Updated: 6:06 p.m.
A 29-year-old Moroccan immigrant with an expired visa has been charged with attempting a suicide attack at the Capitol.
Nearly four hours after his arrest by Capitol Police and the FBI today, Amine el Khalifi appeared before Judge Thomas Rawles Jones Jr. of the Eastern District Court of Virginia.
He has been charged with “attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against property that is owned and used by the United States” — the Capitol. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.
“The complaint filed today alleges that Amine el Khalifi sought to blow himself up in the U.S. Capitol Building,” said Neil MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia in a statement released by the Justice Department this afternoon. “[He] allegedly believed he was working with al-Qaida and devised the plot, the targets and the methods on his own.”
Officers with the FBI and Capitol Police took el Khalifi, whose visa expired in 1999, into custody about 12:30 p.m.
“The arrest was the culmination of a lengthy and extensive operation,” Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said in a statement issued shortly after the arrest. “At no time was the public or Congressional community in any danger.”
According to the criminal complaint affidavit filed by Steven Hersem, an FBI supervisory special agent who oversees the Washington Field Office’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, el Khalifi has been on the FBI’s radar since January 2011. At that time, a confidential source contacted the FBI to report that el Khalifi “met with other individuals at a residence in Arlington, Virginia.” At this meeting, el Khalifi agreed that the “war on terrorism” was a “war on Muslims,” and told the group that it “needed to be ready for war.”
El Khalifi went on, said Hersem, to partner with two undercover FBI agents he believed to be affiliated with al-Qaida. He shared with them his proposals to bomb several targets, including a synagogue, a building that housed U.S. military officers and a restaurant where military officials frequently ate.
Hersem also said el Khalifi handled an AK-47 assault rifle and “indicated his desire to conduct an operation in which he would use a gun and kill people face-to-face.”
On Jan. 15, el Khalifi announced he had changed his plan, said Hersem: he would launch a suicide attack at the Capitol. That same day, he placed an explosive in a West Virginia quarry and conducted a successful test run by dialing a cell phone number to detonate the bomb.
He is alleged to have spent the next month and two days looking for ways to create a larger and more deadly explosion, and scouting out locations around the Capitol for his attack.
Today he allegedly traveled to a parking garage near the Capitol and “took possession of a MAC-10 automatic weapon and put on a vest containing what he believed to be a functioning bomb,” although both had actually been rendered inoperable by undercover law enforcement.
As he walked by himself toward the Capitol, “where he intended to shoot people and detonate the bomb,” he was arrested.
The story is similar to one that emerged in late September: 26-year-old Rezwan Ferdaus was arrested on suspicion of plotting to attack the Capitol and Pentagon with a team of gunmen and a remote-controlled aircraft filled with explosives. He was apprehended by the undercover FBI agents who he thought were affiliated with the same terrorist organization.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement that the incident signaled the need for continued scrutiny of “homegrown terrorism.”
“While we are still learning details, this plot appears to be yet another example of radicalized extremists attempting to attack Americans from within our borders,” said Collins, citing a Congressional Research Service finding that from May 2009 to Feb. 9, 2012, arrests were made in connection with 36 terror plots by citizens or legal permanent residents of the United States.
“Today’s arrest is a reminder that we must redouble our efforts to confront the threat posed by violent Islamist extremism, while making the clear distinction between a major religion followed by millions of law abiding Americans and a twisted ideology,” she continued.
Collins added she was “in contact with the FBI.”
Speaker John Boehner’s office confirmed that the Ohio Republican, who left the Capitol around noon, was briefed on the investigation leading up to the arrest.
Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Administration Committee, which oversees the Capitol Police, thanked law enforcement for it efforts and echoed Collins’ concerns.
“Today’s incident serves as an important reminder for the need for constant vigilance to protect this nation and its capital form the threat of those who wish to do us harm,” he said.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) noted how the response of law enforcement agencies has changed over the past decade.
“We have come a long way since the haphazard security response after 9/11 to today, when the Federal Bureau of the Investigation, the Capitol Police and others worked perfectly in concert to not only stop a possible attack, but to work undercover for an extended period of time to learn much that might even stop future attacks,” Norton said. “Along with many others, particularly residents of the District, I am grateful to [them] for their excellent work.”
Daniel Newhauser contributed to this story.