An Alexandria man pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to a plot to carry out a suicide bombing at the Capitol using what he thought were explosives supplied by al-Qaeda.
Amine Mohammed El Khalifi, 29, an illegal immigrant from Morocco, entered the plea to a charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against federal property. Under an agreement with prosecutors, Khalifi’s prison sentence will be fixed at 25 to 30 years.
He could have faced a life sentence if he had been found guilty at trial.
Khalifi was arrested in February as he was heading to the Capitol with what he thought was a loaded handgun and an explosives-laden vest. Both were provided — and rendered inoperable — by undercover FBI agents.
Authorities said that Khalifi’s plot was a year in the making and that he had considered a number of targets, including a synagogue, a D.C. restaurant and a Northern Virginia office building. At one point, Khalifi detonated a test bomb in a West Virginia quarry in preparation for the Capitol attack.
Authorities said the public was never in danger during the elaborate sting operation.
“It was Mr. Khalifi at every step that was identifying targets and means to carry out the attacks,” Neil H. MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said after the hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.
Khalifi answered a judge’s questions but otherwise did not speak at the hearing. Clad in a prison jumpsuit and sporting a long, black beard, Khalifi appeared relaxed as he chatted with an attorney and waited for the hearing to begin.
An informant tipped off authorities about Khalifi after he had attended a meeting in January 2011, according to court documents. Khalifi allegedly expressed agreement with an attendee’s statement that the “war on terrorism” was a “war on Muslims” and that the group needed to be ready for war.
In December 2011, a man named “Hussein,” who Khalifi would later think was an al-Qaeda operative, introduced him to an FBI agent posing as an armed extremist named “Yusuf.” During the meeting, Khalifi said he had a plan to bomb an Alexandria building that housed military offices, and he handled an AK-47 provided by the agent, saying he wanted to use a gun to kill people face to face.
Khalifi’s planning escalated over the next two months as he selected new targets, bought items necessary for carrying out an attack and eventually settled on a suicide bombing of the Capitol, authorities said. He detonated the test bomb in January, telling Hussein he wanted a bigger explosion at the Capitol.
On Feb. 17, Khalifi drove with Hussein and Yusuf to a parking garage near the Capitol. He took the inoperable gun and donned the vest before heading toward the Capitol. Before he left the garage, authorities arrested him.
Khalifi came to the United States when he was 16 but had overstayed his visitor’s visa for years. There was no indication that he was part of a larger cell, authorities said Friday after the hearing.
“He was a homegrown violent extremist, who was cut off from other people,” said C. Bryan Paarmann, an FBI official from the Washington Field Office.