A 22-year old graduate of Berkeley High School who sympathized with ISIS planned to kill tens of thousands of people by detonating a car bomb near a San Francisco gay nightclub, placing backpack bombs around UC Berkeley dorms, setting a fire in the Berkeley Hills, and lacing cocaine with strychnine, according to federal officials.
Amer Al-Haggagi, who graduated from Berkeley High in 2013, allegedly talked about those plans online with an undercover informant who worked with the FBI, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney S. Waqar Hasib, who detailed the government’s findings at a Dec. 14 closed hearing.
“The whole Bay Area is going to go up in flames,” Al-Haggagi allegedly said, according to Hasib. “I am going to redefine terror.”
On July 20, a federal grand jury indicted Al-Haggagi on charges that he attempted to provide material support to “a designated foreign terrorist organization,” namely ISIS, among other charges. Between July 24, 2016, and Nov. 29, 2016 Al-Haggagi set up social-media accounts for the group and offered to work on its behalf, according to the indictment. If convicted, he faces 47 years in prison.
Federal officials had arrested Al-Haggagi on Nov. 29 on charges of identity theft, although they knew then that he had allegedly been considering launching an attack in the name of ISIS. There was a detention hearing on Dec. 14, in front of Judge Kandis A. Westmore, to consider whether bail should be set for Al-Haggagi. An audio file of that hearing reveals details about the terrorism charges.
The federal public defender defending Al-Haggagi did not dispute the government’s sequence of events, but said his client’s words had been misconstrued.
“There is a bit of a disconnect between Mr. Al-Haggagi’s words and his actions,” said Hanni Meena Fakhoury. While much of what Al-Haggagi said was “stupid” and “inappropriate,” there is no evidence he intended to carry out those plans, said Fakhoury. “How much was puffery and how much was intended to be acted out?”
For example, the government has said that Al-Haggagi told the informant that he had ordered strychnine online with a stolen credit card. The only package the government saw Al-Haggagi get was a delivery of $4,932 in clothes from an online fashion site.
“To me, that doesn’t smack as someone who is a radicalized jihadi,” Fakhoury said. “This is a young man who wants to have some nice clothes.”
Judge Westmore agreed with the government’s assessment that Al-Haggagi was a flight risk even though he had family in the area. She ordered him to be held without bail. He is being held at the Glen E. Dyer detention facility in Oakland. His next hearing is scheduled for Dec. 29.
The government and defense counsel appeared to have been trying to work out a deal in December where Al-Haggagi provided information about his contacts in ISIS in exchange for less severe charges, according to remarks made during the hearing. Hasib told the judge he was not sure when, or if, terrorism-related charges would be filed because of those talks. But the federal grand jury indictment and unsealing of the case suggests that those discussions have fallen apart.
Al-Haggagi was born in Lodi, lived in Yemen for seven years, but attended high school in Berkeley. (The federal government spells his name Alhaggagi but the Berkeley Unified School District had it as Al-Haggagi.) He was a freshman at Berkeley High, left the district for his sophomore year, and returned during his junior year to Berkeley Technology Academy, according to Charles Burress, the BUSD spokesman. Al-Haggagi transferred to Berkeley High School for the second semester of his senior year and graduated in 2013. There are no photos of him in the school yearbook.
Al-Haggagi had been living in Oakland with his parents and younger brother when he was arrested, Hasib told the court. He was unemployed, although his attorney said he had held various jobs since graduation.
On July 24 last year he started communicating online with someone who claimed to be an ISIS sympathizer but who really was an informant for the government, according to Hasib. Al-Haggagi told the informant he wanted to carry out multiple attacks at once to “show the enemy that it is more than guerrilla warfare,” according to Hasib. The two discussed whether Al-Haggagi was more interested in launching a suicide attack or multiple attacks, and Al-Haggagi said he preferred the latter because he then could travel to the Islamic State. He identified a particular town in Syria that had attracted his attention, said Hasib. Over the course of a number of days in late July the two discussed Al-Haggagi’s various plans, which included setting fire to the Berkeley Hills, selling cocaine laced with strychnine, and placing bombs in Chinatown, the Mission, and near gay nightclubs in San Francisco to kill people. He thought he could kill 10,000 people.
