An Oakland man facing federal criminal charges, including attempting to support a terrorism organization, had described plans to attack several targets in San Francisco and the East Bay, according to recently unsealed audio of a detention hearing late last year.
At the time, then 21-year-old Amer Sinan Alhaggagi was already in custody after being arrested in November 2016. He was facing a single charge of aggravated identity theft. Magistrate Judge Kandis A. Westmore said that defendants with similar charges would normally be considered for pretrial release, but on Dec. 20 ordered that he be held pending trial.
But prosecutors were still building a case against Alhaggagi based on electronic communication and a face-to-face meeting with an undercover FBI agent in which he relayed plans for multiple attacks.
The communication started in late July 2016, Assistant U.S. Attorney S. Waqar Hasib said at the hearing in December, when Alhaggagi was trading messages with an unidentified FBI source about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria -- known as ISIS or ISIL.
Then they started talking about plans, like one to mix cocaine with a lethal amount of strychnine -- a small rodent pesticide -- and distribute it at nightclubs.
The FBI was watching, but at the outset didn't know who, or where, Alhaggagi was. Until he mentioned more ideas.
"He wanted to plan to start a huge fire in an area near where he lived and he specifically mentioned the Berkeley Hills as a potential target," Hasib told the court in December. "That was our first indication that we were dealing with someone in the Bay Area."
Several of Alhaggagi's alleged communications identified San Francisco as a good target for an attack because the city is known for its acceptance of LGBT people.
Hasib quoted from one of the messages: " 'I live close to San Francisco. That's like the gay capital of the world. I'm going to handle them right. LOL,' meaning 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,' meaning laughing my ass off.' "
Alhaggagi was represented at the Dec. 14 hearing by an assistant federal public defender, Hanni Fakhoury, who did not dispute the government's evidence.
"There is a bit of a disconnect between Mr. Alhaggagi's words and his actions," Fakhoury told the court. He said the ultimate issue was how much of what his client said was "very stupid and very inappropriate and very disturbing puffery and how much of it was actually intended to be acted out."
The defense stated that Alhaggagi was born in Lodi, grew up in the East Bay and attended Berkeley High School. Part of the non-terrorism charge against him involves using a stolen credit card and a fraudulent address to steal $4,932 in clothes from an online retailer.
"To me that doesn’t smack as someone who is a radicalized jihadi," Fakhoury said. "This is a young man who wants to have some nice clothes."
While he was using fraudulent credit card information to steal clothes, Alhaggagi was allegedly chatting about leveraging those skills toward terrorism in the Bay Area.
He told the FBI source that he had access to equipment "to make the cards and checks," according to the prosecution at the December detention hearing. "I'm trying to make bombs. I'm going to need funds."
Alhaggagi allegedly told the FBI's source that he planned to work for a local police department and steal weapons. Agents started canvassing Bay Area police departments.
"They learned that Mr. Alhaggagi had submitted an application to the Oakland Police Department," just a few days earlier, Hasib said.
The source introduced Alhaggagi to an undercover agent posing as an al-Qaida-trained fighter.
"His plan was to blow up a car bomb at an unidentified gay nightclub in San Francisco and then place backpack bombs around the East Bay," Hasib said. "He also took the undercover around the UC Berkeley campus and identified buildings, including dorms, where he wanted to plant backpack bombs."
The undercover agent reportedly convinced Alhaggagi to put anything he planned to use in attacks in a storage locker, which in reality was closely monitored by the FBI. Alhaggagi allegedly stored several backpacks there, then suddenly stopped communicating with both the initial source and undercover agent.
The FBI continued close surveillance and arrested Alhaggagi late last year.
Prosecutors also say time he spent in Yemen from 2002 to 2009 -- from when he was approximately 7 years old until he was about 14 years old -- "gives us great concern," as well as trips that Alhaggagi has reportedly taken to Saudi Arabia.
But Alhaggagi's attorney, Mary McNamara, who took over his defense in March, paints a different picture from the evidence presented at the detention hearing.
"What is clear from that hearing is that Mr. Al Haggagi ran away when he believed that things had gone beyond talk with the undercover agent," McNamara wrote in a statement to KQED on Monday. "Mr. Al Haggagi never re-engaged with him and never took any steps to commit any violent act. Unlike most of the cases charged under this statute, Mr. Al Haggagi is not radicalized, is not a supporter of ISIS or any terrorist network. He is a peaceful, sociable and well-liked person. He is also young and naïve. It appears that he allowed himself to be drawn into conversations that he should have been far more suspicious of."