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US Capitol suicide bomb plot foiled: How to catch a 'lone wolf'

The arrest of Amine El Khalifi, a Moroccan man suspected of plotting to blow himself up inside the US Capitol, shows how law enforcement has fine-tuned techniques to stop lone wolf terrorists.

By Staff writer / February 18, 2012

Capitol Police officer Angel Morales, stands guard on the West side of the Capitol in Washington. A 29-year-old Moroccan man was arrested Friday in an FBI sting operation near the U.S. Capitol while planning to detonate what police say he thought were live explosives.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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ATLANTA

Long a mainstay of the drug war, undercover agents have found a new calling in netting so-called “lone wolf” terrorists, including playing a major role in the case of Amine Al Khalifi, the Moroccan man arrested on Friday after he allegedly set into motion a plot to blow himself up inside the US Capitol in hopes of killing at least 30 people.

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The arrest was the latest in a long string of foiled plots with undercover agents at the heart of investigations. Not thought to be affiliated with Al Qaeda, Mr. El Khalifi worked with what he thought was an Al Qaeda associate to take possession of a weapon and a suicide bomb vest – both of which turned out to be fakes provided by an undercover agent who had gained the man's confidence.

According to security experts, the US law enforcement approach is to identify potential lone wolf plotters, usually through tip-offs or online activity, and then deploy squads of covert agents to glean details of the plot. If the suspected terrorist is seen to be seriously planning an attack, agents will scheme to assist in the attack to create a record that can be later used in court.

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The tactic has proven highly effective, playing a role in almost all of the 36 homegrown terror plots authorities have unraveled in the last three years. Since 2009, according to one senior US terrorism official quoted by CNN, all terrorist plots in the West have been the work of lone individuals, sparking President Obama last August to call such threats "the most likely scenario that we have to guard against right now."

At the same time, security officials aren't convinced that using undercover agents to act as accomplices has actually proven effective in defusing the overall threat of lone wolf terrorism.

“While this approach has proven very effective in catching would-be terrorists, it is not at all clear whether it is something that actually is eliminating – or accelerating – the problem of lone wolf terrorism,” writes Raffaello Pantucci , an associate fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, in a recent Homeland Security Today article. “The approach of identifying possible lone wolves and then persuading them that they are part of a plot might be having the effect of turning armchair observers into active radicals. Who is to say they would have progressed to the point of actually carrying out an attack if they had not had the support of the network of undercover law enforcement operatives around them?”

Other experts have also rebutted growing official concerns about lone wolf terrorism, suggesting that actual evidence shows the real terror threat receding as the number of terror arrests have steadily declined since spiking in 2009.  The profile of alleged plotters like El Khalifi proves this theory, they say.

“We're not seeing a high level of spycraft among these individuals,” University of North Carolina professor Charles Kurzman, author of “The Missing Martyrs,” told the Monitor recently. “They're for the most part not professional killers, and their plots come to the attention of authorities fairly quickly.”

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