By Lily Kuo
ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (Reuters) - A Moroccan illegal immigrant pleaded guilty on Friday to attempting a suicide bombing of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington in a deal with prosecutors that could see him sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.
Amine El Khalifi, 29, was arrested in a sting operation in a parking garage near the Capitol on February 17 with an automatic weapon and wearing a vest he believed was full of explosives supplied by al Qaeda, according to U.S. officials.
He intended to shoot bystanders before detonating a bomb inside the building, which is home to Congress, they said. His gun and the explosives, however, had been rendered inoperable by U.S. agents, according to the FBI.
Khalifi, who was living in Alexandria, Virginia at the time of his arrest, pleaded guilty to one criminal count of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against property owned and used by the United States.
"I plead guilty," he said, dressed in a gray prison jumpsuit and standing before Judge James Cacheris of the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia. Khalifi appeared relaxed as he chatted with his lawyers in court.
He will be sentenced on September 14.
FBI: WE WOULD DO IT AGAIN
Prosecutors maintain that Khalifi initiated the planned attack.
"It was Mr. Khalifi at every step who was identifying the targets and the means," said Neil MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. "Amine El Khalifi sought to bring down the U.S. Capitol and kill as many people as possible."
The FBI said it began tracking Khalifi after a confidential source told them that Khalifi had met with a group in Virginia in January 2011 where one individual produced what appeared to be an AK-47 rifle, two revolvers and ammunition and said the "war on terrorism" was a "war on Muslims" and that the group needed to be ready for war, according to court documents.
Khalifi agreed with the statements, the source said, according to prosecutors. They did not identify who else was present at the meeting.
An undercover law enforcement agent posing as a member of an armed extremist group met with Khalifi in December 2011 and they discussed various plots to attack U.S. military offices, an Army general, a Jewish synagogue and a Washington restaurant, according to an FBI affidavit filed in court.
In early 2012, Khalifi switched his target to the Capitol and said he wanted to execute a suicide bombing from inside the building. He chose a specific time for the attack, planned how to enter the building and discussed how he would shoot a police officer stationed at the entrance, court documents said.
An undercover operative provided Khalifi with the gun and vest and drove with him to the Capitol on the day of the planned attack. Khalifi was arrested while walking alone toward the building.
Khalifi's case was the latest in a string of undercover operations by the Obama administration. The FBI said it would continue to carry out such operations.
"Have we done it before? Will we do it again? The answer is yes," FBI special agent Bryan Paarmann told reporters after the court hearing.
(Reporting by Lily Kuo; Editing by Paul Simao)