A 29 year-old man residing in Alexandria, Virginia, was arrested last Friday for allegedly attempting to detonate a bomb in a suicide attack on the U.S. Capitol Building as part of what he thought was a terrorist operation.

Amine El Khalifi, an immigrant from Morocco who is not a legal resident of the United States, was charged Friday by criminal complaint in the Eastern District of Virginia with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against property that is owned and used by the United States. He is facing a maximum of life in prison if convicted.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s press release, the arrest of El Khalifi was the culmination of an undercover operation during which he was closely monitored by the FBI Washington Field Office’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). The explosives and firearm that he allegedly sought and attempted to use had been rendered inoperable by law enforcement and posed no threat to the public.

According to the criminal complaint affidavit, in January 2011, a confidential human source reported to the FBI that El Khalifi met with other individuals at a residence in Arlington, Virginia, on January 11, 2011. During this meeting, one individual produced what appeared to be an AK-47, two revolvers and ammunition. El Khalifi allegedly expressed agreement with a statement by this individual that the group needed to be ready for war.

There is no indication whether the confidential informant identified others present at the January 2011 meeting, or if an investigation into other individuals is ongoing. It is also unclear what role the confidential informant played in the meeting, and what prompted the informant to go to authorities with such information. In a criminal context, in order to act on information provided by a confidential informant federal authorities must be able to corroborate the tip to ensure that the information is reliable. In this case, the informant might also be an undercover agent; however, revealing his identity would cause harm to other ongoing undercover operations.

The affidavit further alleges that El Khalifi sought to be associated with an armed extremist group, and on December 1, 2011, he was introduced by a man he knew as “Hussien,” an undercover law enforcement officer. Throughout December 2011 and January 2012, El Khalifi allegedly proposed to carry out a bombing attack. His proposed targets included a building that contained U.S. military offices, as well as a synagogue, U.S. Army generals and a restaurant frequented by military officials.

The government does not explain El Khalifi’s activities between the January 2011 meeting and December 2011, when he was introduced to the undercover officer. Most likely, the government was monitoring El Khalifi during this time and planning how to proceed with the investigation.

El Khalifi allegedly met with the undercover officer on multiple occasions. On January 7, 2012, “Hussien” informed El Khalifi that he was an al-Qaeda operative. El Khalifi allegedly discussed the possibility that his planned bombing of the restaurant would be followed by a second attack against a military installation to be conducted by others who El Khalifi believed to be associated with al-Qaeda.

The affidavit alleges that on January 15, 2012, El Khalifi stated that he had modified his plans for his attack. Rather than conduct an attack on a restaurant, he wanted to conduct a suicide attack at the U.S. Capitol Building. Allegedly, that same day at a quarry in West Virginia, as a demonstration of the effects of the proposed suicide bomb operation, El Khalifi dialed a cell phone number that he believed would detonate a bomb placed in the quarry. The test bomb detonated, and El Khalifi expressed a desire for a larger explosion in his attack. He also selected February 17, 2012, as the day of the operation, according to the affidavit. No details have been provided on whether the government provided this test bomb.

The affidavit alleges that over the next month, El Khalifi traveled to the U.S. Capitol Building on multiple occasions to conduct surveillance, and also asked Hussein for assistance when the time came.

On February 17, 2012, El Khalifi allegedly traveled to a parking garage near the U.S. Capitol Building. El Khalifi took possession of a MAC-10 automatic weapon and put on a vest containing what he believed to be a functioning bomb. Unbeknownst to El Khalifi, both the weapon and the bomb had been rendered inoperable by law enforcement. El Khalifi was arrested and taken into custody before exiting the parking garage.

The U.S. government appears to have taken a proactive approach regarding potential terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. In other words, the government has engaged in undercover operations with the goal of seeking out possible terrorist attacks before they come to fruition. Since 9/11, legislation has been created to assist federal authorities in such efforts; one key piece of legislation being the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, more commonly known as the USA PATRIOT Act. Although the USA PATRIOT Act was enacted with the intention of protecting America from future terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, it also opened the doorway to the loss of privacy of an individual or entity suspected of terrorist activities, particularly non U.S. persons.

On May 26, 2011, President Barack Obama signed a four-year extension of three key provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act: roving wiretaps, searches of business records (the “library records provision”), and conducting surveillance of “lone wolves” — individuals suspected of terrorist-related activities not linked to terrorist groups.

The author of this blog is Erich Ferrari, an attorney specializing in Federal Criminal Defense matters. If you have any questions please contact him at 202-280-6370 or ferrari@ferrari-legal.com.

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