Friday, February 17, 2012

Terror suspect arrested near Capitol in FBI sting

WASHINGTON (AP) — A 29-year-old Moroccan man who believed he was working with al-Qaida was arrested Friday near the U.S. Capitol as he was planning to detonate what he thought was a suicide vest that undercover operatives gave him, officials said.
Amine El Khalifi of Alexandria, Va., was taken into custody with a gun that didn't work and inert explosives, according to a counterterrorism official. He arrived near the Capitol in a van with the two undercover operatives, and walked toward the building, according to court papers. He was arrested before he left the parking garage.
El Khalifi made a brief appearance on Friday afternoon in federal court in Alexandria, where a judge set a bail hearing for Wednesday. After his arrest, FBI agents raided a red brick rambler home in Arlington, Va. A police car blocked the entrance.
A criminal complaint charges him with knowingly and unlawfully attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against property that is owned and used by the United States. The charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
El Khalifi, who was under constant surveillance, expressed interest in killing at least 30 people and considered targeting a building in Alexandria and a restaurant, synagogue and a place where military personnel gather in Washington before he settled on the Capitol after canvassing that area a couple of times, the counterterrorism official said. During the investigation, El Khalifi went with undercover operatives in January to a quarry in West Virginia to practice detonating explosives, according to court documents.
He believed he was working with an al-Qaida operative on the plot, according to an affidavit.
El Khalifi came to the U.S. when he was 16 years old and is unemployed and not believed to be associated with al-Qaida. He had been under investigation for about a year and had overstayed his visitor visa, which expired in 1999, making him in the country illegally, according to court documents.
He told acquaintances in January 2011 that he agreed the "war on terrorism" was a "war on Muslims" and that they needed to be ready for war, the affidavit said.
Before settling on a plot to conduct a suicide bombing in the Capitol, El Khalifi considered blowing up an office building in Alexandria, where military officials worked and a restaurant in Washington to target military officials who gathered there. He even purchased supplies that included nails for the operation, according to the affidavit.
Later, when he settled on bombing the Capitol, El Khalifi asked his associates for more explosives that could be detonated by dialing a cellphone number. In January, he unknowingly told authorities he wanted to know if an explosion would be large enough to destroy an entire building.
El Khalifi met with an undercover law enforcement officer, who gave him an automatic weapon that didn't work. El Khalifi carried the firearm around the room, practiced pulling the trigger and looking at himself in the mirror.
A former landlord in Arlington said he believed El Khalifi was suspicious and called police a year and a half ago.
Frank Dynda said when he told El Khalifi to leave, the suspect said he had a right to stay and threatened to beat up Dynda. The former landlord said he thought El Khalifi was making bombs, but police told him to leave the man alone. Dynda had El Khalifi evicted in 2010.
El Khalifi had at least one man staying with him and claimed he was running a luggage business from the apartment, Dynda said, doubting that was true because he never saw any bags.
"I reported to police I think he's making bombs," Dynda said. "I was ready to get my shotgun and run him out of the building, but that would have been a lot of trouble."
Two people briefed on the matter told The Associated Press the FBI has had him under surveillance around the clock for several weeks. They spoke on a condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center imam Johari Abdul-Malik, who along with other Muslim leaders meets regularly with the FBI, said he was contacted by an agency official and told that Khalifi was not someone he needed to worry about.
He said the official told him that Khalifi was "not a regular at your mosque or any mosque in the area."
He said he offered to supply the FBI with surveillance video of the mosque in Arlington in case it helped with their investigation but was told that was it not necessary.
Police are close to arresting one of El Khalifi's associates on charges unrelated to the terror conspiracy, the counterterrorism official said. The associate was said to also be a Moroccan, living here illegally. Police are investigating others El Khalifi associated with, but not because they believe the associates were part of a terror conspiracy, the official said.
Tucker reported from Arlington, Va. Associated Press writers Eileen Sullivan, Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Laurie Kellman, Jessica Gresko, Eric Tucker, Sarah Brumfield and Brett Zongker contributed to this report.

