Experts in Terror
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.