SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A 23-year-old man who bragged about plotting terror attacks in the Bay Area pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges Wednesday.
In conversations with undercover FBI agents, Oakland resident Amer Sinan Alhaggagi boasted of plans to bomb gay nightclubs, set fire to hills near Berkeley, give homeless people backpacks full of explosives, and distribute rat poison-laced cocaine.
But his lawyer said those were merely the words of a naive young man who never intended to follow through.
“This is a young guy who was immature and said some stupid things,” attorney Mary McNamara told reporters outside the federal courthouse after her client entered his guilty plea.
Alhaggagi pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and three identity theft charges.
Dozens of friends and members of Oakland’s Yemeni community attended the court hearing Wednesday. Alhaggagi, a U.S. native whose parents immigrated from Yemen, appeared in a red Alameda County Jail jumpsuit sporting a thin goatee and dark hair down to his biceps. He answered the judge’s questions respectfully and in a soft-spoken manner.
One family friend, Abdul Mohammed, of Oakland, said he doesn’t believe Alhaggagi was ever serious about causing harm to others and that the government “just wanted to make an example” of him.
Alhaggagi ‘s lawyer argued that her client deserves a lighter sentence because the only actions he took involved opening a few social media accounts for an ISIS sympathizer.
Federal prosecutor S. Waqar Hasib said Alhaggagi was communicating with a “full-fledged member” of ISIS, not a mere sympathizer.
But according to McNamara, the person her client communicated with was a 16-year-old student in Iraq who identified himself as a sympathizer.
Alhaggagi opened five Twitter accounts, one Facebook account and several Gmail accounts to authenticate those social media accounts. Alhaggagi never posted any comments on those accounts, but someone else did, according to his lawyer.
McNamara acknowledged Alhaggagi said “some pretty disturbing things online, things that suggested he may engage in violence.”
However, she said her client never participated in acts of violence, despite undercover FBI agents’ suggestions that he do so.
“He ran the other way when the FBI showed him bomb-making materials,” she said.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer granted McNamara’s request to put an expert on radicalization and terrorism on the witness stand for Alhaggagi’s sentencing hearing, but the judge said prosecutors could rebut that testimony with their own expert witness.
“My philosophy on sentencing is you can put on whatever you want,” Breyer said. “I can figure out what’s important and what isn’t important.”
Breyer said he will likely schedule a full-day sentencing hearing in late November, depending on the availability of Alhaggagi’s proposed expert witness.
Alhaggagi faces a maximum 47 years in prison and $1 million in fines.