SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Though he reportedly blabbed about blowing up a courthouse and committing other heinous acts, a terrorism expert testified Monday in federal court that a 23-year-old Oakland man who pleaded guilty to helping Islamic extremists is neither violent nor dangerous.
“It was all talk and nothing else,” said Marc Sageman, a terrorism and national security expert who testified at the sentencing hearing of Amer Alhaggagi.
Alhaggagi was arrested in 2016 after he shared disturbing ideas with a government informant and undercover FBI agent about blowing up gay night clubs, starting fires in the Berkeley Hills and doling out poison-laced cocaine.
In July, he pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists, based on him opening social media accounts for the Islamic State, and three identify theft charges.
Prosecutors on Monday asked U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer to impose a 33-year sentence and lifetime probation. The defense team is backing a probation officer’s recommendation of four years in jail and three years probation.
Alhaggagi’s family and lawyers say he was simply a naive young man who spun tall tales in online chat rooms to make himself look tough and to get a rise out of people. But prosecutors paint a different picture, one in which Alhaggagi obtained bomb-making manuals and met repeatedly with a man who claimed to be a violent al-Qaida terrorist.
U.S. prosecutor S. Waqar Hasib revealed in court that Alhaggagi allegedly told inmates after his arrest that he wanted to blow up the federal courthouse and unleash sniper teams on judges and police officers.
After spending hours interviewing Alhaggagi, Sageman concluded that even if the young man said those things, they were likely just words conjured up to project an image, much like the outlandish ideas for terror attacks that he shared with government agents.
“The more absurd ideas he had, the more they agreed with him and endorsed it,” Sageman said. “That surprised him.”
Sageman said Alhaggagi, who was born in the U.S. but spent many years in Yemen with his family, was out of school, not working and bored when he started going on Islamic State chat rooms, “trolling” girls, and bragging about plans to carry out terror attacks.
Sageman cited several online chat sessions in which Alhaggagi and others discussed bombs in sophomoric terms, referencing suicide bombers stuffing dynamite in their bums and comparing explosives to male genitalia with laughing emojis.
The expert witness also argued that the only reason Alhaggagi opened social media accounts for the Islamic State was to curry favor with jihadists online so he could use them to get revenge on users that got his account suspended on the messaging app Telegram.
“He’s a coward,” Sageman said. “The reason he trolls online is because he doesn’t want to meet people face to face.”
Sageman insisted that Alhaggagi only met with an agent posing as an al-Qaida terrorist in real life because he felt “forced into it” after his online chat friend, who was actually a government informant, told him the guy was driving four hours from Salt Lake City and needed to meet him.
Sageman said Alhaggagi “ran the other way” and avoided the undercover agent after the man showed him what looked like bomb-making materials.
But prosecutors said after that interaction, Alhaggagi looked into purchasing bomb igniting materials. They also said he brought up the idea of using car bombs to kill up to 10,000 people.
Sageman said those “ideas” were merely the result of an undercover agent “egging him on” and saying he needed to think “bigger” than backpack bombs.
The expert witness said this is the first case he’s seen in which the government prosecuted a person who did not follow through on suggestions that he commit acts of violence.
“This is the first one where the guy did not take the bait and still got prosecuted,” Sageman said.
The terrorism expert also insisted that because Alhaggagi has no criminal history, he is less likely to commit violence than a randomly selected person in the U.S. The prosecution challenged Sageman on that point.
“Is a randomly selected person likely to have discussed planting bombs in a gay night club,” Hasib asked Sageman. “Is a randomly selected person likely to go on a drive pointing out places he wants to start fires in the Berkeley Hills?”
“Probably not,” Sageman conceded.
Alhaggagi’s family released a statement Monday saying that the 23-year-old “is not a terrorist or a violent person, although he said many terrible things on the Internet and to the undercover agent. Amer did not commit a violent act – he opened a small number of social media accounts for ISIS sympathizers. He knows now that this was wrong and is sorry to have spoken as he did and to have caused so much trouble.”
The sentencing hearing will continue on Jan. 8 when two jailhouse informants are expected to testify on comments Alhaggagi allegedly made about blowing up a courthouse and harming police officers and judges.