To his admirers, Kohlmann is just the kind of indefatigable obsessive we need to track down the fanatics who confront us. But by agreeing to testify in the trials of nearly every defendant placed before him, Kohlmann has earned a reputation among many scholars as a “hand for hire,” as London School of Economics professor Fawaz Gerges puts it, working in the “guilty-verdict industry.” Another leading terrorism scholar calls him a “whore of the court,” making basic analytical errors on the stand and engaging in a charade of expertise. It is the opinion of George Washington University constitutional-law professor Jonathan Turley that Kohlmann was “grown hydroponically in the basement of the Bush Justice Department.” Kohlmann says he simply testifies to what he sees on the web—and what he sees frightens him very much.
Over the past decade, Kohlmann has patiently assembled one of the world’s largest collections of jihadi material—terabytes’ worth of sermons, fatwas, newsletters, message-board discussions, and video. Especially video: hundreds of hours of terrorist-training camps, martyrdom wills, live footage from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, beheadings, explosions, and burned bodies. He has catalogued this material for easy retrieval by law-enforcement agencies hoping to match a name to a face or producers looking to illustrate a television-news report. The videos have names like Russian Hell in the Year 2000, Parts I and II, Martyrs of Bosnia, and The Destruction of the USS Cole. They are sophisticated media productions at the outer limit of human extremity, and they are Kohlmann’s daily bread.
“I oftentimes get to know the people that I’m studying … better than I know members of my own family,” Kohlmann once testified. The demands of his work and the odd hours he spends on the Internet have eliminated his social life. “I never go out,” he tells me from his home office in the meatpacking district. Once, when he brought a woman home, she was startled to find herself surrounded by dozens of pictures of bearded jihadists. She pointed at the image of Abu Hamza al-Masri, the disfigured London-based radical cleric who has hooks for hands, and told him, “You’ve got to take that guy off your wall.”
Kohlmann loads a video for me of a man building a bomb and narrates it in the high-octane vernacular he uses to good effect in court and on TV. The video, he explains, was released last fall, not long after the arrest of Najibullah Zazi, who planned to set off a bomb in Manhattan. “Najibullah Zazi was trying to pull off some kind of bomb plot involving nail-polish remover. So the other day, somebody goes on the forum and posts this homemade video which shows you how to produce the explosive that Zazi was trying to produce, except using all homemade ingredients. This here shows you how to produce a very powerful explosive using things you can buy at Duane Reade.
“Now, let’s say instead of building a bomb, you want to build a rocket. Like, for instance, there were guys down in South Carolina who were captured by the police with materials in their trunk that looked like they wanted to build a Qassam-style rocket. Well, it turns out that this guy has already very helpfully produced a video on how to produce rocket propellant. Again, it was posted on this forum saying, ‘Guys, you should do this. We can all do this. Look—I’ve done it.’ ” Kohlmann clicks on another file, pulling up another image of the same person in a different setting. “There. Look—it’s the same guy, once again, now producing rocket propellant. There’s the rocket right there!”
These videos are discussed in online jihadist magazines like Inspire and Jihad Recollections and distributed on sites like that of Muntada al-Ansar—where Al Qaeda in Iraq released images of IED attacks on American soldiers—and Ansar Al-Mujahideen, the English-language message board where the Pakistani Taliban meet and greet their American fan base. Kohlmann discerns a strange intimacy emerging among the forum members, whether they’re in Afghanistan or the American suburbs. They reinforce one another in their beliefs and emphasize the importance of taking action. “Certain people start saying, ‘Well, if you support this so much, isn’t it your duty to join this?’ ” Though the members have never met in person, they develop ties with their message-board brothers possibly stronger than any they have with the people in their real lives. “And that’s when we start seeing people posting messages saying, ‘Look, guys, I love you, you’re wonderful, but I can’t sit here anymore. I’ve got to go out into the real world; I’ve got to go where death and destruction truly are.’ ”
In February, Kohlmann delivered a speech at the Center on Law and Security at New York University in which he portrayed a handful of recent terrorist scares as vindication. “I’ve had a lot of conversations over the last few years about recruitment shifting from the mosque and community center to the Internet, and a lot of people told me I was crazy or had an insular view on this,” he told the audience. Kohlmann then went on to relate the story of a suicide bombing that occurred at Camp Chapman near Khost, Afghanistan, in December, in which Humam al-Balawi, a 32-year-old Jordanian doctor, entered a CIA base, presumably as an informant. Instead, he blew himself up, along with seven CIA agents. “The disturbing part about this doctor is that we knew about Humam al-Balawi. Not in December or November. We’d known about him for years. He was famous,” said Kohlmann. “He was famous on the Internet.