The defense attorneys had heard something about terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann. He was young and inexperienced, he spoke little Arabic and he would say whatever the government prosecutors wanted him to say. Now they saw him stepping into the witness box, snaggletoothed, pale, with a shock of brown hair combed boyishly over his forehead.
“Do you think he still lives with his parents?” one attorney joked to another. By the time Kohlmann finished testifying, they were no longer laughing.
When he was a college freshman and just starting out in the terrorism-expert business, Kohlmann earned the nickname “the Doogie Howser of terrorism,” a reference to the ’90s sitcom character, a child prodigy doctor. These days Kohlmann earns part of his living and much of his renown in federal court as the prosecution’s star expert witness in terrorism trials. The Doogie Howser of terrorism is extremely effective at what he does. In the seven cases in the United States in which he has taken the stand since 2004, the jury has seven times voted the defendants guilty. (In one of those cases, the jury found the defendant guilty in a second trial where Kohlmann again testified.) At least five additional trials in which he has served as background consultant for the government ended in guilty verdicts. At the age of 29, Kohlmann can claim a hand in meting out at least one life sentence and more than 100 cumulative years of hard prison time in the “war on terror.”
Kohlmann is among the most prominent examples of a post-9/11 phenomenon in which self-styled experts service the government’s need for assistance in terrorism cases. These experts furnish law-enforcement agencies, the media and the public with their insights on Muslim extremism, and they have emerged to significantly affect the way the “war on terror” is framed, investigated and prosecuted.
Far from being mere analogues to forensic pathologists matching DNA to a drop of blood in a courtroom, these new experts are frequently unabashedly ideological. Their viewpoints, when they publish them, tend to find homes in partisan publications like National Review and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Hamas expert Matthew Levitt, who has testified for the government in eight trials since 2004, has a day job at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a conservative think tank founded by the former research director of AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby. Steven Emerson, the veritable godfather of terrorism experts and founder of the Investigative Project on Terrorism (where Kohlmann got his start), has served as a government source on many terrorism-related trials and is bankrolled by arch right-winger Richard Mellon Scaife. Rita Katz, another Emerson alumna and one of the few who actually speak Arabic, fled Iraq as a child after Saddam Hussein executed her father, as a suspected Israeli spy. Today she runs the SITE (Search for International Terrorist Entities) Intelligence Group, a private terrorism watchdog that has relied on tens of thousands in Defense Department contracts. For his part, Kohlmann, who runs a private website, globalterroralert.com, signed more than $135,000 in Justice Department contracts last year.
“They all work for the government or they work for government-funded agencies or government-contracted projects,” says defense attorney William Swor, who investigated Kohlmann’s background in connection with the trial of Jose Padilla. “And so when the government calls them, they are a ready source of government-approved information.”
The government has skillfully deployed its experts to augment what are often narrow criminal charges having at best a tangential connection to terrorism. The approach has worked especially well when it has been possible to invoke Al Qaeda–although a string of recent mistrials and acquittals, most notably in the terrorism-financing trial of the Holy Land Foundation and the Liberty Seven bombing case, suggests that juries may be growing weary of it.
Since the 9/11 attacks, few terrorism cases have gone to trial in federal court. While high-value detainees generally languish in military custody, most lower-level defendants who land in the federal system take quick stock of the political zeitgeist and plead out to lesser charges. What the remaining cases invariably lack is a live terrorist plot, an omission that is often addressed through the use of sting operations. In the politically charged post-9/11 lexicon, these are known as “pre-emptive prosecutions,” and they purport to snag the bad guys before they act. The cases turn on comparatively lower-level charges like money laundering, leaving prosecutors to make the terrorism connection for jurors. This is where experts like Kohlmann take the stage to deliver what can best be described as the Big Terrorism Picture, a narrative that varies slightly from trial to trial but is comforting in its simplicity.
The Big Terrorism Picture was front and center in one of Kohlmann’s early courtroom appearances, the 2005 trial of Ali al-Timimi, a cancer researcher and Muslim activist in northern Virginia. Timimi was the accused “spiritual leader” of the Virginia Paintball jihadists, a group of young Muslims who traveled to Pakistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to attend terrorist training camps. Timimi’s involvement boiled down to comments he made shortly after the attacks in which, according to the prosecution, he exhorted the men to wage jihad against the United States, a version of events vigorously disputed by the defense. Prosecutors sought to make a connection between Al Qaeda and an insurgent group called Lashkar-e-Taiba, which hosted the training camps where some of the men ended up.
