Kohlmann and Alkhouri have an easy, affectionate rapport. “I showed my mom the website to see my name on it, and she was like, ‘You are going to scare me,’ ” says Alkhouri. “She said, ‘I didn’t know that this is what you do.’ And she doesn’t know half of what I do, really.”
The job has become an all-consuming, 24-hour-a-day passion for the two of them. “I prefer to work with people who have native language abilities, but more importantly, people who can grasp this,” says Kohlmann. “It’s very difficult to find people like that. Laith is one of the very few people who I’ve managed to identify who has the linguistic and cultural background to begin with and can also learn the technical aspect. But Laith now knows this stuff like I do.”
Alkhouri chimes in: “No, you’re the master. I’m not in the same category.”
They hesitate, look at each other for a moment and then at me, slightly flustered, but then also proud.
One senses that Alkhouri renews for Kohlmann the spark of excitement he must have felt dipping into this shadowy netherworld for the first time, back in 1998, before anyone had heard of Al Qaeda, when Kohlmann was among the first Americans peering through his Netscape browser at the metastasizing threat that would come to dominate the first decade of the 21st century. One wonders what cost Alkhouri will end up having to pay for that excitement and who else will end up sharing in the payment of it. “I could be the one to catch Bin Laden,” says Alkhouri. “I know that’s big talk! But if I just find the right message that could lead somewhere …”