Berkeley High School alumnus pleads guilty to attempting to aid Islamic State group supporters

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Chen Gong/File

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Amer Sinan Alhaggagi, a 23-year-old Berkeley High School alumnus and Oakland resident, pleaded guilty Wednesday to attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, in addition to other charges.

For his four charges, which also include aggravated identity theft, Alhaggagi could face up to 47 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for each charge, according to a U.S. Department of Justice press release from 2017. Alhaggagi previously pleaded not guilty when he was indicted last year.

Posing as a supporter of the Islamic State group, also known as IS or ISIS, Alhaggagi allegedly told an undercover federal agent of his plan to target parts of the Bay Area, though Alhaggagi did not take any steps toward violence when encouraged to by the agent, according to August Gugelmann, an attorney representing Alhaggagi. He is not being charged for his conversations with the undercover agent.

“He … is kind of a practical joker,” said Gugelmann. “(He) likes to get reactions out of people, and that’s what he was doing here.”

In late 2016, Alhaggagi opened five Twitter accounts and two Facebook accounts as well as Gmail accounts in order to authenticate them for two individuals who Alhaggagi understood to be supporters of IS, according to Alhaggagi’s change of plea application.

Alhaggagi believed that the two individuals reached out to him because of his “trolling behavior” in a pro-IS group chat on the messaging application Telegram, according to the plea application. He would call users who had blocked him “Shiites” in the hope that other users would block them, as well as repost “pro-ISIS messages,” according to the change of plea application.

Gugelmann added that Alhaggagi has no affiliation with IS, no anti-American feelings and lacks any inclination toward or history of violence. Alhaggagi is not a “loner” but “very friendly, very outgoing (and) quite popular,” according to Gugelmann.

“He is not the guy who the nature of these charges would generally suggest,” Gugelmann said.

Gugelmann stated that Alhaggagi has “astonishing support from everyone,” including his family, extended family and many from the local Yemeni community.

Gugelmann said that he and fellow attorney Mary McNamara, who also represents Alhaggagi, plan to use testimony from a radicalization and terrorism expert to show that Alhaggagi is “not a risk to the community.”

Three of Alhaggagi’s four charges are related to identity theft, as he used a credit card bearing another person’s name to buy clothing online, according to the change of plea application. The purchases totalled $4,932, according to the Department of Justice press release. Alhaggagi also pleaded guilty to possessing a device to produce counterfeit credit cards.

Alhaggagi is currently being held at Glenn E. Dyer Detention Facility in Oakland without bail and is slated to be sentenced in November, according to Gugelmann.

“The real question in this case is not what he did; it’s what’s the appropriate sentence,” Gugelmann said.

Contact Matthew Lo at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @matthewlo_dc.