“The Al Qaeda connection was critical,” Timimi’s defense attorney Edward MacMahon Jr. told me. “If a jury in the US finds any connection between your client and Osama bin Laden, you’re going to get convicted. So Kohlmann provides key testimony in the case that the US bombed an Al Qaeda terror camp in Afghanistan in 1998 and there was a member of Lashkar-e-Taiba in the training camp. That was the connection, and when Timimi was telling the [other defendants] to go to Pakistan, what he was really telling them was to go to Al Qaeda. What Kohlmann really did for the prosecutors was to tie it all up in a big bow.” Timimi was found guilty on all counts at the trial, which took place in a courtroom seven miles from the Pentagon, and sentenced to life in prison.
“The government has been effective with these expert witnesses because they do paint a compelling picture, and the defense hasn’t been as effective at bringing in experts to refute what the prosecution’s experts are saying,” said Bruce Hoffman, one of the most senior terrorism experts working today. A former head of the Washington office of the RAND Corporation, Hoffman wrote the seminal book Inside Terrorism; but when I asked him if he would take the stand in a terrorism case in the United States, he said no. “I have to bring added value,” he said. “I don’t want to be a mouthpiece or have anyone put added words into my mouth or base anything on hearsay.”
Other seasoned terrorism experts, too, expressed reservations about giving testimony about terrorist groups whose ties to the defendant may be tenuous at best. At issue is the crucial element of context, particularly in pre-emptive prosecutions that focus on what a defendant might do. In these cases, proving intent requires understanding of a defendant’s beliefs and motivations, to say nothing of the complex root causes of terrorism. And yet Kohlmann dismissed the idea that “social causes” are integral to terrorism expertise and told me he intentionally does not study up on the details of the cases he’s asked to testify on. “I try to avoid learning about what the defendants may have done that’s irrelevant to my testimony,” he said. “Whether I’m asked to present by the prosecution or by the defense, you would hear the exact same thing out of my mouth.” This may be true, and Kohlmann, unlike some of his colleagues, does not display a clear political or ideological bent. But his testimony has the same impact as those who do. It is not surprising that in every case, it has been the prosecution and not the defense that has come calling.
I met Kohlmann last fall in the West Village in Manhattan, where he lives and works out of a high-rise apartment. In his youthful face, the eyes stood apart: they were hollowed out, exhausted looking. “If you wanted to write an encyclopedia entry, the longest encyclopedia entry you could think of about a terrorist group, that’s what I do,” he said. He relies on “open source” data, which means he spends his days mostly surfing the Internet, monitoring jihadist chat rooms and, less frequently, interviewing the terrorists themselves. One of the sacred tomes on his bookshelf, he says, is Google Hacks, a guide to finding information using the Google search engine.
In person Kohlmann is charming and a fast talker who rattles off insurgent names and affiliations like a kid who has memorized every conceivable statistic about his favorite baseball team. His reservoir of knowledge is vast–if not deep–and has earned him plenty of respect, including an on-air gig as a terrorism analyst for MSNBC. In 2006 he was cited in the acknowledgments to Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Al Qaeda, The Looming Tower. “He’s young and he’s earnest, but don’t mistake that earnestness,” Wright told me. “Within the field that he’s chosen for himself, he’s become a scholar. You might complain about lack of qualifications, but I looked online and there are only three PhD theses on Al Qaeda. The truth is, the American academy just hasn’t risen to the occasion.”
Jessica Stern, a professor of public policy at Harvard University who recently published a book based on four years of field interviews with insurgent leaders, says simply siphoning raw data from Internet chat rooms fails to take a complex view of terrorism. “They are reading what the terrorists say about themselves, and there’s lots of disinformation there,” she said of Kohlmann and Katz.
