SAN JOSE -- The homegrown terror plot was remarkable not only for its audacity but because the scheme seemed so strange.

A year ago, Matthew Aaron Llaneza schemed to blow up a Bank of America branch in Oakland with an SUV supposedly laden with explosive material, in hopes of somehow igniting a civil war. The Marine washout reportedly intended to flee on a ship, bound for Afghanistan, where he would help train Taliban fighters.

Those fanciful plans were foiled when his accomplice turned out to be an undercover FBI agent. But even as Llaneza, 29, of San Jose, faces a 15-year prison sentence in an Oakland federal courtroom Thursday, a question remains.

Just how serious of a threat was he?

Courtesy San Jose Police Department - Matthew Aaron Llaneza, 28, of San Jose, is shown in this mugshot following his 2011 arrest for weapons offenses. He
Courtesy San Jose Police Department - Matthew Aaron Llaneza, 28, of San Jose, is shown in this mugshot following his 2011 arrest for weapons offenses. He was arrested Feb. 8, 2013 by federal authorities after allegedly plotting to detonate a car bomb at an Oakland bank branch and then flee to join Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

Other than agreeing that he is deeply troubled, prosecutors and defense attorneys paint starkly contrasting portraits of Llaneza in court documents.

Government officials say he is a calculating sympathizer of the Taliban and al-Qaida who has long been dedicated to creating mayhem inside U.S. borders and was caught red-handed trying to carry out his violent beliefs.

"Llaneza told the undercover agent that he had jihad in his heart, considered jihad mandatory, and was willing to lay down his life for it," according to the prosecution report, submitted by Andrew Caputo, an assistant U.S. attorney.

But his defense attorney maintains Llaneza is an easily persuaded bumbler who did not have the knowledge to carry out a terror plot without the ample help the FBI provided in its operation.


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"Matthew was not a radicalized jihadist but rather a delusional, severely mentally disturbed young man," wrote Jerome Matthews, assistant federal public defender.

Either way, a case that erupted dramatically a year ago is set to conclude with little fanfare as Llaneza, who pleaded guilty in October, is sentenced. But civil rights activists argue that the bombing sting, one of several in recent years in which the FBI played an active role in facilitating the plan, took advantage of a man with a fragile grip on reality.

"All the facts that I've seen still indicate that there's no way he could have accomplished this on his own," said Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Bay Area chapter. "They're creating a crime only to solve it, and now this person is going to be supported by taxpayers in prison when he really needs mental health help."

His attorney describes how Llaneza's mental illness became apparent in childhood. Growing up in Arizona with his mother's family, Llaneza "inhabited a world of his creation." He grew to believe he could do things such as construct a small jet plane that could act as an explosive drone and withstand torture by "erasing" his memory.

But his father, stepfather and grandfather said Llaneza has no mechanical aptitude. And the attorney's report states he was so timid that once, during an argument, his girlfriend wrestled him to the ground by putting him in a chokehold.

He graduated from Red Mountain High School in Mesa, Ariz., in 2003 and later enlisted in the Marines before being discharged after one month because of chronic asthma. He converted to Islam and, according to court records, adopted an alias of Tarq Khan.

Llaneza appeared on the FBI's radar in late 2010 when he made online statements about wanting to commit violent jihad within the United States and later bragged to an informant about his expertise in explosives and guerrilla warfare.

His April 2011 arrest in San Jose appeared to confirm to the FBI that Llaneza was dangerous. He had arrived at the Berryessa neighborhood home of his father a month earlier and was living in a Winnebago out front.

After Llaneza went on a drinking binge and talked of suicide, his father called the police and told them that his son kept an AK-47 assault rifle and three 30-round magazines locked in an RV safe. The weapons were purchased legally in Arizona but are illegal in California.

Santa Clara County records show Llaneza was on medication for psychosis and bipolar disorder, and he suffered from paranoia, hallucinations and heard voices in his head. After six months in Santa Clara County Jail, he received a suspended sentence, probation and court-ordered psychological treatment.

What Llaneza didn't know was the FBI's South Bay Joint Terrorism Task Force continued to watch him, noting his continued statements about violent jihad.

In November 2012, Llaneza met with FBI Special Agent Christopher Monika, who posed as someone connected with the Taliban in Afghanistan. They met seven times to plot an event Llaneza expected would trigger a government crackdown, then a right-wing counter-response and civil war.

The FBI rented a storage facility in Hayward that housed the SUV they supplied as well as the inert "explosive" materials to simulate a bomb. In the early morning hours of Feb. 8, 2013, the pair completed assembling a dummy bomb in a Union City parking lot. Llaneza later parked the vehicle beneath the overhang of a Bank of America branch at 303 Hegenberger Road in Oakland.

From a distance, Llaneza twice tried to set off the bomb with a cellphone he had purchased. Then he was arrested.

His attorney, citing his mental illness, questions whether Llaneza would have plotted terrorism without the FBI's guidance.

But prosecutors said Llaneza turned down chances to back out.

"Llaneza's mental illness should not function as a get-out-of-jail-free card," prosecutors said in court documents. "Among other things, his illness did not interfere with his ability to understand what he was doing, what its consequences might be, and how wrong it was."

The U.S. Attorney's Office said it is factoring in Llaneza's mental state by agreeing to a 15-year sentence -- half the maximum for his lone charge of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction against property used in interstate commerce, in this case a bank.

In the post-9/11 era, no terrorism case in the United States has seen a successful entrapment defense, according to the FBI. That's because it is so difficult to prove, said Robert Weisberg, a Stanford Law School criminal justice professor. But he added that he wouldn't be surprised if, in hindsight, the government is not feeling especially proud of this prosecution.

"It's an extremely bizarre case, and I could see the U.S. attorney saying, 'I'm sorry we got into this now,'" he said. "So they might be experiencing some buyer's remorse -- not to the point of dropping the case, but to close the books as quietly as possible."

Contact Robert Salonga at rsalonga@mercurynews.com. Contact Mark Emmons at memmons@mercurynews.com.