Amer Alhaggagi’s attorneys and uncle speak at a press conference after the sentencing. From left, Hashem Awnallah, Mary McNamara and August Gugelmann. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

A former Berkeley High student who laughed while he talked about killing 10,000 people by setting fire to the Berkeley hills and bombing UC Berkeley dorms, among 13 other plots, was not just joking, a federal judge said Tuesday as he handed Amer Sinan Alhaggagi a 15-year, eight-month-long sentence.

While the 23-year-old Yemeni-American did more talking about terrorism than taking action, he still took a number of concrete steps that make him dangerous to the public and justify a stiff sentence in prison, said U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer. Alhaggagi not only opened email and Twitter and Facebook accounts for members of ISIS to use, but he also downloaded an ISIS bomb manual, took pictures of police stations to bomb, looked for large Halloween gatherings while simultaneously looking for info on setting fires, and more, Breyer said during the sentencing part of the hearing.

“That’s a pretty big step towards carrying out the attacks,” said Breyer, referring to the picture taking. The judge also remarked on what he considered Alhaggagi’s “total lack of empathy” for the people he might have hurt or killed as well as his family and the broader Yemeni-American community.

Alhaggagi had pleaded guilty in July to materially supporting ISIS, but his attorneys — and the large crowd of Yemeni-Americans who came to court to support him, and who have been at all of his hearings — had hoped for a sentence of around seven to eight years. That would have delivered the message to Alhaggagi that his jokes were not just thoughtless, but dangerous, but given him the opportunity to reform and eventually leave prison and lead a productive life, according to his supporters. The probation department had recommended a four-year sentence.

“We are deeply disappointed,” Mary McNamara, his court-appointed attorney, said at a press conference after the sentencing, standing with her co-counsel August Gugelmann. “This is not the sentence we hoped for. We believe Mr. Alhaggagi is a troll … (but he is also) a sweet-natured kind person.

Hashem Awnallah, Alhaggagi’s uncle, went further than that.

“He definitely is not a terrorist,” said Awnallah. “He is a peaceful, non-radicalized human being, that delivers food to the homeless and is kind to others.” He added, however, that his nephew’s actions were “pretty stupid.”

The assistant U.S. attorney in the case, S. Waqar Hasib, told the court that Alhaggagi’s case was the worst example of home-grown extremism ever seen in the Bay Area, and was only thwarted by the quick action of the FBI.

“Amer Alhaggagi hoped and intended to carry out acts of great cruelty in order to sow terror in our community,” U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson said in a statement released after the hearing. “Through the combined efforts of local and federal law enforcement, Alhaggagi was identified, apprehended, and prosecuted before he was able to commit the violence he schemed to commit. This prosecution stands as an example of how homegrown extremists who seek to sow fear and panic into our communities can be stopped when law enforcement agencies work together.”

John F. Bennett, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Francisco field office echoed those thoughts.

“Today is a tragedy for the Alhaggagi family and our community as we have lost yet another young person to the allure of extremist ideology focused on hatred and violence,” he said. “This sentence serves as a reminder of how persistent and pervasive online radicalization has become and this should be a precautionary example for individuals who may be tempted by terrorist propaganda.”

Hasib had been seeking a 33-year sentence for Alhaggagi. While arguing for decades in prison, Hasib said that federal authorities in the Bay Area had never seen cases like this before with its “unspeakable acts of terrorism.” The threats Ahagaggi made to an undercover operative were so terrifying that the FBI brought in agents from around the country to monitor and tail Alhaggagi, he said.

“This was a nationwide threat that the FBI was facing and they acted quickly,” said Hasib.

Two years of the 15.8-year (188 months) sentence include time for identity theft. Alhaggagi also made fake credit cards and used them to buy himself clothing and other items, according to his guilty plea.

Before Breyer handed down the sentence, Alhaggagi addressed the court and apologized for his actions.

“I find it hard to look and listen to all the horrible things I said to the undercover agent,” said Alhaggagi, dressed in the bright red uniform and orange plastic shoes given to inmates at Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail. “I made myself look like a crazy person. … I know it’s pathetic to say I’m sorry, but I truly am.”

Amer Alhaggagi in undercover agent’s car. Photo: U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Alhaggagi went to Berkeley schools

Alhaggagi was born in Yemen but came to the U.S. with his family, which includes not only his parents but four sisters and a younger brother. He split his youth between Yemen and the U.S., attending Emerson Elementary School for a time, as well as Berkeley Technology Academy. He graduated from Berkeley High School in 2013. He was living in Oakland when he was arrested.

In July 2017, a federal grand jury indicted Alhaggagi on charges that he attempted to provide material support to “a designated foreign terrorist organization,” namely ISIS. Between July 24, 2016, and Nov. 29, 2016, Alhaggagi set up social media accounts for the group.

Alhaggagi also connected with a man online who said he was an ISIS sympathizer but who was really a government informant. Alhaggagi met with that undercover operative to discuss planting bombs and causing havoc around the Bay Area. Officials taped a car ride the two took together around the East Bay in August 2016 where Alhaggagi pointed out areas he wanted to attack. He mentioned setting fire to the Berkeley hills and paying a homeless person with a cigarette to carry a bomb into a UC Berkeley dorm. He talked about bombing gay nightclubs in San Francisco and lacing cocaine with strychnine. On the video, Alhaggagi talks about wanting to create such an atmosphere of terror that people would be afraid to leave their homes.