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U.S. arrests suspect in Capitol suicide attack plot

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Moroccan man was arrested near the U.S. Capitol on Friday wearing a vest he believed was full of al Qaeda-supplied explosives and charged in an attempted suicide bombing of Congress, the Justice Department said.
Amine El Khalifi, 29, an illegal immigrant who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, was charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against property owned and used by the United States, intending to detonate a bomb and to shoot people, the department said.
He was arrested by the FBI and the U.S. Capitol Police in a parking garage just a few blocks from the Capitol. The object of a lengthy undercover FBI investigation, El Khalifi later appeared in federal court in Virginia and faces up to life in prison if convicted.
U.S. law enforcement officials said there never was any threat to the public. The explosives in the suicide vest and the gun he had been given by the FBI had been rendered inoperable and posed no danger to the public.
The officials said the arrest capped a year of monitoring by law enforcement authorities.
There have been a number of undercover operations in the Washington, D.C., area in recent years in which suspects thought they were plotting to carry out terrorism attacks, but in reality were being monitored by FBI agents and posed no danger.
El Khalifi thought he was dealing with members of al Qaeda, but they were really undercover agents, officials said.
"The complaint filed today alleges that Amine El Khalifi sought to blow himself up in the U.S. Capitol building," said U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride. "El Khalifi allegedly believed he was working with al Qaeda and devised the plot, the targets and the methods on his own."
Sergeant Kimberly Schneider, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Capitol Police, said there was no danger to the public or members of Congress.
According to court records, El Khalifi entered the United States in 1999 on a visa, overstayed it and never applied for U.S. citizenship.
According to an FBI affidavit, in January 2011, a confidential source reported to the FBI that El Khalifi met with other individuals at a residence in Arlington, Virginia.
During the meeting, one person produced what appeared to be an AK-47, two revolvers and ammunition. El Khalifi allegedly expressed agreement with a statement by the individual that the "war on terrorism" was a "war on Muslims" and said the group needed to be ready for war, according to the affidavit.
Last month, El Khalifi said he had changed his plans and wanted to conduct a suicide attack at the Capitol, rather than his original plan to bomb a restaurant, according to the affidavit.
The affidavit said El Khalifi detonated a test bomb just over a month ago in a quarry in West Virginia and that he "expressed a desire for a larger explosion in his attack" at the Capitol.
He selected February 17 as the day of the operation, according to the affidavit.
The affidavit said that during the past month El Khalifi traveled to the Capitol on multiple occasions to conduct surveillance, choosing the spot where he would be dropped off to enter the building, the specific time for the attack and the methods to avoid attracting the attention of law enforcement.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

