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December 4, 2012

Use of undercover stings is subject of debate

WASHINGTON — The bomb explosion had been spectacular, sending shock waves for miles. But Amine El Khalifi, who dreamed of a martyr's death with explosives strapped to his chest, seemed unimpressed.

"This is not enough," Khalifi told two men who he thought were al-Qaida operatives after they demonstrated the bomb's power for him at a West Virginia quarry on a frigid January afternoon.

The men were undercover FBI agents who had spent months getting close to the Moroccan immigrant. That morning, on the way to the quarry, Khalifi had told one of them that he no longer wanted to leave a bomb in a restaurant; he now desired to die for his cause in a suicide attack that would bring down a symbol of American democracy: the U.S. Capitol dome.

A month after the quarry demonstration, Khalifi was arrested as he strode toward the U.S. Capitol wearing what he thought was a suicide coat. He was sentenced in September to 30 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.

This type of undercover sting operation, in which authorities seek individuals they think would be willing and able to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States, has generated controversy. Civil liberties groups say that the investigations identify people with radical views but who could not attempt an attack without the government's help.

FBI officials, who have arrested scores of suspects in such stings since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, call the investigations a key tool in their efforts to prevent terrorism. They also insist that the investigations are thorough and seriously conducted. Before agents launch one, they spend months determining whether someone is full of bluster or a real threat, bureau officials said.

The vast majority of such inquiries determine that the person is harmless, the FBI says.

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