“I don’t have bad memories, I don’t have nothing that just kind of stood out, but I do remember him as a kid, you know, little, funny kid with his little curl and his hair,” said J., an anonymous member of the Berkeley Technology Academy (BTA) administration, as they recalled a former student, Amer Sinan Alhaggagi. “He had really big pretty eyes and eyelashes. Long eyelashes. And he was kind of shorter, and he looked like he was a lot taller to me, on that picture,” J. said, examining a photo of Alhaggagi that has been widely dispersed since his arrest for terrorism charges in 2016.
J. knew Alhaggagi from Berkeley High School (BHS), where he graduated in 2013. He was born and primarily grew up in the Bay Area, where he went to Emerson Elementary School. During his years at BHS, Alhaggagi switched between Academic Choice (AC) and BTA, and he took Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA) art classes. “I had him when he was young,” said Devon Brewer, BHS science teacher, “Probably ninth grade. He was in my integrated science [class]. I taught on the third floor of the G-Building.”
“He was friends with everybody. He kind of hung out with everybody … like [terrorism charges] would have been something furthest from my mind.”
On February 26 of this year, Alhaggagi was sentenced to 15.8 years in prison for attempting to provide material support to the designated foreign terrorist organization ISIS. During the fall of 2016, Alhaggagi communicated with confirmed members of ISIS on the online chat room Telegram, which allows users to send encrypted and self destructible messages. He created several social media accounts on their behalf that were used to repost pro-ISIS propaganda. Driving down MLK Jr. Way and Allston Way, he toured Berkeley with an undercover FBI informant posing as an ex-member of Al Qaeda, pointing out locations he planned on attacking. These included UC Berkeley student housing, the Berkeley Hills, Telegraph Ave, the YMCA, and gay night clubs. Although he never followed through with any serious actions towards carrying out these attacks, Alhaggagi did claim to have obtained a bomb-making manual from the Islamic state, and claimed to be in possession of Strychnine — a rat poison to mix and sell with cocaine. He had also submitted an application to the Oakland Police Department, which would give him access to weapons.
However, once the undercover informant tried to engage Alhaggagi in increasingly serious activity, he broke contact with him and withdrew from online conversations, presumably because he had no real intention of fulfilling his threats. “It only hit me that moment,” said Alhaggagi in his court statement, “that I’ve been talking to these people for too long and had no idea what I’ve gotten myself into and now I’m kinda freaked out. I wouldn’t respond, I blocked their phone number and deleted the Telegram app from my phone. I never took it seriously and I never realized how serious he was until he was ready to make a bomb (so I believed at the time) which I wanted no part of!”
Alhaggagi said all of his online activity was nothing more sinister than trolling correspondences to entertain himself by testing how far he could take this jihadist persona, and it’s this that alerted him to the FBI informant. He proposed they meet in person. On the fourth and final meeting, the informant took Alhaggagi to a storage unit that contained two buckets of ammonium nitrate and an igniter. “On our way back,” said Alhaggagi, “I kept telling him to not get any of the bomb making material, that it would be my job to do that. That was the way I was going to delay everything.” The defense, represented by attorney Mary Mcnamara, said that he was immature and naive, a “troll” and “prankster.” She reasoned that because he didn’t believe what he said, Alhaggagi didn’t understand the seriousness of his threats and the security measures the threats demanded.
The prosecution did not believe Alhaggagi’s actions were a ruse. To the government, it appeared that the lengths he went to were too elaborate for Alhaggagi to avoid being indicted. He is widely considered to be a homegrown terrorist, intercepted before damage could be done. However, those that knew Alhaggagi personally, such as his former teachers, friends, and family within Berkeley’s Yemeni community expressed that this version of Alhaggagi doesn’t match who they thought they knew. During Alhaggagi’s trial, dozens of people showed up in support of Alhaggagi, because they know him to be a kindhearted person who is neither violent nor radicalized.
J. remembered one interaction with Alhaggagi, in which he promised to own a chain of grocery stores and deliver food to campus, to express that he would not forget his time at BTA. “He was very approachable, very nice, very funny. Because I’ve been working here for so long, I have like this report with kids and the families, and he just kinda blended on in when he came in … At that time, he just seemed like a cool kid,” said J.
Alhaggagi is remembered by staff as an impressionable, funny, and slightly over energetic boy. Like lots of teenagers, he talked too much, but he never got into trouble. “He was friends with everybody. He kind of hung out with everybody … I liked him,” said J. “Like [terrorism charges] would have been something furthest from my mind. I would never have associated him with that, not based on what I remember of him being here those years.”
It’s possible that Alhaggagi did not find the community he needed in BHS. As Brewer suggested, switching between BHS and BTA was a red flag showing that he was struggling, which can breed fear and panic that turns into anger or a lack of confidence. Part of the allure of taking on this persona of a terrorist may have been the power, structure, and purpose that Alhaggagi led others to believe he had. “What is Berkeley High doing to serve the students that are on the fringes, the ones that aren’t coming to class every day, or are falling through the cracks?” asked Eric Norberg, a BHS art teacher.
Fifteen years of prison is a stiff sentence for a 23-year-old. Since the decision, Alhaggagi will continue being held at Glenn E. Dyer detention facility in Oakland. “It’s unfortunate,” said J., “but I just hope and pray that that was something that he was just really going through … in his life period that would make him want to do something like that.” In a seven page statement, Alhaggagi plead guilty to all of his charges, but detailed an innocuous interpretation as to his involvement, and apologized for the harm that he has caused his community and for the resources expended by the FBI. “I rationalized that the internet is filled with bullsh*t and the ISIS dudes and wannabes were shouting in a storm of drivel,” Alhaggagi wrote, “I know now that what I did was dangerous and stupid and I really regret it. I feel that what I did with the agent was even worse, because I can see now that he took me seriously and that the things I said were so outrageous that how could he not? My parents, my family and the Yemeni community have all been deeply damaged by what I did. I feel so embarrassed and humiliated by my actions, my stupidity and my thoughtlessness. I am so sorry and so ashamed.”
While Alhaggagi’s status as an inmate and the complexity of his crimes can have the effect of depersonalizing him, he is not removed from the BHS community, or his individuality and humanity.