After Gaddafi, Libya Struggles to Control Armed Militias

As Libya marks the first anniversary of its revolution on Friday, the dozens of well-armed militia groups operating across the vast country have slipped well out of the control of the nascent government in Tripoli, making the country ever more fractured as well as dangerous to ordinary Libyans attempting to adjust to the end of Muammar Gaddafi's 41-year dictatorship.
That assessment came on Thursday from Amnesty International, whose latest research on the country documents at least 12 Libyans who have died in militia custody since September, allegedly after being beaten, suspended upside down and given electric shocks. In a chilling 38-page report published on the eve of the anniversary, Amnesty describes a wave of terror and widespread abuse by militia groups, whose members in recent months have dragged hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Libyans from their homes or from roadside checkpoints into makeshift jails on suspicion of being Gaddafi sympathizers or having fought alongside the regime's forces during the civil war.
(PHOTOS: Libya's New Regime: The Fight for Gaddafi's Hometown)
Libya should be preparing for wild celebrations on the anniversary of the revolution, which saw scrappy fighters crush one of the world's longest-serving regimes in just eight months, after drawing NATO allies into the sole Western military intervention of the Arab Spring. The revolution erupted Feb. 17, 2011, when hundreds of protesters in the eastern city of Benghazi stormed into the streets demanding the end of Gaddafi's rule -- an extraordinarily brave act at the time. The demonstrations spread rapidly, engulfing eastern Libya within weeks, then catapulting the country into all-out civil war once NATO began its bombing campaign in mid-March. The revolution ended in the stunning collapse of the dictatorship in August.
But this Feb. 17 is likely to be a far less joyous milestone. Last week, Gaddafi's son Saadi announced from his exile in neighboring Niger that a pro-Gaddafi insurgency was readying itself for battle across Libya. And militia groups, many of which led the rebel forces during the war, have now settled into semipermanent power arrangements in areas across the country, with no signs of disarming. The National Transitional Council (NTC), the administration in Tripoli, has set several deadlines for the groups to give up their weapons and join a national army, all of which have gone unheeded. Instead, says the Amnesty report, the groups operate independent of authorities in Tripoli -- including inside the capital itself -- with little fear of prosecution. "After the great wave of hysteria last year of mass detentions, there is now a more pernicious hunting down of people," Donatella Rovera, senior crisis-response adviser for Amnesty in London, tells TIME.
(VIDEO: Libya to Citizens: Give Up Your Guns)
Over the past two months, Rovera visited numerous detention facilities controlled by militia groups, interviewing detainees in Arabic, alone in closed rooms. She says that since she was often given little time to talk to them, detainees ripped off their shirts the moment the door was closed, eager to show her bruises and cuts from interrogations. After presenting the evidence to NTC officials in Tripoli, she says she came to believe that the council lacked both the willingness and the capability to wrest control from armed groups -- perhaps because the task could require a major confrontation at a time when officials are attempting to stabilize the battered economy and prepare the country for June elections. Rovera believes the delay has only worsened the situation. "The lack of political will has contributed to making the militias more and more powerful, and more and more difficult to control," she says.
The report outlines the grim detentions in fairly close detail, adding to mounting evidence of abuse. In December, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had visited about 8,500 prisoners in 60 detention facilities over the previous year. And in late January, Doctors Without Borders shut its clinic in Misratah after its staff treated 14 torture victims who had been taken to an interrogation center nearby. The group said the militia in charge of the prison refused to allow 13 of the prisoners to be given further medical treatment and then took them back to the interrogation center.
(PHOTOS: Libya Celebrates Liberation)
The most chilling details in Amnesty's new report involve those whose detentions ended in death. One of those was Fakhri al-Hudairi al-Amari, a police officer from the Tripoli suburb of Tajura. Al-Amari, a 31-year-old with two children, was hauled from his home with his four brothers by a group of armed men last October, days before Gaddafi was killed in Sirt. The brothers were detained in Tajura, and all except al-Amari were soon released. More than a month after al-Amari's arrest, the staff at Tripoli's Abu Salim Hospital phoned family members to say he had been admitted with severe injuries; he died later that day. The hospital's postmortem exam found two missing fingernails, marks from electric shocks, burn marks on his forehead, arm and wrist, and bruises across his body.
Despite several such cases, Amnesty says no prosecutions have taken place and high-profile reports of killings -- including, for example, the deaths of some 65 apparent Gaddafi supporters in Sirt immediately after Gaddafi's death -- have not resulted in any arrests. In several places, Amnesty was told that investigations were being done by ad hoc "judicial committees," whose members told the organization "that they had to take on the task of prosecutors because the judicial system was not working."
(READ: Libya's Army Tries to Reassert Itself as Militias Have Their Way)
That raises the question about how Libya's most high-profile detainee -- Gaddafi's powerful son Saif al-Islam -- may be tried. Although the International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted Saif for crimes against humanity, Libyan officials say they do not intend to transfer him to the Hague, where the ICC is based. Under the rules of the ICC, Libya would need to petition the court to try Saif inside Libya by arguing that the country is capable of giving him a fair, thorough trial. On Jan. 23, Libya's new Justice Minister, Ali Humaida Ashour, told reporters that Saif would be "held in Libya under Libyan law," prompting the ICC to issue a statement saying that no decision had yet been made about where the country's most famous prisoner would ultimately be tried.
PHOTOS: Vast Weapons Stockpile Found in Libyan Desert
MORE: In Libya, a Fundamentalist War Against Moderate Islam Takes Shape

