A young East Bay man indicted on charges related to terrorism and identity theft pleaded not guilty in federal court Wednesday morning in front of a crowded courtroom full of family and friends.
Amer Alhaggagi, 22, walked into court with a smile on his face and his long hair pulled back in a ponytail. He’s accused of supporting ISIS by opening social media accounts to promote the terrorist group.
In court records obtained by NBC Bay Area, federal prosecutors allege that between July and November of last year, Alhaggagi conspired to kill thousands of people across the Bay Area by blowing up gay night clubs, planting explosives on the University of California, Berkeley campus, and setting fire to the Berkeley Hills.
Alhaggagi’s attorney, though, said her client never intended to carry out any attacks.
“What we have is a young man who was barely 21 at the time, who said a lot of things that he didn’t intend to do, who is not radicalized in any way,” attorney Mary McNamara said following Wednesday's arraignment.
McNamara said the case amounts to a matter of words, not deeds, which makes it different than most of the terrorism-related cases she’s seen.
“What he did was talk a lot,” she said. “There is an enormous disconnect between what he said and what he did. What he did was nothing. And I think we are confident that when those facts emerge in the courtroom, the court will see the truth of that.”
But federal prosecutors contend Alhaggagi did intend to act.
During a previous detention hearing, they said Alhaggagi met face-to-face with an undercover FBI agent posing as an ISIS sympathizer. Prosecutors say he took the undercover agent on a tour of the Bay Area to point out possible targets for an attack. They also say he gave the agent several backpacks that could be used to carry explosives.
That version of events was disputed by McNamara.
“I think the meetings with the undercover (agent) are going to be subject to a lot of scrutiny in this case,” McNamara said. “At the time, Amer had barely turned 21. Our understanding is that the undercover (agent) was far older and the sorts of discussions that were had, I think for an impressionable young man like Amer, went way beyond what he was comfortable doing.”
McNamara said Alhaggagi cut off all contact with that undercover agent when he began to believe the undercover agent may actually be planning a real attack. Court records show prosecutors don’t dispute Alhaggagi did eventually sever ties with that agent.
Following the arraignment, Jehan Hakim, a community advocate for the Asian Law Caucus, read a statement on behalf of the Alhaggagi family.
“On behalf of Amer’s family, they would like to thank his many friends from Berkeley High School and their Oakland community who have stepped forward to support him in this very difficult time. It’s not easy for them to speak out in this situation, but they are doing so because they know Amer as a smart, happy, helpful person who has always gone out of his way to help other people in need. Amer’s family knows him to be a peaceful young man who would never harm others. He has aspirations of serving his community. Amer was enrolled in a community college with ambitions of starting a non-profit.”
Alhaggagi is scheduled to be back in court next week. If convicted, he faces up to 47 years in prison.