The men were undercover FBI agents who had spent months getting close to the Moroccan immigrant. That morning, on the way to the quarry, Khalifi had told one of them that he no longer wanted to leave a bomb in a restaurant; he now desired to die for his cause in a suicide attack that would bring down a symbol of American democracy: the U.S. Capitol dome.
A month after the quarry demonstration, Khalifi was arrested as he strode toward the U.S. Capitol wearing what he thought was a suicide coat. He was sentenced in September to 30 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.
This type of undercover sting operation, in which authorities seek individuals they think would be willing and able to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States, has generated controversy. Civil liberties groups say that the investigations identify people with radical views but who could not attempt an attack without the government’s help.
FBI officials, who have arrested scores of suspects in such stings since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, call the investigations a key tool in their efforts to prevent terrorism. They also insist that the investigations are thorough and seriously conducted. Before agents launch one, they spend months determining whether someone is full of bluster or a real threat, bureau officials said.
The vast majority of such inquiries determine that the person is harmless, the FBI says.
“It is your constitutional right to spout anti-American beliefs,” said agent Steven Hersem, who helped supervise the Khalifi investigation. “We spend a lot of our time trying to figure out if someone is an actual threat or not.”
In Khalifi’s case, the conversation before the quarry explosion convinced them.
“That was an epiphany for me that this man is a definite threat and he must be stopped at all costs,” said Bryan Paarmann, assistant special agent in charge of counterterrorism at the FBI’s Washington Field Office.
Initially, Khalifi was no different from many young men who find their way to the United States. He had been born in Morocco and visited Florida with his father at age 16. He overstayed his visa and eventually moved to Northern Virginia, where he worked odd jobs as a cook, busboy and salesman.
He got into mixing and producing music. For a time, agents said, he was a fixture on the D.C. club scene, where he started to use
cocaine, marijuana and ecstasy
In 2007, Khalifi was arrested and charged with assault after an argument at a club. At some point after the arrest, agents said, he decided to be a more devout Muslim and was drawn to the teachings of radical clerics on the Internet.