
El Khalifi's activities drew the suspicions of a former landlord in Arlington, who 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. The former landlord 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 at least one man staying with him and claimed he was running a luggage business from the apartment, Dynda said, doubting that was true because he 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."
Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center imam Johari Abdul-Malik, who along with other Muslim leaders meets regularly with the FBI, said he was contacted by an agency official after El Khalifi's arrest and was told that Khalifi was not someone he needed to worry about.
He said the official told him that Khalifi was "not a regular at your mosque or any mosque in the area."
He said he offered to supply the FBI with surveillance video of the mosque in Falls Church, Va., in case it helped with their investigation but was told that was it not necessary.
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Police are close to arresting one of El Khalifi's associates on charges unrelated to the terror conspiracy, the counterterrorism official said. The associate was said to also be a Moroccan, living here illegally. Police are investigating others El Khalifi associated with, but not because they believe the associates were part of a terror conspiracy, the official said.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press