Amer Alhaggagi. Photo: Office of Mary McNamara

Almer Alhaggagi, a 26-year-old Berkeley High graduate who was sentenced in 2019 to more than 15 years in prison after he threatened to kill 10,000 people and opened social media accounts for ISIS, may be released from prison later this year because a federal judge determined the long sentence was unjustified.

Judge Charles Breyer, who originally sentenced Alhaggagi to 188 months on terrorism and other charges, reduced that time to 81 months last week. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had ordered Breyer in October 2020 to vacate the original sentence and consider a new one since there was no proof that Alhaggagi had intended for the social media accounts to be used in acts of terrorism.

Judge Breyer “correctly found that the enhancement did not apply,” said August Gugelmann, one of Alhaggagi’s attorneys. “Judge Breyer commented that he was not radicalized or operational or a jihadist but that his words were dangerous because of the effect they might have on other people.”

That is a huge shift from Alhaggagi’s February 2019 sentencing when Breyer called the Yemeni American dangerous to the public, so much so that he should be incarcerated for a long period of time.

The U.S. Attorney’s office wanted Breyer to stick to the original sentence, while Alhaggagi’s attorneys were hoping Breyer would follow the recommendation of the probation department, which recommended 70 months. Breyer said the government failed to offer new evidence that convinced him, according to Courthouse News. He cut the sentence almost in half, from 15 years, eight months to six years, nine months.

The reduced sentence means that Alhaggagi may be released from federal custody in seven months or so, said Gugelmann. He was previously scheduled to remain in prison until May 2030. Alhaggagi is currently incarcerated at FCI Mendota in Fresno County. But Breyer recommended he be moved to a halfway house to ease his transition back into the world, and the Bureau of Prisons often listens to the suggestions of federal judges, said Gugelmann.

Amer Alhaggagi’s attorneys and uncle speak at a press conference after he was sentenced in 2019. From left, Hashem Awnallah, Mary McNamara and August Gugelmann. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

All along, Alhaggagi’s attorneys have argued that their client was more of a braggart and internet troll than someone seriously interested in killing people. He talked about guns and bombs as a way to pump himself up and impress people, they argued.

“Mr. Alhaggagi was a cereal box ISIS expert who cobbled together enough in his online pseudo-studies to sound knowledgeable,” his attorneys wrote in a sentencing document presented to the court. “He was a prodigious talker who did not think about the consequences of what he was saying. What he wanted was amusement, to provoke outrage and poke fun at people’s sincerely held beliefs, especially if they were religious beliefs. He was amazed that he got the seemingly rapt attention of the online users, among them one who turned out to be the CHS [confidential informant]. He played to this audience by coming up with ever more outrageous claims.”

The FBI had a very different view of Alhaggagi, who was born in Lodi, spent seven years in Yemen, and then moved back to the U.S. He graduated from Berkeley High in 2013 and was living in Oakland with his parents and a sibling at the time of his arrest in 2016.

Alhaggagi came to the FBI’s attention after he started participating in internet chatrooms on Telegram and other social media platforms in 2016. He made comments in support of IS and bragged about guns and his ability to build bombs. To learn more, an undercover informant engaged Alhaggagi online in July 2016. The two discussed Alhaggagi’s various plans to strike a blow against the U.S., which included setting fire to the Berkeley Hills, setting a bomb off in front of a UC Berkeley dorm, selling cocaine laced with strychnine, and placing bombs in Chinatown, the Mission, and near gay nightclubs in San Francisco to kill people. Alhaggagi said he thought he could kill 10,000 people.

Using clues dropped by Alhaggagi during his online chats, like the reference to the Berkeley Hills, the FBI’s East Bay Joint Terrorism Task Force started to figure out Alhaggagi’s identity. He 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 Alhaggagi had applied to Oakland’s program.

The online 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, according to court testimony. Alhaggagi and the man met on at least three occasions. 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 court documents.

But Alhaggagi grew suspicious of the undercover agent when he stumbled over facts about Iran and didn’t know the name of the leader of Al Qaeda. He stopped communicating with him. The undercover agent then arranged to run into Alhaggagi and suggested getting a meal together. Alhaggagi agreed but said he had to get something at home and would return later. He never returned. Alhaggagi’s defense attorneys have argued that their client stopped communicating with the undercover operator since he never really was serious about hurting people.

Alhaggagi was arrested on Nov. 29, 2016. Federal officials seized his computer and discovered evidence that showed he had communicated with someone who said he was with ISIS. They found communication that showed Alhaggagi had agreed to a request to set up the social media accounts for ISIS. Officials also found evidence that Alhaggagi had also downloaded a bomb-making manual.

Alhaggai pleaded guilty to giving material support to a terrorist organization in July 2018. His attorneys later appealed the length of the sentence.

A three-panel judge of the appeals court, in a divided opinion, said opening the social media accounts for IS was not proof of terrorism.

“Alhaggagi contends the district court erred in applying the terrorism enhancement because it centered its analysis on ISIS, not on Alhaggagi’s conduct or mental state,” reads the court of appeals decision. “The enhancement, Alhaggagi argues, specifically requires the district court to consider the latter, whereas the offense itself implicates the former. Alhaggagi concludes that because the district court failed to determine whether he knew how the accounts he opened were to be used, it could not find that he specifically intended that the accounts be used to coerce or intimidate a government. We agree.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office argued that this showed Alhaggagi intended to do real harm.

“Amer Alhaggagi sought to unleash a series of devastating, coordinated terrorist attacks across the San Francisco Bay Area in the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (“ISIL,” or, as it is also known, “ISIS”),” the office wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

Judge Breyer appeared to be influenced by the steps Alhaggagi has taken to better himself, said Gugelmann, adding that his client has matured during his five years in prison. Alhaggagi completed a paralegal course, graduating with “distinction,” and took a drawing class and a vocational building trades course. He has not gotten in serious trouble, either. This is difficult in prison, particularly the high-security prison Alhaggagi was sent to until recently, said Gugelmann.

U.S. Penitentiary Atwater near Merced is known for its gang violence, Mary McNamara, one of Alhaggagi’s attorneys, told Courthouse News. Even though his age and sentence should have landed him in a medium-security prison, the fact that he was regarded as a terrorist meant he was unjustly sent to Atwater, said Gugelmann. He spent most of his time isolated in a cell trying to stay away from other prisoners.

During the hearing, which was conducted on Zoom, Alhaggagi expressed remorse for his actions, according to Courthouse News.

“I look back at my actions with disdain,” he said. “I’ve been doing everything I possibly can under the circumstances to progress and develop myself into a better human being.”

Update, 7:07 p.m.: This story was updated to add more to August Gugelmann’s comment on what Judge Breyer said. It previously just said Breyer did not think Alhaggagi had been radicalized.

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...