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Experts in Terror | The Nation

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Experts in Terror

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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.

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

About the Author

Petra Bartosiewicz
Petra Bartosiewicz, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York, is writing a book on the Justice Department's...

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"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.

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