ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A Virginia man convicted of plotting to detonate a suicide bomb at the U.S Capitol was sentenced Friday to 30 years in prison, the maximum sentence allowed under a plea deal he struck.
Amine El-Khalifi, 29, of Alexandria expressed no remorse for his actions at Friday's sentencing hearing.
"I just want to say that I love Allah. That's it," he told U.S. District Judge James Cacheris.
He was arrested in February in a parking garage near the Capitol, wearing what he thought was an explosive-laden suicide vest. In an undercover sting, agents posing as al-Qaida operatives had supplied him with an inert explosive vest and an inoperable gun.
Under El-Khalifi's guilty plea, the judge could only sentence him to a range from 25 to 30 years.
Public defender Kenneth Troccoli argued for the minimum sentence. He said that El-Khalifi "bore no ill will to the American people."
"His motivation was simply to do what he thought God called him to do," Troccoli said.
Troccoli said his client, an illegal immigrant from Morocco, embarked on a largely self-taught rediscovery of his religion after a misdemeanor assault conviction in 2007. Before that, he had been active in the D.C. club scene, taking drugs and occasionally producing music.
On the Internet, he found videos and propaganda that reinforced extremist views.
The FBI undercover operation gave him the means and the support carry out his perceived religious obligations. El-Khalifi was unwilling to die while in financial debt, and the agents gave him $4,300 to satisfy some overdue rent. And the agents promised to provide "martyrdom payments" to his family of $500 or $1,000 per month after he carried out the suicide attack.
The agents also provided moral support to "convince him that he was right in what he was doing," Troccoli said.
Prosecutor Gordon Kromberg said El-Khalifi came to authorities' attention in 2010, in part because he answered a Facebook post seeking to recruit Muslim holy warriors.
Kromberg said it's fortunate that the FBI got to El-Khalifi first and set up the undercover operation; otherwise, El-Khalifi likely would have found real terrorists to help him carry out an attack.
"This was a man who was not shy about what he wanted to do," Kromberg said, noting that many of El-Khalifi's acquaintances said he frequently talked about his desire to carry out a martyrdom attack that would wipe away his past sins.
Kromberg urged the judge to impose a maximum sentence and said it should not matter that there was never any real danger that El-Khalifi could carry out an attack.
"We cannot wait until there are real, dead victims to enforce our laws," Kromberg said.
When the undercover agents first approached el-Khalifi, his initial idea was to attack an office building in Alexandria. He later suggested attacking a synagogue, a busy Washington restaurant and an Army general's home before eventually volunteering to attack the Capitol.
According to court papers, El-Khalifi detonated a test bomb at a West Virginia quarry and expressed disappointment that the explosion was not big enough. On Feb. 17, the day of the planned attack, El-Khalifi went so far as to don what he thought was a bomb-laden vest packed with nails, and carried the inoperable automatic weapon that he would use to shoot past any guards who got in his way.
El-Khalifi told the agents he would be happy if the attack killed 30 people.
El-Khalifi will be deported to Morocco after serving his sentence.
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Neil MacBride, whose office prosecuted the case, said Friday that "El-Khalifi sought to bring down the U.S. Capitol, one of our nation's iconic symbols. Since 9/11, our mission has been to find terrorists intent on attacking the United States before they act."