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The Terrorist Search Engine

Evan Kohlmann spends his days lurking in the darkest corners of the Internet, where jihadists recruit sympathizers from across the globe. He has testified in over two dozen terrorism trials— and sees danger everywhere he looks. Is he prescient or naïve?

Evan François Kohlmann acquired his unloved nickname in 2002, when an FBI agent who was consulting with him on a case dubbed him “the Doogie Howser of Terrorism.” The many detractors he has amassed over the years have never let go of that memorable handle. “Look,” Kohlmann says one afternoon earlier this year, sitting in the two-bedroom apartment where he spends his days and nights analyzing jihadist video, communiqués, and chatter on the Internet. “Someone gave me that nickname when I was 23 years old. I’m not 23 anymore. How old do I have to be before they stop it?”

The nickname is one of the reasons observers are inclined to underrate Kohlmann, who is 31. The outlandish but true story he tells—of Islamist revolutionaries spreading out from Afghanistan to wage holy war around the globe—is one you would expect to hear from a toffee-colored man with an Oxbridge accent, or a ruddy man with a buzz cut and no neck. You would not expect to hear it from Kohlmann, who is wearing, when I meet him, a close-fitting spandex biking shirt, black jeans, and Tevas. “It also doesn’t help that I look about 10 years old,” he observes.

But jihad is a subject that has fascinated Kohlmann since he was 18. He has served as the government’s expert witness in seventeen terrorism cases in the United States and nine abroad, making him the most prolific such expert in the country. He is hired to educate juries on the history and structure of Al Qaeda and on the methods it uses to finance itself and recruit new members. He is very effective on the stand. “Evan has succeeded because he is the best in that particular business,” says Thomas Hegghammer, a respected jihad historian at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment. Kohlmann’s testimony has helped to convict 23 defendants in U.S. federal courts and in the military commissions in Guantánamo Bay.

Kohlmann’s indispensable font of evidence is the web. Since soon after 9/11, he has been arguing that the Internet is not only helping terrorists organize but is also serving as a recruitment tool to turn jihad sympathizers who have no connection to Al Qaeda into terrorists themselves. This notion once seemed eccentric, but over the past year “homegrown terrorists,” radicalized on the Internet, have appeared with regularity on the front page of the world’s newspapers. The U.S. government has targeted for assassination Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Yemeni cleric whose exhortations to holy war, delivered in perfect English, are widely traded online. Al-Awlaki was directly in contact with Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a military psychologist who went on a killing spree at Fort Hood, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to detonate explosives in his underwear over Detroit last Christmas. Roshonara Choudhry, a 21-year-old British woman, stabbed a British M.P. after downloading and listening to more than a hundred hours of Al-Awlaki’s sermons. Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the 19-year-old who was arrested last month for allegedly attempting to detonate a bomb at a Portland, Oregon, tree-lighting ceremony, submitted articles to the online jihadist magazine Inspire. And then there was the strange case of Jihad Jamie and Jihad Jane—two white American women who traveled to Europe last year in an alleged plot to murder an artist who had offended Muslims.

Over the summer, it was reported that both the CIA and Google had invested in a company that trawls the jihadi Internet for “open source intelligence.” This was a tacit acknowledgment of the value of what Kohlmann and a small group of like-minded private-sector analysts have been doing for more than a decade. “Evan’s usually one of the first on the scene when something is breaking,” says Jarret Brachman, the former research director of the Combating Terrorism Center, based at West Point. “You can’t deny a record of analytic success. I really thought he was ahead of the curve on the emergence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for instance.” Kohlmann watched online as AQAP, as terrorism researchers call it, transformed from a regional concern to an organization with international ambitions. (AQAP is likely responsible for the explosives packed into printer cartridges that grounded cargo flights in October.)

And yet Kohlmann’s analytic successes have continued to be shadowed by controversy—and for reasons more significant than his youthful appearance. Kohlmann has, for the past seven years, made his living as an expert witness for hire during an episode of American history that posterity may record as not among its proudest. Our criminal-justice system, chastened by its failure to take the 9/11 hijackers seriously before they struck, has greatly expanded the share of prospective terrorist threats that it treats as real. While this aggressive posture may well have contributed to the absence of any major attack since 9/11, it has also produced a raft of cases that tend to look more frightening at the initial press conference than they do once evidence is admitted at trial, and situations in which the only terrorist plots the defendants have participated in are those invented by the government.