A Virginia man will spend at least 25 years in prison after admitting he tried to conduct a suicide bomb attack against the U.S. Capitol.
Amine El Khalifi, 29, an illegal immigrant from Morocco living in Alexandria, pleaded guilty Friday in U.S. District Court, admitting that he plotted with men he thought were Al Qaeda operatives to attack the Capitol. In reality, El Khalifi was the target of an undercover FBI operation.
He was arrested in February in a parking garage near the Capitol, wearing what he thought was an explosive-laden suicide vest. The vest, provided by undercover operatives, was actually inert. A gun he planned to use to shoot his way past security in the building was also inoperable.
Friday's plea deal requires the judge to sentence El Khalifi to a term of between 25 and 30 years when the sentencing is held Sept. 14. In the plea deal, prosecutors state they will ask for a 30-year sentence.
Prosecutors said El Khalifi had revealed his intention to kill Americans to an undercover FBI operative he thought was a member of the Al Qaeda terrorist group. He spoke of wanting to attack a synagogue and kill Army generals, prosecutors said, before settling on a plot to blow himself up inside the U.S. Capitol as an act of martyrdom. Officials have said the public was never in danger.
El Khalifi admitted in Friday's hearing that, in preparation for the planned attack, he detonated a test bomb at a quarry in West Virginia and told the undercover operatives that he was hoping for an even larger explosion when he attacked the Capitol. He told the operatives he would be happy if he could kill 30 people. He also asked his handlers to remotely detonate the suicide bomb at the Capitol if he were incapacitated.
El Khalifi's lawyer, federal public defender Ken Troccoli, declined comment after Friday's hearing. In earlier court papers, defense lawyers said they were exploring both the possibility of a plea deal or presenting an entrapment defense at trial.
However, prosecutors say in their own court filings it was El Khalifi who continually upgraded the plans, wanting bigger bombs and higher-profile targets. They say it was El Khalifi who brought up the idea of targeting the Capitol, after first setting his sights on a building in Alexandria, a synagogue and a busy Washington restaurant.
"It was Mr. Khalifi who picked the targets. It was Mr. Khalifi who picked the weapons he was going to use," said Neil MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose office prosecuted the case.
MacBride said El Khalifi is just the latest among roughly a half-dozen "homegrown terrorists" who have been caught in FBI sting operations and investigations in the past few years in the northern Virginia area alone.
Bryan Paarmann, assistant special agent in the FBI's counterterrorism division in its Washington Field Office, said El Khalifi is part of a disturbing trend of homegrown violent extremists.
"They come from all walks of life," he said. "How they started on the path to radicalization is unique in every case," said Paarmann, who declined to comment on what specifically motivated el Khalifi.
El Khalifi could have faced life in prison if convicted at trial.