“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.”

Wasib said in court Tuesday that creating such an atmosphere of fear is the essence of terrorism.

“That was never achieved,” said Wasib. “It was only prevented by the quick-witted action of the FBI.”

On Tuesday, Wasib showed some of Alhaggagi’s texts in court in which he disparaged his Yemeni community and talked about traveling to Dubai to die, but not before he killed some of his relatives.

Alhaggagi’s attorney, McNamara, said that her client had never been serious about any of the proposed attacks, and the sheer number of them (15) and their complexity reflects how they were said in jest. Alhaggagi has always been a jokester, and in his young adult life, he became a troll, aggravating people just to get a rise out of them, she said. He would set up fake drug deals and not show up or court young Muslim women looking for a husband and then “ghost” them, McNamara said. In an earlier hearing, she had put Marc Sageman, a former CIA official and terrorism expert, on the stand to explain how Alhaggagi had never been radicalized and was not particularly religious. McNamara said her client eventually broke off contact with the undercover agent because he never intended to carry out any of the attacks.

In the sentencing hearing Tuesday, Wasib put two jail inmates on the stand who had spent time in early 2017 in the Oakland jail with Alhaggagi. Both testified that Alhaggagi, then 21, talked about bombing places in the Bay Area, including the Oakland Police Department. His nickname in jail was “The Terrorist,” said Mark Flores, a former physician’s assistant and former addict who was convicted of selling fake prescriptions.

Richard Jump, 54, said he spent a lot of time with Alhaggagi in the common area of his jail “pod.” While they became friendly, Jump grew concerned about Alhaggagi’s talk about killing and bombing, he testified.

Jump first grew aware of Alhaggagi when he and his cellmate found a letter Alhaggagi had inadvertently left in a prison library book. It asked someone to go and retrieve a hidden cell phone and throw it into the ocean and to go online and delete some files left in a draft email file. Jump also said that during the months both were in the same jail, Alhaggai talked about killing police officers and asked detailed questions about how inmates were brought into the San Francisco federal building at 450 Golden Gate Ave. Jump later saw a sketch of a box truck blowing up the building. Alhaggai’s talk, particularly about killing women and children, so concerned Jump that he reached out to the FBI, he said.

“This stuff is so far out of what I have always considered acceptable criminal behavior,” Jump told the court. “I know that sounds crazy but we have our own moral code.”

Alhaggagi’s attorney, McNamara, tried to draw out inconsistencies in Jump’s testimony and to solicit details about Jump’s extensive criminal background. Jump, who is serving time in a Sonoma County jail for vehicle theft, told the court that he had spent half his adult life in jail for various charges including theft, weapons possession, and drug dealing. He admitted he had sold heroin at least once and had tried it a few times, and sold pounds of cannabis, although his drug of choice was oxycodone. Jump admitted that his sentence “was accelerated” in exchange for his testimony.

Breyer later told the court that he felt Jump’s testimony was credible.

Yemeni-American community turns out in droves to support Alhaggagi

On the eve of his sentencing, about 150 people signed a statement pledging their support of Alhaggagi and vowing to provide him with a “program of rehabilitation” that will guide him post-prison to make sure he never commits violence. The group said they had raised $10,000 to get him more education (he attended some classes at Berkeley City College but does not have a degree), set up a schedule to visit him in prison, and vowed to talk to their young men about Internet behavior, joking and hoaxing, and what to do if someone talks online about extremist violence or fomenting violence. The community acknowledged the severity of Alhaggagi’s actions — while stating they do not think he is a terrorist —and wrote: “We view Amer’s behavior as a failure on our part to manage a young and immature member.”

Ali Kassim, who owns J & B Fine Foods on Adeline Street, said the Yemeni community is tight-knit. Most Yemenis in the East Bay live in Oakland and Berkeley, he said. Alhaggagi’s family lived in one of Kassim’s apartments for a number of years, his father worked at the store and drove one of Kassim’s taxis, he said. The families interact socially. Members of the community play soccer regularly at the Tom Bates Sports Complex and also play cards. There is a lot of communication among the Yemenis in the East Bay, he said.

“We are trying to keep the community together. We don’t want them (the children) to lose our culture, our customs. We are like a family.”

If the community thought Alhaggagi was a terrorist, it would not have turned out in such large numbers to support him, said Kassim.

Examples of that support were evident in court Tuesday. One man brought dozens of rolled up sandwiches to share, which allowed people to eat in the brief half-hour window allotted for lunch. The Yemeni women, clad in brightly colored scarves and long dresses clustered at one end of the hallway while the Yemeni men gathered at the other end. The Yemeni men greeted one another with a kiss on each cheek. After Breyer handed down the verdict, many people gathered around Alhaggagi’s family to comfort them. They embraced Alhaggagi’s mother, who was crying.

“His conduct was not in any way reflective of your community,” Breyer said in court. “It was abhorrent to your community, maybe more so, as it was to the entire country.”

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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 Created California, published in November...