Terrorist or Troll? Judge to Weigh Whether Oakland Man Really Intended to Attack Bay Area

2 min
A still from a July 29, 2016, video taken in an undercover FBI agent's car as the agent and Amer Sinan Alhaggagi tour the East Bay and talk about potential terrorism targets. (Via the FBI)

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer is expected Monday to consider whether a now 23-year-old Oakland man actually meant the deluge of statements he made online and in person two years ago, describing a series of plans to "redefine terror" in the Bay Area by bombing gay nightclubs, setting a wildfire in the Berkeley Hills, distributing cocaine laced with poison and attacking UC Berkeley dorms, among other plots.

"I want to make it to the point where every American here, like, thinks twice or three times before he leaves his home," Amer Sinan Alhaggagi said on video as he toured the East Bay on July 29, 2016, with an undercover FBI agent posing as an al-Qaida operative. "That's the goal. ... All the burning, the explosives, the poison, all of that adds up to some conclusion, you know?"

KQED has exclusively obtained excerpts of that video and other evidence in the case against Alhaggagi, set for sentencing on Monday. In a relatively unusual maneuver this summer, he pleaded guilty to attempting to provide support to a foreign terrorist organization — the Islamic State — with no assurances from the prosecution that he would receive a lighter sentence.

He essentially threw himself on the mercy of the court, said Stanford law professor Robert Weisberg.

"I can understand why the defense thought the case was hopeless in terms of guilt because [the facts against Alhaggagi] are on their face pretty bad," Weisberg said. "They really, really are."

He said Alhaggagi's defense attorney, Mary McNamara, knows what she's doing with the strategy to litigate her client's culpability at his sentencing hearing. The defense case essentially boils down to this: He didn't intend to follow through on anything that he said. He didn't understand the seriousness of setting up social media accounts for members of the Islamic State — the actual substance of the terrorism charge he faces. And he was essentially a troll, online and IRL, doing it for the LOLs.

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"The government spins an elaborate theory to explain why a supposed terrorist never took a single step to carry out any of his plots," the defense wrote in its sentencing memorandum. "The government posits that Mr. Alhaggagi, an untrained 21 year old with the mentality of a teenager, is a criminal mastermind whose refusal to act is even bigger proof that he is a terrorist."

Weisberg summarized the defense strategy in the case: "You have to put in the context that this guy sort of ritually repeats horrible things that he’s heard elsewhere, and yes, there’s a risk that they’ll be taken seriously by others, but he’s a fool. He doesn’t know what he’s doing," he said.

The stakes are high for Alhaggagi, who faces a wide range of potential prison sentences. His attorneys, the probation department's presentencing report and a defense expert on Islamic radicalization are all recommending a four-year sentence. The prosecution is arguing for 33 years in prison.

"This is one of these cases where ultimately, I think, a wise judge is being asked to come up with something sensible," Weisberg said. "This business about pleading without a deal ahead of time — it’s not a practice I’d recommend very widely, nor one sees very widely, but it may very well make sense here."

Case Begins Online

Already an accomplished fraudster and identity thief, Alhaggagi began discussing obtaining weapons and joining the Islamic State in Syria in an encrypted online chat room on July 19, 2016, according to the prosecution's sentencing memorandum. An FBI source was lurking in the chat.

That source contacted Alhaggagi two days later, but in this conversation, Alhaggagi offered to provide weapons to the FBI source. Over the next week, the two engaged in a wide-ranging encrypted conversation about weapons, bomb-making, terror and the defendant's "mad crazy plans" for the Bay Area, according to discussion of the chats in the government's sentencing memorandum.

"[Y]ou kknow [sic] what they say, everyone is a gangster untile [sic] it's time to do gangster shit [emojis]," Alhaggagi chatted. "I'm gonna case [sic] millions of dollars worth of damages and inshallah [God Willing] 100's of bodies."

The specific emojis Alhaggagi used are not specified in the government's filing. His defense argues they provide important context.

"The exchanges are vile, but read in context they are hard to take seriously," the defense's sentencing memorandum says. "The texts featured emojis (smiley faces) and the argot of teenagers on the internet (“LOL” for laugh out loud, 'LMAO' for laughing my ass off) in response to claims of carnage and savagery."

The chat continued to Alhaggagi's plans to "place a bomb in a gay club," and his statement that "The whole bay area is gonna be up in flames," according to the excerpts of the chat in the government's sentencing arguments. Alhaggagi said his goal was now to "get 10,000 pppl" in a series of attacks. He discussed planting secondary bombs along routes that first responders would use to help casualties of his initial attack, according to the prosecution's filing.

FBI Identifies Alhaggagi

FBI agents identified Alhaggagi by comparing his screen names in the encrypted chats with a similarly named Twitter account, and tracing the location of that account to a cellphone store in Berkeley, according to the prosecution.

Agents also learned that he had recently applied to the Oakland Police Department, something he'd mentioned in his chats as a ploy to get him access to weapons.

An undercover FBI agent posing as a former al-Qaida operative in Afghanistan reached out to Alhaggagi and the two met in person on July 29, 2016.

"When the agreed-upon time for the face-to-face meeting in Oakland came, it was ALHAGGAGI who stepped forward to introduce himself," the prosecution wrote.

The 'Quick-Thinking' FBI Agent

The following conversation between the agent and Alhaggagi was captured on a hidden camera in the agent's car.

Video excerpts attached to the prosecution's sentencing arguments begin with Alhaggagi discussing his plans to enter Islamic State-controlled territory through a town on the Turkey-Syria border, but he later discovered that IS was not in control of the town.

"This description from Alhaggagi was in fact remarkably accurate," the prosecution wrote, citing the Islamic State's loss of the town to Kurdish forces in the summer of 2015.

