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Would-be suicide bomber at US Capitol arrested in sting operation, authorities say

Investigators say the man accused of plotting to bomb the U.S. Capitol never had any explosives. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

Updated at 5:31 p.m. ET: WASHINGTON — The FBI and Capitol police arrested a man who thought he was going to carry out a suicide bombing Friday at the U.S. Capitol as part of a larger al-Qaida terror campaign but who was in fact dealing with undercover operatives, federal officials told NBC News.

The man, Amine El Khalifi, 29, a Moroccan who has been living in the U.S. for 12 years, was arrested about noon ET near the Capitol after he received what he thought was a MAC-10 automatic weapon and a vest packed with explosives from people he believed were supporters of al-Qaida, sources told NBC News. In fact, the gun was disabled, the vest had inert material and the people were FBI agents.

"At no time was the public or congressional community in any danger," Capitol Police said in a statement.

As outlined in a Justice Department press release, El Khalifi was charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against property that is owned and used by the United States. The office of the U.S. attorney for Eastern Virginia said he could face life in prison if convicted. 

The Associated Press, quoting a counterterrorism official, reported that police were close to arresting an associate of El Khalifi's on charges unrelated to the conspiracy. Like El Khalifi, the associate was said to be a Moroccan living in the U.S. illegally.

James McJunkin, assistant director of the FBI's Washington field office, stressed that El Khalifi allegedly "followed a twisted, radical ideology that is not representative of the Muslim community in the United States." 

Yearlong investigation
The criminalcomplaint alleges that a confidential source told the FBI that El Khalifi attended a meeting on Jan. 11, 2011, in Arlington, Va. — a suburb of Washington — where one of the participants produced an AK-47 assault rifle, two revolvers and ammunition. The informer said El Khalifi agreed that the "war on terrorism" was a "war on Muslims" and said the group needed to be ready for war.

On Dec. 1, El Khalifi was introduced by a man he knew as "Hussien" to a man he knew as "Yusuf," who was actually an undercover law enforcement officer. Through December and January, El Khalifi plotted a bombing attack, the complaint alleges, proposing U.S. military offices, a synagogue, Army generals and a restaurant frequented by military officials as targets, it says.

The complaint says El Khalifi "indicated his desire" to "kill people face-to-face," conducted surveillance to determine the best time and place for the bombing and bought materials as part of the operation.

El Khalifi understood that his attack would be part of a larger al-Qaida operation that would include his bombing and a second attack against a military installation by others in al-Qaida, according to the charges.

The crucial turn came on Jan. 15, when El Khalifi announced  that he had changed his plans and wanted to carry out a suicide bombing at the Capitol, according to the complaint, which said that as part of the sting, El Khalifi "detonated" what he believed was a real bomb at a quarry in West Virginia, using a cell phone as the trigger. He said he wanted a bigger explosion and chose Friday as the day of the operation, according to the affidavit.

Over the next month, El Khalifi conducted surveillance of the Capitol Building and asked "Hussien" to remotely detonate the bomb he would be wearing if he was stopped by security, it alleges.

Jonathan Dienst of WNBC in New York contributed to this report by NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams and M. Alex Johnson of msnbc.com. Follow M. Alex Johnson on Twitter and Facebook.

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