On Friday, Feb. 17, a long-term FBI sting operation culminated in the arrest of a would-be terrorist while he was en route to the U.S. Capitol to carry out a suicide bombing. Amine el Khalifi, a 29-year-old Muslim from Morocco who entered the U.S. with his parents on a trip to Disney World 1999 and illegally overstayed his tourist visa by over a decade, had been on the FBI's radar since early 2011, during which he was "closely and carefully monitored," according to a law enforcement spokesperson. Over this period, Khalifi's planned target and method changed several times (from bombing a synagogue, to targeting an American general officer, to blowing up a building known to contain some DOD offices, to targeting a crowded restaurant frequented by high-ranking military personnel, to a suicide attack on the U.S. Capitol), his ultimate goal of carrying out a terrorist attack on American soil remained the same.
Thanks to the FBI's efforts (in particular, its undercover assets who engaged Khalifi over the long term), when Khalifi finally set out to commit the terrorist act he had been preparing for, law enforcement officials were able to make sure that he did so with inert explosives in his suicide vest. Khalifi was ultimately arrested en route from a mosque, where he had been praying before his attack, to the U.S. Capitol.
Because Khalifi intended to carry out this suicide attack alone, media are falling back on one of their favorite misnomers – 'Lone Wolf' – to describe him. This is as predictable as it is wholly incorrect, as even a brief glance at the criminal complaint filed against Khalifi shows. In fact, Khalifi was the opposite of a 'lone wolf,' both in reality and, even more importantly, in his own mind. His plans were conceived and materials acquired with the assistance of others, but perhaps more importantly Khalifi thought that his suicide attack on the U.S. Capitol was the first of a two-part strike on America by al Qaeda, with the second part being a larger attack on a military installation by domestically-based al Qaeda terrorists.
Equally predictable as the media trotting out the old, tired, and incorrect 'lone wolf' descriptor is the rush by some leftist organizations to shift the blame for Khalifi's actions onto the FBI (here's one example of many). According to this 'logic,' Without undercover agents acting as al Qaeda contacts and helping him along in the process, Khalifi (and others whose attacks the FBI has prevented) either would never have been able to carry out an attack or would never have engaged in terrorism in the first place. This is not only absurd, but it is as damaging to our agencies' efforts to prevent domestic terrorism as the famed 'Gorelick Wall' of the late 1990s was. For whatever reason, a small number of media outlets, organizations, and individuals are so invested in terrorism denial (or, worse, terrorist support, even on a tacit level) that any level of preventive effort or post-action penalty is simply unacceptable. Instead, for these individuals and groups, terrorism (or, more correctly, "terrorism") is in large part a result of U.S. international and domestic policy, and any efforts at prevention or deterrence are actually responsible for its existence and its spread. How's that for Twister-induced logic?
It is clear that U.S. efforts to prevent and discourage terrorism have not been entirely effective, and whether some of those methods have resulted in the creation of more terrorists and an increase in the threat to the U.S. is a discussion worth having. However, such discussions require honesty and good faith on the part of all participants – something not all who wish to be involved have been willing to provide.
Regardless, the FBI's case against Khalifi paints a convincing picture of a man who had firmly decided to carry out a terrorist attack on American soil, and who ultimately thought that he was acting in support of a larger al Qaeda plot. Those are neither the characteristics of a 'lone wolf,' nor of a man who had to be convinced and pressured by undercover FBI agents to become willing to act on his desire to carry out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
On the surface, this case appears to be an example of how terrorists and terror attacks should be dealt with and prevented, and though there will always be some on the fringe who condemn law enforcement for daring to act before an attack has actually taken place (and who likewise condemn law enforcement for failing to prevent attacks that do take place), the method seen in the Khalifi case is one which must be engaged in – particularly in a society that is unwilling to live with anything less than a zero-risk security paradigm.