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.”