OAKLAND, Calif. — Is Matthew Aaron Llaneza a dangerous Taliban sympathizer bent on doing harm to the United States? Or is he an impressionable and mentally ill American led astray by undercover FBI operatives posing as terrorists?
Those are the questions a federal judge in Northern California will be deciding on Thursday when she determines how much prison time the 29-year-old San Jose man deserves. Llaneza has pleaded guilty to trying to blow up a Bank of America branch last February with an SUV supposedly loaded with explosives.
Both the vehicle and the inert chemicals loaded inside were supplied by FBI agents after Llaneza allegedly made contact with an undercover agent who pretended to have connections with the Taliban and helped him build a phony car bomb. He was arrested near the four-story bank building in Oakland after he pressed a cellphone trigger to try to detonate the explosives, which he believed were real.
The FBI alleges Llaneza hoped the explosion would be blamed on anti-government militias and prompt a government crackdown that would touch off civil unrest in the United States. He also allegedly bragged that he had experience in guerrilla warfare and expressed a desire to join the Taliban in Afghanistan after carrying out the terrorist plot.
Llaneza pleaded guilty in October to one count of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, a conviction that would ordinarily carry a sentence of 30 years to life. His plea deal with federal prosecutors calls for him to be sentenced to 15 years in prison and lifetime probation monitoring.
The U.S. Attorney's Office said in a pre-sentencing memo that it took into account Llaneza's history of mental illness — he has been diagnosed at various times as suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder — and the fact that he tried to minimize casualties by trying to blow up the building in the early morning when it would be mostly unoccupied.
"Defendants' offense conduct here was very serious. He knowingly and willfully participated in a plan to blow up a bank building. He created the plan and selected the target. He helped build what he believed to be a large bomb to accomplish the plan. He drove the bomb to the bank building, placed it in a location designed to maximize its destructive force, then attempted to detonate it twice," Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Caputo wrote in the memo. "Had the bomb been real, it would have destroyed at least a portion of the building and easily could have killed or seriously injured innocent bystanders."
Llaneza's defense lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Jerome Matthews, said in a memo of his own that he would not argue with a 15-year sentence during Thursday's hearing even though "it is an open question whether Matthew Llaneza would have participated in a plot to detonate a car bomb had he not been introduced to and guided by an undercover FBI agent."
"Matthew was not a radicalized jihadist but rather a delusional, severely mentally disturbed young man; he had no technical skills to speak of," Matthews wrote. "He had no training or background that would have helped him to accomplish an actual bombing; he was preternaturally suggestible and desirous of being accepted; and, not least, he had no desire to inflict mass casualties."
Llaneza's parents, Steven Llaneza and Dora Tune, told U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers that they do not plan to attend their son's sentencing, but submitted a letter attesting to his "his genuinely good core character" and lifetime of struggles.
"The conduct he pleaded guilty to is very out of character for him, and we never ever would have thought he would come up with an idea like he has been accused of," they said.