‘I live close to San Francisco,” Al-Haggagi allegedly said.” That’s like the gay capital of the world. I’m going to handle them right. LOL. [Laughing out loud.] I’m going to place a bomb in a gay club. I’m going to tear up the city… The whole Bay Area is going to be up in flames. My ideas are genius. LMAO.” [Laughing my ass off.]
Al-Haggagi and the informant also discussed the best ways to launch an attack, according to federal officials. Al-Haggagi advocated for using bombs because the likelihood of being caught or killed would increase if he used guns, he said. He also wondered if he should kill his “non-believer” friends.
“I will call them over and tie them up and execute them,” Al-Haggagi allegedly told the informant.
Using clues dropped by Al-Haggagi during his online chats, like the reference to the Berkeley Hills, the FBI’s East Bay Joint Terrorism Task Force started to figure out Al-Haggagi’s identity. Al-Haggagi mentioned that he had just applied to be a police officer at a local department and that he might steal guns to carry out an attack. The FBI went to various police departments and discovered that Al-Haggagi had applied to Oakland’s program.
The informant then told Al-Haggagi that he had a cousin who had worked with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan building bombs, and suggested the two meet. In reality, that cousin was an undercover FBI agent, Hasib told the court. Al-Haggagi and the man met on at least three occasions. Once, Al-Haggagi took the agent on a tour of the East Bay where he showed him places in Tilden Park he could light a fire and certain dorms at UC Berkeley where he could set bombs, according to Hasib. The undercover agent showed Al-Haggagi a storage facility he could use. The next time they met, in mid-August, Al-Haggagi brought three backpacks, which he left there.
Then Al-Haggagi stopped communicating with both the informant and his “cousin” and the FBI started to tail him. They followed him to Los Angeles, where he visited the Saudi Arabian consulate. Al-Haggagi then went to Bakersfield and upon his return posted photos online of people holding semi-automatic weapons, Hasib said. He also sent a photo to the informant of a hand holding a gun and said it was him.
The undercover agent ran into Al-Haggagi and suggested they get a meal together. Al-Haggagi agreed but said he had to get something at home and he would return later. He never returned.
On Nov. 29, the Oakland Police Department called Al-Haggagi back, allegedly for a second interview to join its ranks. But the interview was a ruse, and when Al-Haggagi arrived, the FBI arrested him, said Hasib.
When federal agents served a search warrant at Al- Haggagi’s residence, they found a bomb-making manual in Arabic on his computer, said Hasib. It gave instructions on how to build crude explosive devices like an IED.
Al-Haggagi’s federal public defender strongly challenged the government’s characterization during the detention hearing and said he was a “typical American youth.” In March, Al-Haggagi hired a private attorney, Mary McNamara, who told KQED that the government had it wrong.
“What is clear from that hearing is that Mr. Al Haggagi ran away when he believed that things had gone beyond talk with the undercover agent,” McNamara wrote in a statement to KQED. “Mr. Al Haggagi never re-engaged with him and never took any steps to commit any violent act. Unlike most of the cases charged under this statute, Mr. Al Haggagi is not radicalized, is not a supporter of ISIS or any terrorist network. He is a peaceful, sociable and well-liked person. He is also young and naïve. It appears that he allowed himself to be drawn into conversations that he should have been far more suspicious of.”
The government twisted some of Al-Haggagi’s action to make them fit their narrative that he was planning violent attacks, his public defender, Fakhoury, told the court in December. For example, the government made a big deal out of the fact that he had once visited Saudi Arabia and had visited the consulate in Los Angeles. Well, Al-Haggagi’s sister got engaged to a Saudi man and he went to her wedding there, said Fakhoury. He may have been planning to visit her again — not flee the country.
Al-Haggagi’s family issued a statement to NBC Bay Area.
“We were shocked to learn of the accusations involving Amer,” the family told the news station. “Amer is not and has never been radicalized in any way. He grew up in this country and loves it here. He is peaceful and kind. He was very young and immature when he got involved in the online conversations that are the basis for these accusations. He did not think those conversations were serious and he never had any intent to harm anyone. We love him and continue to fully support him.”