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The Terrorist Search Engine

Images from Kohlmann's website,; video complilations from Kohlmann and Steve Emerson; and Al-Qaeda videos from YouTube and other sites.  

“Abu Dujana al-Khorasani, as he was known on the Internet forums, posted messages saying, ‘I’m going to Afghanistan. I’m going to fight there. I’m going to kill Americans.’ He said in an online Taliban magazine, ‘No matter how much they pay me, what they do to me, what threats they make, I’ll never give up this struggle. I’ll continue in this until I reach my mission.’ At that very moment, the CIA believed that he had been recruited as an informant. He was saying this in public, openly.”

In his apartment, Kohlmann relates the excitement that the revelation of Al-Balawi’s identity touched off. When the Pakistani Taliban identified the bomber by his online nom de guerre, he was astonished. “I nearly … my mouth hung open. I said, ‘I know who this guy is!’ At first I said to myself, ‘It can’t possibly be the same guy from the forum, can it? It can’t possibly be that guy.’ And sure enough, the forum participants were the first people who picked up on it, and said, ‘Oh my God, that’s our friend.’ ”

Kohlmann owes his terrorism education to a think tank called the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), where he began work as an intern in 1998, during his freshman year at Georgetown. IPT was founded by Steve Emerson, a former journalist who spent the nineties warning of the Islamic-militancy threat and assailing a Middle Eastern–studies Establishment inclined to mince words over whether Islamic militancy deserved the label “terrorism” at all. He was a polarizing figure, regarded as an Islamophobe alarmist by many—he famously described the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings by Timothy McVeigh as exhibiting a “Middle Eastern trait”—but credited for paying attention to the threat of Islamic terrorism when others were inclined to downplay it. Prior to 9/11, he had the ear of top White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, who has written that Emerson would provide him information on jihad that he could not get out of his own intelligence agencies.

Emerson, together with a handful of other polemicists such as Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer, built a network of think tanks devoted to disseminating a hawkish view of the Middle East conflict they found missing from within the academy. The mutual distrust that arose between these two groups has created a curious gap in our knowledge of Islamic militancy in America. “Broadly speaking, among the people who have the knowledge of language, culture, and history, there is little interest in studying security issues because it’s seen as politically compromising and tied to a pro-Israeli or pro-government agenda,” explains Hegghammer, one of Kohlmann’s few defenders in academe. Hegghammer notes that a decade after 9/11, not a single professor at an Ivy League university specializes in jihadism. “And conversely, the people who do study security issues tend not to have the languages and culture. And so the people that wind up doing it tend to be fringe figures.”

September 11, 2001, was Kohlmann’s first day of law school at the University of Pennsylvania. When he heard the news, he got up to leave, telling the student sitting next to him, “This was an attack by Osama bin Laden, and I have to go do something about it.” Kohlmann remained affiliated with IPT through 2003, eventually assuming the title of senior terrorism researcher. Around that time, government prosecutors began to look for help in explaining global jihad to juries. Middle Eastern studies professors tended to be reluctant to testify, but the researchers affiliated with the Emerson wing of counterterrorist studies were already gathering open-source information that corroborated the government’s views of the threat. This is how a 25-year-old law student turned out to be among the best-qualified people prosecutors could find who was willing to take the work.

Part of what arouses the ire of Kohlmann’s critics is that his years with Emerson are his only formal credential. Kohlmann does not speak Arabic; has never been to Iraq or Afghanistan; does not hold a postgraduate degree in any related field; has no experience in military, law-enforcement, or intelligence work; and continues to submit—seven years into his career as a court-appointed expert on Al Qaeda—his undergraduate thesis on Arab mujaheddin in Afghanistan as evidence of his expertise. And yet judges continue to certify him, in large part in deference to previous judges and because of the weight that prosecutors place on his testimony.

“If they had other options, don’t you think they would take them?” he asks me. “The only reason I get these jobs is the fact that I do them properly.” Kohlmann can make up to $125,000 a year as an expert witness, and even more as a government consultant. These are not his only sources of income, but they are easily the largest.