NY Times correspondent Shadid dies in Syria

NEW YORK (AP) — New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who strove to capture untold stories in Middle East conflicts from Libya to Iraq, died Thursday in eastern Syria after slipping into the country to report on the uprising against its president.
Shadid, shot in the West Bank in 2002 and kidnapped for six days in Libya last year, apparently died of an asthma attack, the Times said. Times photographer Tyler Hicks was with him and carried his body to Turkey, the newspaper said.
"Anthony was one of our generation's finest reporters," Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger said in a statement. "He was also an exceptionally kind and generous human being. He brought to his readers an up-close look at the globe's many war-torn regions, often at great personal risk. We were fortunate to have Anthony as a colleague, and we mourn his death."
Shadid's father, Buddy Shadid, told The Associated Press on Thursday his son had asthma all his life and had medication with him.
"(But) he was walking to the border because it was too dangerous to ride in the car," the father said. "He was walking behind some horses — he's more allergic to those than anything else — and he had an asthma attack."
The Times reported that Shadid and Hicks recently were helped by smugglers through the border area in Turkey adjoining Syria's Idlib Province and were met by guides on horseback.
Hicks told the newspaper that Shadid suffered one bout of asthma the first night, followed by a more severe attack a week later on the way out.
"I stood next to him and asked if he was OK, and then he collapsed," Hicks told the Times.
Hicks said that Shadid was not conscious and that his breathing was "very faint" and "very shallow." He said that after a few minutes he could see that Shadid "was no longer breathing."
Shadid, a 43-year-old American of Lebanese descent, had a wife, Nada Bakri, and a son and a daughter. He had worked previously for the AP, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. He won Pulitzer Prizes for international reporting in 2004, when he was with the Post, and in 2010, when with the Times, for his Iraq coverage.
In 2004, the Pulitzer Board praised "his extraordinary ability to capture, at personal peril, the voices and emotions of Iraqis as their country was invaded, their leader toppled and their way of life upended."
Shadid was a native of Oklahoma City and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He joined the AP in Milwaukee in 1990, worked on the International Desk in New York and served as the AP's news editor in Los Angeles. He was transferred to Cairo in 1995, covering stories in several countries.
AP Senior Managing Editor John Daniszewski, who worked with Shadid in Baghdad during the U.S. invasion in 2003, called him "a brilliant colleague who stood out both for his elegant writing and for his deep and nuanced understanding of the region."
"He was calm under fire and quietly daring, the most admired of his generation of foreign correspondents," Daniszewski said.
Shadid had been reporting in Syria for a week, gathering information on the resistance to the Syrian government and calls for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, the Times said. The exact circumstances and location of his death were unclear, it said.
Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson sent a note to the newsroom Thursday evening, relaying the news of Shadid's death and remembering him.
"Anthony died as he lived — determined to bear witness to the transformation sweeping the Middle East and to testify to the suffering of people caught between government oppression and opposition forces," she wrote.
Shadid, long known for covering wars and other conflicts in the Middle East, was among four reporters detained for six days by Libyan forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi last March.
Speaking to an audience in Oklahoma City about a month after his release, he said he had a conversation with his father the night before he was detained.
"Maybe a little bit arrogantly, perhaps with a little bit of conceit, I said, 'It's OK, Dad. I know what I'm doing. I've been in this situation before,'" Shadid told the crowd of several dozen people. "I guess on some level I felt that if I wasn't there to tell the story, the story wouldn't be told."
When Shadid's wife was asked at the time whether she worried about him returning to writing about conflicts, she said as a journalist she understood that he might need to.
"At the end of the day, he's my husband, and the thought of going through life without him and raising our children alone is terrible," she said afterward.
Shadid's father, who lives in Oklahoma City, said a colleague tried to revive his son after he was stricken Thursday but couldn't.
"They were in an isolated place. There was no doctor around," Buddy Shadid said. "It took a couple of hours to get him to a hospital in Turkey."
Associated Press writer Rochelle Hines contributed to this report from Oklahoma City.