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Experts in Terror | The Nation

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Experts in Terror

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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.

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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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.

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