Amer Alhaggagi in an undercover agent’s car. Photo: U.S.A. vs Amer Alhaggagi
Amer Alhaggagi in an undercover agent’s car. Photo: U.S.A. vs Amer Alhaggagi

While Amer Alhaggagi, a 23-year-old Berkeley High graduate, has admitted to opening up some social media accounts for ISIS and telling an undercover federal agent he wanted to plant bombs at gay nightclubs, UC Berkeley dorms and to set fire to the Berkeley Hills to kill 10,000 people, the question of his seriousness was at the center of a court hearing on Monday.

Federal prosecutors have argued that the Yemeni-American man was deadly serious about terrorizing the Bay Area. Officials even released a video of Alhaggagi riding around in a car with an undercover agent while bragging about his intentions. Alhaggagi (his name is also spelled Al-Haggagi) is seen on the video saying he wanted to create such an atmosphere of terror that people would hunker indoors.

“I want to make it to the point where every American here thinks twice or three times before he leaves his home,” Alhaggagi said. “Like is it necessary for me to leave right now? That’s how I want them to be.”

Alhaggagi’s defense team has painted a very different picture of the Oakland man, who has been in an Alameda County jail for the past 20 months. His lawyers insist that during the time he communicated with ISIS and made plans to terrorize the Bay Area, he was very immature. Alhaggagi had a difficult relationship with his strict, disciplinarian father, was torn between two cultures, and was isolated socially. To cope, he turned to the internet where he became an online prankster, a troll with a twisted sense of humor, according to court documents.

To buttress this argument, the defense put Dr. Marc Sageman, a former CIA agent, psychiatrist and the author of numerous books on terrorism, on the stand Monday for almost six hours at the Phillip Burton Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in San Francisco. Sageman, who spent many hours interviewing Alhaggagi in jail, testified that Alhaggagi was just a provocateur and was “no more dangerous than a randomly selected individual in the general population.”

Alhaggagi, who attended Emerson Elementary School, Berkeley High and Berkeley Technology Academy and lived in Berkeley for a time, does not exhibit the behavior of a jihadi, or someone who wants to wage war on the West, said Sageman. Alhaggagi did not wear short pants or a pakul, a flat round Afghan hat that many extremists wear, was comfortable being with women (while most jihadis limit their interaction with women to their wives), was not particularly religious, and never got in trouble with the law.

“I don’t see anything consistent with jihadis,” Sageman said. “He does not sound like a jihadi. He does not look like a jihadi. He does not act like a jihadi.”

When Alhaggagi was talking to the undercover agent, he was acting like a showman, said Sageman. The undercover agent would say something, and Alhaggagi would one-up him, according to Sageman.

“I think the two of them were egging each other on,” he said.

At one point with the undercover agent, Alhaggagi talked about setting bombs in 15 different locations. according to a recording that was played in court.

“It would be chaos, man… The whole state will shut down. Homeland Security will come… It is going to be the biggest attack (laugh) in American (laugh) since Pearl Harbor.”

Watch video of Alhaggagi talking to the undercover agent:

YouTube video

Alhaggagi pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to a terrorist group in July and now U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer will decide how much time he will spend in prison. The U.S. Attorney’s office is recommending a sentence of 33 years. Alhaggagi’s attorneys, as well as the U.S. Probation Department, have suggested a four-year sentence.

Breyer is expected to decide the length of the sentence on Jan. 8, said Alhaggagi’s attorney, Mary McNamara. Two confidential jailhouse informants who allegedly heard Alhaggagi talk about setting bombs in jail are expected to testify, too.

Breyer appeared skeptical of Sageman’s arguments. He said that some of Alhaggagi’s acts, including looking at an ISIS manual on how to make bombs, looking online on Alibaba about how to order strychnine to poison people, driving around to talk about where to set fires, and talking about backpack bombs “are all four discrete actions.” Breyer also said most of the ideas came from the defendant, which is more than egging on another person.

“All four ideas came from the defendant. It wasn’t the agent who put that in the defendant’s mind. It was almost like a reverse sting,” said Breyer.

Throughout Monday’s hearing, Alhaggagi sat quietly at the defense table. He was dressed in orange tennis shoes and a red jailhouse uniform. His hair is long — he put it in a braid after lunch — and he had a mustache and a chin strip beard.

The courtroom was packed with Alhaggagi’s friends and family from the Yemeni community. They have attended all of his hearings and have submitted letters to the court testifying that he is more a prankster than a terrorist.

When U.S. Attorney S. Waqar Hasib had the opportunity to question Sageman, he pressed the terrorism expert on how he concluded Alhaggagi was no more dangerous than the average citizen. Would an average person download a bomb manual, he asked. Go online to research ignitors? Download a copy of Dabiq, a glossy magazine published by ISIS? Agree to discuss bombing with a complete stranger? Open social media accounts for ISIS?

In the video released by the government, Alhaggagi and the undercover agent tour around Berkeley and Alhaggagi points out possible targets and also shows off his former school, Berkeley High. Alhaggagi and the agent drove by UC Berkeley dorms on Bancroft Avenue and Alhaggagi remarked that the security in those dorms was light. “I was thinking about targeting the dorms,” he said. “They have one security guard for the entire place.”  He also talked about using gasoline to set fire in the hills and mixing strychnine and cocaine and distributing it to poison people. He said Civic Center Park in downtown Berkeley was a “drug park” but he would get his drugs from the “Mexican cartel” in East Oakland on 92nd Street.

Friends and family members of Amer Alhaggagi outside the San Francisco courtroom on Monday, Dec. 18. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

In a letter to the court, Alhaggagi said that he was never serious about setting bombs or killing people and that he online braggadocio was a joke. He also expressed regret for what his actions had provoked.

“I feel awful about all of this, but particularly for what I did with the agent,”Alhaggagi wrote. “I never thought in real time that opening up Twitter accounts was against the law, but I now, of course, understand that it is and that I was way out of line doing anything for ISIS sympathizers.

“At the time, I did not think that opening the accounts was a big deal – I rationalized that the internet is filled with bullshit and the ISIS dudes and wannabes were shouting in a storm of drivel. I know now that what I did was dangerous and stupid and I really regret it.

“I feel that what I did with the agent was even worse, in my opinion, because I can see now that he took me seriously and that the things I said were so outrageous that how could he not? And, I realize that I set a huge surveillance operation in motion and that people thought that I was going to bomb the Bay Area. I swear that nothing was farther from the truth, but I now know that that is what I made the FBI think.

“My parents, my family and the Yemeni community have all been deeply damaged by what I did. I feel so embarrassed and humiliated by my actions, my stupidity and my thoughtlessness. I am so sorry and so ashamed.”

“Amer is not a terrorist or a violent person, although he said many terrible things on the Internet and to the undercover agent,” Alhaggagi’s family said Monday in a statement. “Amer did not commit a violent act – he opened a small number of social media accounts for ISIS sympathizers. He knows now that this was wrong and is sorry to have spoken as he did and to have caused so much trouble.”

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...