SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A 23-year-old man who bragged about plotting terror attacks in the Bay Area will spend more than 15 years behind bars, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, despite arguments that he was just a naive young man saying outlandish things to shock people.
“His words were very dangerous,” U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer said before handing down the 188-month sentence. “Words matter.”
In conversations with an undercover FBI agent and informant, Oakland resident Amer Alhaggagi talked about bombing gay night clubs, setting fire to the Berkeley Hills and distributing poison-laced cocaine.
A terrorism expert testified in December that Alhaggagi was “all talk” and egged on by an undercover agent and informant to propose absurd ideas for terror attacks that he never intended to carry out.
Last year, Alhaggagi pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists, based on him opening social media accounts for the Islamic State, and three identity theft charges.
The outcome is less than the 33-year sentence prosecutors asked for but more than the defense’s requested four-year sentence. The judge said he found Alhaggagi’s “lack of empathy for others” and statements he made in jail after his arrest “disturbing.”
Alhaggagi talked about shooting police officers at a memorial service for a fallen officer, according to Richard Jump, a 54-year-old jailhouse informant who testified at the sentencing hearing Tuesday. Jump also said that Alhaggagi was involved with a sketch depicting a delivery truck blowing up the federal building in San Francisco, where Tuesday’s sentencing hearing occurred. Jump did not see Alhaggagi draw the sketch, but said it appeared Alhaggagi or one of his friends at the jail had created it.
Alhaggagi’s lawyer challenged Jump’s credibility, noting that the informant was released early from jail for his cooperation. Jump testified that he only came forward out of a sense of patriotic and moral duty because he was disturbed by Alhaggagi’s talk of killing innocent people.
The defendant’s attorney Mary McNamara said her client, being the youngest and most inexperienced person at the Glenn Dyer Jail in Oakland, was scared and merely “talk[ing] a big game” to “impress the much older inmates.”
The defense also contends that Alhaggagi only opened social media accounts for the Islamic State to curry favor with online jihadists so he could use them to get revenge on users that got his account suspended on the messaging app Telegram.
However, the judge refused to disregard that Alhaggagi downloaded a bomb-making manual and took photos of public transit stations allegedly intended as bombing locations. Those were “pretty big” steps, the judge said.
Most disturbing, Breyer added, was Alhaggagi’s “lack of empathy” toward the people he talked about killing in depraved schemes he boasted about to an undercover agent.
“I can’t predict future conduct,” Breyer said. “I have to protect society.”
After the sentence was handed down, Alhaggagi’s attorney said she believes the judge made a mistake by focusing on her client’s words rather than his intentions.
“He is actually a sweet-natured, kind person,” McNamara said, speaking to reporters outside the courthouse after the hearing. “I think it’s an inaccurate picture.”
McNamara added that she believes Congress needs to take another look at anti-terrorism laws because “providing material support” to terrorists covers a wide range of serious and less serious crimes, “from planting a bomb to opening social media accounts to giving $1 of aid to a terrorist group.”
Breyer also noted Tuesday he was impressed with the more than 150 members of Oakland’s Yemeni community, who penned a letter to the judge calling for leniency. The group pledged an initial $10,000 to support Alhaggagi’s post-release education and said it would organize community members to visit Alhaggagi in jail and help him plan for life after release.
“I’ve never seen before in 21 years that a community comes forward and suggests a path forward for a defendant once he is released,” Breyer said. “I think he’ll need all the help from his community that he can get.”
Members of the community, who attended each of Alhaggagi’s court hearings en mass, also vowed to launch a new program to discuss Alhaggagi’s case with young men in their community and warn them about online activity and extremist comments and behavior.
Alhaggagi was born in the U.S. but spent many years living with his family in Yemen while growing up.
The 23-year-old was sentenced to 15 years and 8 months in prison, along with 10 years of probation after release. His lawyer said he could get 56 days per year taken off his sentence for good behavior.