The gun and vest were provided not by al-Qaeda, as Khalifi had been told, but by undercover FBI agents who rendered them inoperable, authorities said.
They said Khalifi had been the subject of a lengthy investigation and never posed a threat to the public. On Friday afternoon, he made an initial court appearance in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, where he was charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against federal property. He faces life in prison if convicted.
Khalifi “allegedly believed he was working with al-Qaeda,” said Neil H. MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Khalifi “devised the plot, the targets and the methods on his own.”
In several recent terrorism sting operations, critics have accused federal investigators of provoking suspects and, in some cases, suggesting possible targets or tactics. Legal experts say the FBI sometimes walks a fine line in such cases.
“You want to be very sure that the narrative is not substantially provided by the government,” said Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, who studies terrorism sting operations. “There’s a lot of gray area in these cases.”
But officials said Friday that Khalifi, who allegedly conducted surveillance on the Capitol and engaged in methodical planning, was no unwitting victim.
Khalifi arrived in the United States when he was 16 and was living as an illegal immigrant in Northern Virginia, having overstayed his visitor’s visa for years, officials said. In 2010, he was evicted from an Arlington apartment after having failed to pay rent.
The landlord of that apartment, Frank Dynda, a retired patent lawyer, said, “He was getting mysterious packages labeled ‘books,’ but I didn’t think there were books in them.”
Dynda said he thought Khalifi was “suspicious and hostile,” and Dynda reported Khalifi to Arlington police. Two officers visited Dynda’s apartment building soon after the report but told him there was no reason to pursue the matter, he said.
It was unclear how Khalifi came to the attention of federal authorities. According to the criminal complaint filed in court Friday, a confidential source reported to the FBI in January 2011 that Khalifi had met at a residence in Arlington with individuals, one of whom produced what appeared to be an AK-47 assault rifle, two revolvers and ammunition.