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In terror case, how do we know whether threats were just talk?

Last July, a 23-year-old man named Amer A. pled guilty to providing material support to terrorists. We'd all like to believe that the guilty plea got a dangerous person off the streets. Unfortunately, people plead guilty of a wide variety of reasons, including intense pressure from prosecutors to make a deal or face a much harsher sentence at trial. Now, Amer is up for sentencing -- but what if what he did was talk?

The prosecution has asked for a sentence of 33 years plus lifetime probation. The defense asked the judge to follow a probation officer's recommendations and give him just four years followed by three years of probation.

Why should the judge agree to the lower sentence? One reason is the national security and terrorism expert who testified at the sentencing hearing.

"It was all talk and nothing else," he concluded about Amer.

The case against Amer is indeed mainly based on talk. In 2016, he apparently shared violent ideas with an undercover FBI agent. He allegedly said he wanted to blow up gay night clubs, start fires in the Berkeley Hills, distribute cocaine laced with poison and use car bombs to kill 10,000 people, according to the Courthouse News Service.

After his arrest, Amer allegedly told other inmates he wanted to blow up the federal courthouse and arrange for snipers to shoot police and judges.

Amer's family says that he was unemployed and bored when he began bragging about terrorist plans on an Islamic State chat room. The terrorism and national security expert apparently agrees with that assessment. After spending hours with the young man, he concluded that Amer was trying to get a rise out of people and seem tough. The alleged terrorism plots were outlandish and unrealistic, and that he was egged on by the undercover agent.

'Just talk' generally isn't enough to justify criminal charges

In order to be considered crimes, most threats must be followed up with a concrete step toward carrying out the plan. In fact, the terrorism expert noted that this was the first case he had seen prosecuted where the defendant had made no effort to follow through. The prosecution claims that Amer followed up by looking into how to buy bomb-making materials and by setting up a few social media accounts for ISIS sympathyzers.

Amer's family says that, although he said many terrible things on the Internet and to the undercover agent, he never actually committed any violence. Are the allegations against Amer enough to justify 33 years in prison?

The sentencing hearing will continue on Jan. 8.

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