Amine El Khalifi, the 29-year-old Alexandria man arrested by the FBI earlier this month for allegedly plotting to carry out a suicide bombing on the US Capitol, had first tried to attack the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown DC, according to national security officials.
Before he settled on his plan to attack the Capitol building, El Khalifi had surveilled two DC restaurants because he believed they were frequented by military and government officials. According to three officials involved in the case, he first scouted Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill, a power-lunch-friendly French restaurant in the Hotel George, before deciding on what he thought was a better target: the Italian restaurant Aria, an outdoor eatery attached to the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, DC’s largest office building.
He also considered a synagogue and a local military installation before deciding that the restaurant would have the most impact. The specific restaurants targeted have not been previously reported.
Targeting Aria would indeed have carried great symbolic importance: The Reagan Building, right on Pennsylvania Avenue and only two blocks from the White House, is home to the US Agency for International Development, the US Customs and Border Protection headquarters, and the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank, among other entities.
Three days before Christmas last year, El Khalifi surveilled Aria with a man he believed to be an al-Qaeda operative named “Hussein,” who was, in fact, a government informant, according to the Justice Department’s criminal complaint. El Khalifi entered the restaurant and asked a waiter when it was busiest. The answer: lunch. According to the government’s complaint, El Khalifi told “Hussein” he planned to leave a bomb in his jacket at the restaurant during lunch.
FBI surveillance teams, who by then had been following El Khalifi 24 hours a day, watched the entire outing. The public, according to the FBI, was never in danger.
The Reagan Building’s plaza, where Aria stands, is normally packed at lunch with federal workers heading to and from the nearby Federal Triangle Metro Station. While visitors to the main building have to pass through security checkpoints manned by armed guards, restaurant-goers do not.
The plot developed further over the coming weeks, with El Khalifi and Hussein meeting again to plan the particulars and El Khalifi purchasing supplies to help build the bomb on January 8. It wasn’t until January 15 that El Khalifi informed Hussein that he wanted to attack the Capitol instead, according to the government’s account of the operation. That same day, undercover FBI personnel posing as al-Qaeda operatives helped him explode a test bomb at a quarry in West Virginia.
“El Khalifi allegedly believed he was working with al-Qaeda and devised the plot, the targets, and the methods on his own,” said the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Neil MacBride, earlier this month when El Khalifi was arrested.
El Khalifi, a Moroccan native who had overstayed his visa by more than a decade, was arrested by the FBI and the US Capitol Police on February 17 after he had donned what he thought was a suicide vest in a Capitol Hill parking garage and begun to make his way to the Capitol. The FBI had rendered the vest inert. El Khalifi had first landed on the government’s radar a full year earlier, in January 2011, when what the FBI called a “confidential human source” reported that he “sought to be associated with an armed extremist group.”
He is currently being held in jail in Alexandria.
The Aria plot is the second time in just six months that a terror plot has targeted a Washington restaurant. Last fall, US officials charged that elements of the Iranian government backed two men— Manssor Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri—in a plot targeting the Saudi ambassador to the US, among other diplomats. According to the government’s account of that plot, the two men discussed targeting the Saudi diplomat, Adel Al-Jubeir, while he was dining at one of his favorite restaurants—suspected to be the Georgetown power spot Cafe Milano.