The FBI said that Amer Alhaggagi told an informant that he wanted to set a fire in the East Bay hills, part of a plan to create havoc and assist ISIS. Alhaggagi’s attorney said that was just talk, and that the man had no intention of taking action. Photo: Melinda Stuart

A 23-year-old Berkeley High graduate accused of giving material support to a terrorist organization pleaded guilty to that charge Wednesday, even though his attorney said the FBI had overstated his interactions with the terrorists and his intent to do harm.

Amer Sinan Alhaggagi, who last lived in Oakland, acknowledged to U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer that he had assisted ISIS when he was approached online on the Telegram messaging app by two unknown people, and agreed to open five Twitter and two Facebook accounts for them. Alhaggagi created two fake Gmail accounts in October and November 2016 to do so. He also pleaded guilty to identity theft and other charges for using someone else’s credit card to buy $1,000 worth of clothes online. He faces 47 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

“I deeply regret what I have done,” Alhaggagi wrote in taking a guilty plea. “I should not have opened the accounts. And, since the time that I was charged, I have seen evidence that some of the Twitter accounts that I opened were in fact used to distribute news and other material about ISIS. I apologize to the FBI and to the Court. I also want to tell my family – my mother, my father, my sisters and my brother and the Yemeni community – how much I regret the damage that I have done to them all.”

The FBI has said Alhaggagi’s involvement with ISIS actually went deeper than opening online accounts and that he took steps to plan terrorist attacks in San Francisco and Berkeley. Mary McNamara, Alhaggagi’s court-appointed attorney, characterized that aspect of the case as bragging rather than action.

In a closed-door bail hearing on Dec. 14, Assistant U.S. Attorney S. Waqar Hasib told a judge that Alhaggagi had talked online with an informant in late July 2016 and expressed a desire to kill tens of thousands of people by detonating car bombs near a San Francisco gay nightclub, as well as in the Mission district and in Chinatown, by placing backpack bombs around UC Berkeley dorms, by setting a fire in the Berkeley Hills, and by lacing cocaine with strychnine to sell to club-goers. Federal agents found a bomb-making manual on his computer.

‘I live close to San Francisco,” Alhaggagi allegedly wrote to the informant. “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.]

The informant then told Alhaggagi 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. Alhaggagi and the man met on at least three occasions in the fall of 2016, according to Hasib. Once, Alhaggagi 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 Alhaggagi a storage facility he could use. The next time they met, in mid-August, Alhaggagi brought three backpacks, which he left there.

Then Alhaggagi stopped communicating with both the informant and his “cousin” — proof, according to McNamara, that he never intended to carry out those attacks but was merely trolling, one of his favorite activities.

“What really happened here was Amer was online shooting his mouth off and within 10 days the FBI had sent one their smartest undercovers out to try and get him engaged in a sting operation,” said McNamara. “He just wouldn’t do it, so the FBI is asking him ‘please, shop for some precursor chemicals for bombs,’ and gives him a shopping list. He doesn’t do it. They ask him to show up and bring things to a storage locker where they say they are going to have bomb-making equipment. He doesn’t do that. And, once he saw the person he was talking to seemed to be serious about all this, he just closed them out and stopped contact and disappeared. …That’s how you know he is not dangerous and how you know he didn’t intend to do anything.”

Federal officials said in court that the informant was an ISIS operative but McNamara said he was a 16-year-old Iraqi student.

Regardless, Alhaggagi pleaded guilty because the material support statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2339B, is so broad that there was no defense, said McNamara. Alhaggagi did open those Twitter and Facebook accounts, she acknowledged.

McNamara had an explanation for that, too. She said Alhaggagi likes to engage in troll-like behavior online. That’s what got him in trouble.

“This is part of his personality,” she said. “He likes to get a reaction out of people. He has a kind of anarchic sense of humor.”

In his guilty plea, Alhaggagi explained what happened.

“One of the chats I participated in during the fall of 2016 was a pro-ISIS chat entitled (in Arabic) “Allah is with those who endure.” In this chat, I engaged in the trolling behavior of falsely reporting users who had blocked me on Telegram as Shiites; by doing so, I hoped that Sunni ISIS sympathizers would in turn block these users. I also re-posted pro-ISIS messages that I had found on other Telegram chats to this chat. I believe that it was due to my posting of the pro-ISIS messages and my naming people as Shiites that I was approached by the two individuals who asked me to set up social media accounts. From the manner in which they approached me and the language they used, I believed them to be supporters of ISIS.”

Alhaggagi was born in Lodi to parents who had emigrated from Yemen. His family moved back to Yemen for seven years, but then returned to Berkeley. Alhaggagi attended Emerson Elementary School (where the district had his name spelled Al-Haggagi) for about three months in the fall of 2015, according to Charles Burress a BUSD spokesman. He went to Berkeley High for his freshman year, left the district for his sophomore year, and returned during his junior year to Berkeley Technology Academy, according to Burress. Alhaggagi transferred to Berkeley High School for the second semester of his senior year and graduated in 2013. He also took classes at Berkeley Community College, according to McNamara.

Alhaggagi comes from a tight-knit Yemeni community and they turned out in force at his hearing on Wednesday, said McNamara. About 100 people crowded into the courtroom to offer their support. His family is stunned by the charges, she said. They believe Alhaggagi is a peaceful person, has a ton of friends, is someone who loves America, and who is not an angry person.

“Amer is not a terrorist or a violent person, but a young man born and raised in California who said many foolish things on the Internet,” his family said in a statement on Wednesday, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “Amer did not commit or plan a violent act. When he was encouraged to take action by an undercover agent, he ran away.”

Alhaggagi will be sentenced Nov. 20. McNamara asked Judge Breyer, and was granted, a day to present information about her client to the court. She intends to put on an expert in radicalization to show Alhaggagi was not really radicalized. She also intends to argue that her client had no real intention of killing anybody, but was instead someone trolling around on the web. He did it “out of a misdirected boy-like curiosity,” she said.

The FBI, which told ABC 7 that its agents had spent a year investigating Alhaggagi, will undoubtedly present a different vision of Alhaggagi’s intent and will bring in the information about setting bombs around the Bay Area, even though Alhaggagi was not charged with those crimes, she said. John Bennett of the FBI told the television station that Alhaggagi’s case was “more than puffery and daydreaming.”

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...