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California man sentenced to more than 15 years in ISIS support case

San Francisco — In defending 23-year-old Amer Alhaggagi, his lawyer called him "a class clown" — "a prankster who did not know when he was crossing the line." But federal prosecutors consider him an ISIS supporter, caught before he could activate his plot to kill 10,000 San Francisco-area residents by planting bombs, blowing up a gay bar, setting fires and distributing poisoned cocaine in night clubs.

Defense attorney Mary McNamera's argued in federal court Tuesday that Alhaggagi is an "all-American boy" who was "playing a game." His argument did not prevail. Judge Charles Breyer sentenced Alhaggagi to more than 15 years in prison, saying "words matter."

"The most disturbing thing in Alhaggagi is the lack of empathy for others," Breyer said. "That is chilling."

He was sentenced for charges of identity theft and trying to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.

"Alhaggagi wanted to carry out deadly terrorist attacks in the United States in the name of ISIS," Assistant Attorney General for National Security, John Demers, said in a news release Tuesday.

Surveillance video recorded over two years by undercover agents captured Alhaggagi's boasts, including claims of connections to Mexico's drug cartel and access to AK-47s. On the social media site Telegram, where the California-born man of Yemeni descent was repeatedly kicked out for violating the terms of service, he pitted Sunni Muslims against Shia. He also teased Wiccans, who practice a contemporary form of paganism, saying their "prayers provoked Hurricanes in Florida." 

Amer Alhaggagi seen in a Feb. 26, 2019, courtroom sketch.  Vicki Behringer

While authorities did not recover guns, explosive devices or evidence of a drug cartel connection, Alhaggahi was indicted for attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He pleaded guilty to the charge in July, and to identity theft charges. He admitted he created Twitter, Facebook and Gmail accounts for people he met in online chat rooms who he thought were ISIS supporters.

On Tuesday, Marc Sageman, a former CIA agent, psychiatrist and the author of numerous books on terrorism, testified Alhaggagi was "no more dangerous than a randomly selected individual in the general population." Sageman said he spent hours interviewing the young Yemeni-American in jail where he has been since his arrest two years ago.

"I don't see anything consistent with jihadis," Sageman said. "He does not sound like a jihadi. He does not look like a jihadi. He does not act like a jihadi."

Before he was sentenced Tuesday in San Francisco, Alhaggagi apologized.

"I find it hard to look and listen to all the horrible things I said to the undercover agent," he said. "I made myself look like a crazy person."

In an unusual show of support, some 150 residents of Oakland's tight-knit Yemini community appeared at court proceedings and signed a letter to U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer urging a lenient sentence. They pledged to set up an educational program to teach children about online behavior and speech, and how to respond to online strangers.

The special agent in charge of the FBI's San Francisco field office said the sentence that was ultimately handed down "serves as a reminder of how persistent and pervasive online radicalization has become and this should be a precautionary example for individuals who may be tempted by terrorist propaganda."

"Today is a tragedy for the Alhaggagi family and our community as we have lost yet another young person to the allure of extremist ideology focused on hatred and violence," John Bennett said.

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