A 23-year-old man in Oakland, California, pleaded guilty Wednesday to assisting the Islamic State, after he expressed an interest to FBI informants posing as ISIS sympathizers on social media to commit acts of terror that could potentially kill thousands of people across California.
Prosecutors provided evidence of conversations that Amer Sinan Alhaggagi had with the pseudo-ISIS members as early as July 2016. In the conversations, Alhaggagi allegedly detailed his “genius” ideas to bomb gay clubs in San Francisco and the Bay Area, and kill 10,000 people at the campus of the University of California Berkeley, Chinatown in San Francisco, downtown and Mission Street, according to reports by the NBC Bay Area affiliate. (RELATED: Wisconsin Woman Charged With Hacking Social Media To Spread ISIS Propaganda)
“I live close to San Francisco, that’s like the gay capital of the world,” Alhaggagi said during an online conversation, which federal prosecutors presented to the court in his detention hearing in December. “I’m going to handle them right. LOL. I’m going to plant a bomb in a gay club. By god, I’m going to tear up the city. The whole Bay Area is going up in flames. My ideas are genius.”
Alhaggagi admitted two unknown individuals approached him through the Telegram messaging app and asked him to open fake social media accounts on their behalf. Alhaggagi opened five Twitter, two Facebook and two Gmail accounts in October and November 2016. In addition, Alhaggagi pleaded guilty to identity theft and purchasing $1,000 worth of clothes on someone else’s credit card, according to Berkeleyside news.
“I deeply regret what I have done,” Alhaggagi wrote as he pleaded guilty. “I should not have opened the accounts. And, since the time that I was charged, I have seen evidence that some of the Twitter accounts that I opened were in fact used to distribute news and other material about ISIS. I apologize to the FBI and to the Court. I also want to tell my family — my mother, my father, my sisters and my brother and the Yemeni community — how much I regret the damage that I have done to them all.”
He is now potentially facing 47 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
Alhaggagi’s court-appointed attorney Mary McNamara characterized her client as an online troll, and said his threats to bomb several heavily populated areas in California was just him bragging and expressing “misdirected boy-like curiosity.” She insisted in court that he never intended to commit any terrorist attacks.
“What really happened here was Amer was online shooting his mouth off and within 10 days the FBI had sent one their smartest undercovers out to try and get him engaged in a sting operation,” said McNamara. “He just wouldn’t do it, so the FBI is asking him ‘please, shop for some precursor chemicals for bombs,’ and gives him a shopping list. He doesn’t do it. They ask him to show up and bring things to a storage locker where they say they are going to have bomb-making equipment. He doesn’t do that. And, once he saw the person he was talking to seemed to be serious about all this, he just closed them out and stopped contact and disappeared. … That’s how you know he is not dangerous and how you know he didn’t intend to do anything.”
Alhaggagi’s family members described him as non-violent, saying he took part in charitable community events to help others in his tight-knit Yemini community.
“His mother was known for cooking plenty of charitable food and Amer was well known for helping distribute that food,” Hashem Awnallah said to NBC Bay Area news in July 2017.
But Alhaggagi admitted Wednesday that he would troll on pro-ISIS internet sites and chat rooms and re-post ISIS photos and propaganda, which is how he believes the FBI was able to get in touch with him in the first place.
“I believe that it was due to my posting of the pro-ISIS messages and my naming people as Shiites that I was approached by the two individuals who asked me to set up social media accounts,” he said.
Alhaggagi will be sentenced in November, but his attorney will be presenting additional information to the judge prior to that to show her client wasn’t actually radicalized.
“Amer is not a terrorist or a violent person, but a young man born and raised in California who said many foolish things on the Internet,” his family said in a statement Wednesday, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “Amer did not commit or plan a violent act. When he was encouraged to take action by an undercover agent, he ran away.”
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