Alhaggagi explained he received direction from Islamic State operatives to plan an attack in the Bay Area instead.

"I've always wanted to do something here," he said.

One plot involved lacing cocaine with strychnine — rodent poison — and distributing the deadly powder at nightclubs. Alhaggagi said he had already ordered the poison.

In what became a tour of Alhaggagi's alleged targets in the East Bay, the two men discussed planting bombs in UC Berkeley dorms, and Alhaggagi said, "Yeah, I'd like to kill the students."

They then drove into the Berkeley Hills, where Alhaggagi suggested starting a wildfire "and then it'll spread."

Alhaggagi said in a Dec. 4 statement to the court that he thought the FBI agent wasn't serious, but rather a "wannabe who liked to talk big and was maybe pissed off for losing his job." Alhaggagi said he was continuing his online trolling in the meeting with the agent, mimicking his "chat persona" of an aspiring terrorist.

As they headed back to Oakland, the prosecution argues that Alhaggagi decided to vet the FBI agent, asking a series of pointed questions engineered to test the agent's knowledge of al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

In one response, the agent praised Iran, "a critical misstep that raised ALHAGGAGI's suspicions," the government wrote, because Iran is majority Shiite country, and the Islamic State is aligned with Sunni Muslims.

The agent then didn't recognize the name of the current head of al-Qaida.

A portion of the prosecution's sentencing memorandum, summarizing Alhaggagi's conduct.
A portion of the prosecution's sentencing memorandum, summarizing Alhaggagi's conduct. (Via the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California)

"[T]he quick-thinking FBI UCE [undercover employee] tried valiantly to recover ... but the damage had already been done. ALHAGGAGI had been alerted — an al-Qaeda operative who did not immediately recognize the name of al-Qaeda's highest leader after the death of Osama bin Laden might not be an al-Qaeda operative at all."

The defense seized on an apparent contradiction in the government's arguments on this point, disputing the prosecution's characterization of Alhaggagi as a "mastermind" who employed tests and ruses to expose an undercover agent, after he'd revealed his true identity and described his plans in great detail. And he continued to meet with the agent.

"Remarkably, the government paints its own operation in just the opposite light," the defense wrote. "In the government's telling, the FBI was faced with what was a credible and imminent threat, but sent an agent to pose as an al Qaeda member who did not know the first thing about al Qaeda or ISIS."

The government argues that Alhaggagi eventually stopped meeting with the undercover agent and abandoned his plans because he'd started to suspect a case was being built against him.

"This narrative is simply false," the defense wrote. "It was not because of a misstep by the UCE [undercover employee] that Mr. Alhaggagi never acted on the supposed plans. It was because Mr. Alhaggagi never intended to commit any act of terror to begin with."

Activity Moves Back Online

The FBI kept Alhaggagi under 24-hour surveillance for the following months, but agents never found any evidence that he had, in fact, ordered strychnine or taken any other significant steps — beyond talk — to carry out his plans.

He stopped consistently communicating with the undercover agent after Aug. 14, 2016, when the agent showed him barrels of fake explosive chemicals in a storage shed the FBI had rented, and surveilled, to store attack materials.

The agent approached Alhaggagi on the street in Oakland in late September, according the prosecution, and he agreed to meet for a meal, but then never showed up.

Federal agents arrested Alhaggagi in late November, initially under suspicion of identity theft charges stemming from the defendant's practice of stealing credit card information from customers of the mobile phone store where he worked. He used the credit cards to buy several thousand dollars worth of clothes.

After the arrest and search of Alhaggagi's phones and other devices, agents discovered communications with a 17-year-old in Iraq who in late 2017 was arrested and admitted to facilitating online propaganda for the Islamic State, according to the prosecution.

They also found an electronic copy of a pro-Islamic State magazine, an Islamic State bomb-making manual accessed three days before Alhaggagi's arrest, and a statement written in Arabic outlining some of the plans he discussed with the undercover agent.

Agents didn't find a handgun Alhaggagi had allegedly shown the FBI undercover agent. They recovered additional video, allegedly taken by Alhaggagi in late June of 2016, weeks before he was identified by the FBI. The government says Alhaggagi can be heard speaking Arabic over video of a burning car, and he said that he caused the fire in the name of the Islamic State.

Plots Continued After Arrest?

Though further details about the allegation were filed under seal, the prosecution argues that two jailhouse informants say Alhaggagi continued to plot attacks on U.S. facilities after he was arrested.

The defense disputes the veracity of the jailhouse informants' claims and argues the court should not consider their statements.

For their part, Alhaggagi's friends and family submitted about a dozen letters pleading for leniency to the court. They describe the defendant as an immature joker who loved attention and seemed unable to notice when a prank went too far.

"Amer Alhaggagi is not a terrorist," his defense attorney wrote. "He is neither radicalized nor dangerous. Rather, as prominent radicalization expert Dr. Marc Sageman has found, the entire catalogue of his online output constituted the made-up imaginings of an immature prankster who felt trapped in a strict and traditional home. He believed none of what he said, was surprised when anyone took him seriously and, in fact, is something of a coward."

The prosecution argues that interpretation falls for one of Alhaggagi's many frauds.

"If not for the quick-thinking actions of the FBI and its undercover agent, it is no exaggeration whatsoever to say that this sentencing likely would have been about counting the bodies of victims, instead of counting the number of fake Twitter accounts and false IDs," the prosecution wrote. "There is no doubt as far as the government is concerned that Alhaggagi was prepared to go 'live.' Why else did he do research on the dangers of strychnine? Why else was he looking online for fake passports? Why else did he obtain a bomb manual from [the Islamic State]. Why else was the bomb manual not enough? ... This was no joke."

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