He’s a second generation Yemeni Muslim. Source: 23-year-old Berkeley High School graduate pleads guilty to helping ISIS — Berkeleyside
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.
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). 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 Charles Burress, the BUSD spokesman. 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.
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.”
Interestingly, Hanni Fakhoury of the Federal Defender’s Office represented Alhaggagi at the detention hearing and the Assistant U.S. Attorney was S. Waqar Hasib.