A trial in Albany, New York, where Kohlmann testified in 2006, is a case study in how this decontextualized approach, while effective in netting a conviction, fails to serve the greater truth. Two Muslim men, Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, were accused of laundering the proceeds of a missile sale. Neither had a criminal record. Aref, a United Nations refugee, was an imam at a local mosque; Hossain was a local pizza shop owner. The case against them was constructed through an FBI sting spearheaded by an informant with a lengthy criminal record who claimed that the missile was to be used to assassinate the Pakistani ambassador to the United States. The plot, of course, was entirely fictitious, and the informant’s conversation with the two defendants was so vague and in such broken English that it was never clear whether they had any idea what exactly was afoot.
At trial, prosecutors sought to tie the two men to two Southeast Asian groups with extremist factions, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), on the thinnest of reeds. During the sting the government’s informant asked Aref, in his capacity as imam, whether he should donate money to JEM given its violent history. When Hossain was asked about JEM, he thought it was a music group. As for JeI, it turned out that Hossain’s wife had briefly been a member while in college.
Kohlmann, who has no specific expertise in JeI or JEM, got the call to testify while in a cab in New York City. The next morning he was in Albany meeting with the FBI case agents. When defense attorneys interviewed him a few days later, he acknowledged that much of his expert report, which he had prepared over a single weekend, was gleaned from the Internet. Toward the end of the interview he was asked some basic questions about one of the groups he was to testify about, the Bangladeshi arm of JeI. He admitted he had never interviewed any members of the group. He was unable to name the paramilitary elements of the group or even recent major political parties in Bangladesh. “Sorry, can’t tell ya,” he finally said.
By the time Kohlmann took the stand before the jury a few days later, he’d smoothed out the rough edges. “His testimony was devastating,” said Kevin Luibrand, Hossain’s attorney. “He had an ability to pronounce Middle Eastern names with a fluidity that made the jury believe he knew what he was talking about.” A few weeks later, both defendants were convicted of material support to terrorism.
When the sentencing rolled around this past March, I met with the lead FBI agent on the case, Tim Coll, who carried with him a copy of the latest book by Kohlmann’s former employer and early mentor, Steven Emerson. The book, Jihad Incorporated: A Guide to Militant Islam in the U.S., a compendium of the current terrorist presence here, is blurbed by the likes of Richard Clarke, former White House terrorism czar under the first Bush and Clinton administrations. In it, Emerson incorrectly cites the Aref and Hossain case as evidence that individuals in the United States are “directly linked” to the JeI. With the exception of a single newspaper clip, the only sources cited in the section on the case are government documents from the trial. Coll told me he’s a big fan of Emerson. “I’ve read both his books,” he said, adding that he thought Kohlmann’s testimony in the case was “brilliant.”
In the terrorism-expert community, all roads seem to lead to Emerson. A former investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the late ’70s, Emerson subsequently reinvented himself as a national security writer for U.S. News & World Report. In the early ’90s he began investigating Islamic extremism in the United States, culminating in his documentary Jihad in America. The film won accolades, including the prestigious George Polk Award, but Emerson was condemned within the Muslim community as an anti-Muslim polemicist. Shortly thereafter he formed the Investigative Project, which today operates as an archive of terrorism information. He has testified before Congress several dozen times, often flanked by security personnel, and he is courted by law enforcement and media as a valuable source of raw data. Visitors to his research compound outside Washington used to be blindfolded to prevent them from knowing where he is located.
Emerson’s reputation took a nose dive after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which he initially said bore a “Middle Eastern trait,” and again in 1996 after the crash of TWA Flight 800, when he had “no doubt whatsoever” that the crash was caused by a bomb, which in at least one interview he attributed to the “permanent floating [Islamic] militant international.” (Investigators subsequently determined that the crash was the result of mechanical failure.) But though he was marginalized as a commentator, he remained a player in at least one important respect. He had the ear of Richard Clarke, whom he regularly briefed in the late ’90s when Clarke served as the nation’s top terrorism lawman.
Since 9/11 Emerson’s stock has again risen. He is a paid commentator on NBC, makes frequent appearances on Fox and CNN and has a lucrative lecture-circuit career–a single speech runs up to $15,000 plus first-class travel expenses. In recent years, his Investigative Project Inc. has had an annual budget of close to $2 million. (Last year he registered a new nonprofit arm to the Investigative Project.) Emerson maintains close connections in US law enforcement, and though he has never taken the stand in a terrorism trial, his organization has provided information to the government on dozens of cases, most recently last year’s trials of Jose Padilla and of the Holy Land Foundation.
