SAN FRANCISCO (AP/KTVU) - A California man convicted of attempting to support the Islamic State does not have the attributes of an Islamic extremist despite his discussions about making bombs and planning terror attacks, a former CIA employee who studies terror networks testified Monday.
Marc Sageman described Amer Alhaggagi of Oakland, and who attended Berkeley High School, at a sentencing hearing as an internet troll who talked big to get a reaction out of people and look tough, but took no real action.
"He's a fabulist. He spins tales," said Sageman, who evaluated Alhaggagi for the defense. "He wants to show that he's a mean guy, but he's really a coward. He really doesn't do anything."
Alhaggagi, 23, pleaded guilty in July to creating social media accounts for Islamic State supporters. Prosecutors paint a darker picture of him, saying he accessed an Islamic State bomb-making manual and boasted about a series of attacks he wanted to commit on behalf of the group, including setting off a car bomb outside a gay nightclub. 2 Investigates obtained a copy of the video where Alhaggagi is speaking with an undercover FBI agent about his plans to allegedly terrorize the Bay Area.
Through a spokesman, his family also claimed that Alhaggagi is "not a terrorist or a violent person."
Although his family acknowledge that "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."
His family added that Alhaggagi is loved: "Amer has the support of his family and his community, who are committed to working with him and making sure that he will be well integrated into daily life when he is released from prison. We are very grateful to all our family and friends in the Oakland community who have stood by Amer and the family in this very difficult time."
The picture painted by Alhaggagi's relatives is not one the government shares.
"His aim was to 'redefine terror,' and he promised that if he succeeded, the 'whole Bay Area (was) gonna be in flames,'" lawyers with the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco said in a court filing.
They are seeking a sentence of 33 years in prison. Alhaggagi's attorneys are seeking a sentence of four years.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer continued the sentencing hearing to Jan. 8. He said the case was "serious."
"I don't think that I've had a sentencing as dramatic in the sense of what was done, what was said and what a potential sentence should be," he said.
Alhaggagi sat in a red jail jumpsuit at the defense table during the hearing, playing with his ponytail at times.
Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and counterterrorism consultant, said he has conducted 50 interviews of terrorists. He said Alhaggagi was not that religious and didn't dress like an Islamic extremist or express anger with the United States like many do.
Alhaggagi told an undercover agent about plans to set fire to the Berkeley hills, poison a large number of people with strychnine and set off multiple explosions using backpacks, according to Sageman.
He told Sageman he lied to the agent and only realized what he had gotten into when the agent took him to a storage facility weeks later to show him barrels of what was supposed to be an explosive agent, Sageman said.