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Foiled suicide bombing of US Capitol: plot is both familiar and strange

Since 9/11, a series of would-be attackers – many of them 'lone wolves' – have been thwarted by undercover agents posing as collaborators. But an attempted suicide bombing is unusual.

Dana Verkouteren/REUTERS
An artists' courtroom sketch shows Amine El Khalifi, an illegal immigrant from Morocco, as he is brought before a judge in the Federal Courthouse in Alexandria, Va., Friday. El Khalifi was arrested near the US Capitol on Friday wearing a vest he believed was full of Al Qaeda-supplied explosives and charged in an attempted suicide bombing of Congress.

The man accused of attempting a suicide bombing at the US Capitol building fell into what has become a typical trap set for would-be terrorist attackers in the United States.

Amine El Khalifi, a 29-year-old immigrant from Morocco in the United States illegally, was arrested Friday following an undercover operation in which US agents – acting on Mr. El Khalifi’s expressed desire and intent to attack government and civilian targets on behalf of Al Qaeda – posed as collaborators, providing what seemed to be operable firearms and explosives.

It was the latest in a series of similar incidents:

  • Most recently, Rezwan Ferdaus, a 26-year-old US citizen and a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, was arrested last September. He is accused of plotting to bomb the Capitol and the Pentagon using remotely-controlled model airplanes.
  • In a similar case last June, Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif and Walli Mujahidh were arrested when, according to authorities, they arrived at a warehouse to pick up machine guns they intended to use in an alleged terror plot directed at a US military facility near Seattle.
  • Before that, charges filed against Somalia-born Mohamed Osman Mohamud allege that he was prevented from exploding a bomb at the Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Ore., where thousands of families had gathered for the traditional Christmas tree lighting.

In this most recent case, according to a US Justice Department statement, “In January 2011, a confidential human source reported to the FBI that El Khalifi met with other individuals at a residence in Arlington, Va…. 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 ‘war on terrorism’ was a ‘war on Muslims’ and said that the group needed to be ready for war.”

Last December, the Justice Department narrative continues, “He was introduced by a man he knew as ‘Hussien’ to an individual named ‘Yusuf,’ who was, in reality, 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 US military offices, as well as a synagogue, US Army generals, and a restaurant frequented by military officials.”

Over the next month, undercover agents met with El Khalifi, providing what he thought were operable firearms and explosives, and exploding a test device at a nearby quarry.

On Friday, El Khalifi went to a parking garage near the Capitol, where he took possession of a MAC-10 automatic weapon and put on a vest containing what he believed to be a functioning bomb. Agents had rendered both inoperable. He was arrested as he headed toward the Capitol building.

While there have been a series of attempted lone-wolf terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11, this case is unusual in that it involved intended suicide. There have been other suicide attacks attempted and carried out – the attacks of 9/11 using hijacked airliners and the so-called Christmas Day “underwear bomber” who was a passenger on an airliner approaching Detroit.

But until now, the post-911 terrorist attempts on US soil typically have not involved an attacker’s intent to take his own life.

Americans have been killed in suicide bombings overseas – including eight American civilians, seven of them CIA agents, at a base in Afghanistan in 2009. The suicide attacker in that case was a double agent from Jordan acting on behalf of Al Qaeda.

But a quick review of suicide bombings in the US shows very few. These include attacks on schools in 1927 (killing more than three dozen students and teachers) and in 1959 (in which six people were killed), as well as at the University of Oklahoma in 2005 where only the perpetrator was killed.

El Khalifi was charged Friday with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against property that is owned and used by the United States. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.

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