While Emerson has remained behind the scenes in these terrorism trials, others, like Hamas expert Matthew Levitt–the 37-year-old senior fellow at WINEP (which counts stalwart neoconservatives like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz as board members)–have taken center stage. In 2005 Levitt testified in the trial of a Yemeni sheik named Mohammed Ali Hassan al-Moayad, who once boasted of personally delivering $20 million to Osama bin Laden (prosecutors didn’t mention that this contact occurred when bin Laden was considered friendly to US interests). The case against Moayad centered on an FBI sting where the sheik, who operated a number of charities in Yemen, agreed to accept $2 million on behalf of Hamas, declared a terrorist organization by the United States in 1995. Moayad’s lawyers contended that the money was meant for Hamas’s charitable wing. Prosecutors brought Levitt in to argue that Hamas’s military operations are inseparable from its charitable works. Moayad was convicted and sentenced to seventy-five years in prison. “Israel has a very strong interest in making sure that money does not go to Hamas, and Levitt’s articles all follow the same line, which is that the charitable and the military arms of Hamas are all the same thing,” said Jonathan Marks, a defense attorney in the trial.
But Levitt’s testimony, which unlike Kohlmann’s focuses almost exclusively on Hamas financing, has not held sway with juries in several other cases. In the 2005 terrorism-financing trial of Sami Al-Arian, jurors acquitted him of the most serious charges he faced, and earlier this year jurors acquitted two alleged Hamas operatives, Mohammed Salah and Abdelhaleem al-Ashqar.
This past summer Levitt testified at the Dallas trial of the Holy Land Foundation, formerly the nation’s largest Muslim charity, shut down by the Bush Administration in 2001. Seven former foundation officials were later charged with funneling money to Palestinian charity committees controlled by Hamas. Levitt, who in 2006 wrote a book on Hamas that contains almost no original field research with Hamas operatives and relies heavily on documents gathered by Israeli intelligence sources, was brought in once again to make the connection between Hamas’s charitable and military operations.
“I am not at all surprised, nor do I care that in their closing arguments they described me as an Israeli lackey,” Levitt told me recently. “It comes with the territory.”
That the case ended in a mistrial has not dampened Levitt’s views. In a policy monograph published on WINEP’s website in November, he writes, “The failure of the Dallas jury to reach a decision on HLF the first time around is no exoneration–it is simply an initial setback in an ongoing case.”
The government, which intends to retry the Holy Land Foundation case later this year, seems to agree with Levitt. At a lunchtime briefing on the case held in the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill in December, three dozen attendees, mostly Congressional staffers and law-enforcement and intelligence personnel, sat like schoolchildren at oversized tables, eating sandwiches and cookies and listening to a panel co-sponsored by the Investigative Project.
“Don’t be mistaken about what happens when Sharia law establishes a foothold in this country,” said one of the panelists, Jeffrey Breinholt, a former Justice Department official who oversaw the Holy Land Foundation case. “It will be something as subtle as a single American prosecutor deciding that it’s not worth her time to get to the bottom of an honor killing that’s occurred in the Muslim community. Because in order to redress this homicide she’s going to have to fight through the code of silence that exists in that community. They don’t want any part of American law.”
After the briefing members of the Holy Land Foundation prosecution team filed up to the podium to greet Michael Fechter, who covered the Al-Arian case as a reporter for the Tampa Tribunebefore being hired by Emerson. The prosecutors wanted Fechter’s advice on how they might do better next time. Fechter obligingly launched into a quick critique.
“You know Kristina [one of the jurors]–she’s still haunted by the videos,” Fechter told prosecutor Barry Jonas, referring to a series of videos that depicted Palestinian children chanting anti-Israeli slogans and calling for jihad.
“OK, that’s good to know,” Jonas said.
The two men chatted about possible jury room malfeasance during the trial, the subject of a story Fechter had just published. Jonas passed along a tip about another juror in the case and urged Fechter to investigate. “We could look into it ourselves, but you can probably do it faster,” Jonas said. “Bureaucracy, you know.”
Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.