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The Terrorist Search Engine

“What Kohlmann is brought in to do is to tell the jury that conduct that might look innocent in other contexts should be viewed with alarm because of the associations a defendant has,” says Vladeck. “It’s a gray area he’s working in here, because it walks a very fine line between prohibiting actual conduct and prohibiting associations, which is unconstitutional.” There is, of course, a legitimate purpose to the use of experts in terrorism prosecutions. Kohlmann’s virtually encyclopedic knowledge of names and dates and the broad narrative of jihad helps a jury to put a story in context. But he is also used by prosecutors for another purpose: to keep the jury’s attention fixed on their fears about the global conspiracy to murder Americans.

In the Fort Dix case, Kohlmann’s “forensic analysis” of the defendants’ hard drives concluded that the videos he found there “would be quite useful if you were planning a homegrown act of terrorism.” He noted that three of the videos have been present on the hard drive of nearly every case he’s worked on. “They are some of Al Qaeda’s best work,” he testified. At the end of his testimony, he was asked to reach a conclusion as to whether the materials were consistent with people conspiring to commit a violent act. He replied that they suggested “a clear, considered, and present danger to the community.” The jury convicted the men of conspiracy charges, resulting in four life sentences and one sentence of 33 years.

“The great problem with these cases,” says Vladeck, “is not that we can know that these defendants are innocent. Some of these conspirators probably are up to no good. But one quickly loses faith that we are drawing the right kinds of distinctions in every case.” Magnus Ranstorp, the research director of the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College and a widely recognized authority on terrorism, believes that Kohlmann’s conclusions rest on the most elementary social-scientific error: While it might be true that all self-radicalized terrorists watch jihadi videos, it does not follow that all people who watch jihadi videos become self-radicalized terrorists. “I think no serious academic would ever testify in such a cavalier fashion with such generalizations and quite frankly mumbo-jumbo-style analysis,” he says. “It takes about 30 seconds to spot that Kohlmann produces junk science in court.”

Kohlmann acknowledges that there are problems surrounding some of the cases at which he has testified but insists that prosecutors are doing the best they can, given the constraints they face. “I don’t believe that there is any kind of deliberate malfeasance in these cases. Has every informant been perfect? No. Have I been involved in selecting those informants? No. Have the U.S. Attorneys been entirely thrilled with all of them? No. But recruiting informants is not necessarily that easy. It’s not a perfect system, but I’m pretty confident that I haven’t been responsible for putting any innocent people behind bars.”

Sometimes you glimpse in Kohlmann’s eyes an unappeasable weariness. Maybe it’s all the dark things he’s been staring at for so many years, or maybe it’s just a bad case of eyestrain. When I meet him in the MSNBC studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza one morning, he has just returned from the doctor on account of his persistent migraines. He has already appeared on Morning Joe and is now back to prepare for a segment of MSNBC Live. Within minutes, he is talking to me about the intricacies of global jihad.

“Remember the name Abu Kandahar al-Zarqawi. You’ll be hearing that name again,” Kohlmann says, speaking over his shoulder as the tech straps on his mike. “He’s lining up to be the next Humam al-Balawi. You know when you throw up a water balloon and can see where it’s going to land? You can see where this one is going to land.”

Earlier this year, Kohlmann’s mood was lifted when a letter addressed to him was posted on an online forum. He sent the link in a mass e-mail titled “Ansar Al-Mujahideen Online Forum Members Are Pissed at Me.” But the excitement of tracking the terrorists through cyberspace is now dampened by the controversy he confronts at every trial. “It’s not pleasant, when you work very hard at something and not only are your motives questioned but your knowledge, your experience, your credentials—everything you have built is questioned.”

Kohlmann’s primary assistant, who does most of his Arabic translation, is a gregarious, sweet-natured Jordanian grad student named Laith Alkhouri whom he found on Craigslist a year ago. He was hired as an intern but has grown into a close collaborator, watching the message boards with his boss and producing the PDFs that Kohlmann posts to his website,