The Terrorist Search Engine

Photo: Christian Weber

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.

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

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.

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.

Plotters and the Web

The case of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the alleged would-be Oregon bomber, is similar to many in which Kohlmann testifies. The FBI affidavit paints a picture of Mohamud as a genuine threat—and perhaps the evidence presented in court will bear this out. But as the government emphasized in its public announcement of the charges, Mohamud never posed an actual danger to anyone other than himself.

Many post-9/11 terrorism prosecutions rely on a series of statutes prohibiting any “material support” offered to terrorism, a broadly sweeping term with vaguely defined limits. Under traditional conspiracy prosecutions, the government has to show that a defendant knowingly participated in planning to commit a crime. Under the material-support statutes, which were strengthened by the 2001 Patriot Act, the government has to show only that a defendant knowingly gave support to an individual or foreign group that has been designated as a terrorist entity, regardless of whether there was any intent to aid a terrorist act. “The statutes are like a utility infielder for prosecutors,” says Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law. It lowers the bar for what the government has to prove, and it is invoked whenever the conduct charged is not clearly criminal under other statutes.

The material-support statutes help the government solve a thorny constitutional problem: How do you use the courts, which are designed to punish prior conduct, to preempt terrorist acts before they happen? One recurring solution has been to launch terrorism prosecutions in which no criminal plans are even alleged—because the plot is fictitious and created by the government. In these sting operations, the government uses paid informants or undercover agents to tempt defendants into convoluted schemes to either commit terrorist acts or provide material support to terrorist organizations. The informants befriend their targets and encourage their grievances. They enable them with financial and logistical help. In many cases, they secure only ambiguous assent.

Mohamud’s terrorist plot was initiated by FBI agents who had worked on the sting operation for six months. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters he is “confident that there is no entrapment here.” Mohamud volunteered to informants that he had submitted articles to Inspire and Jihad Recollections, and his statements leave no doubt that he was a believer in holy war against American civilians. Prosecutors will argue that he had the motivation and means to act on his beliefs. But others have suggested that perhaps the FBI, as Glenn Greenwald wrote in Salon, “found some very young, impressionable, disaffected, hapless, aimless, inept loner; created a plot it then persuaded/manipulated/entrapped him to join, essentially turning him into a terrorist; and then patted itself on the back.” The disaffected loner is a frequent presence in jihadi Internet forums. Whether they themselves are dangers or are only dangerous when enticed to be by law enforcement is an unanswerable question.

After the bombing, “I said, ‘I know who this guy is.’ And the forum participants said, ‘Oh my God, that’s our friend.’ ”

Two years ago, Kohlmann testified in a case that many American Islamic leaders have called a clear instance of government entrapment. The investigation began when a group of young men who lived in and around Cherry Hill, New Jersey, brought a video to a nearby Circuit City to be transferred to DVD. The footage included the men shooting weapons and shouting “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”) in the Pocono Mountains. The clerk reported them to the local police, and the FBI subsequently dispatched two informants.

According to prosecutors, only one of the defendants spoke freely with the informant about his desire to join jihad and strike at Americans. He discussed various scenarios for attacks, and he took a drive with the informant to “case” Fort Dix. Three other men played paintball, shot guns, and tried to buy automatic weapons from another FBI informant. A fifth provided a map of the Fort Dix grounds. Together, the group watched videos of attacks on Americans.

It was acknowledged, however, that one of the defendants told an informant that it was forbidden by Islam to kill American soldiers in America and declared on tape that they would never engage in suicide missions. “We just talk. We know,” another was recorded saying. A third refused an offer to buy grenade launchers. And the defendant who provided a map of Fort Dix to the FBI informant did so because the informant had asked for it—and afterward tried to report the informant to the police.

Spending all his time scanning the web for jihadist activity has supplied Kohlmann with a narrative and a worldview, as well as the confidence to ascribe motivations to the narrative’s players. Often, when he is called as a witness at a conspiracy trial, Kohlmann is shown a series of videos, writings, and wiretapped conversations with an informant and asked to identify the people and groups referred to within them. The defendants may not have any connection to those named other than the fact that the names are mentioned in these materials. But even a neutral recitation of this material can present a very damning impression of a very dangerous person.

“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,

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 …”

Colleen LaRose
a.k.a. Jihad Jane
PLOT: Tried to kill Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks.
WEB PRESENCE: Commented on jihadi YouTube videos; exchanged e-mails with several Islamist radicals.
ARRESTED: October 2009.

Zach Chesser
a.k.a. Abu Talhah al-Amrikee
PLOT: Tried to join Somali militant group Al-Shabab.
WEB PRESENCE: Posted a threat to Trey Parker and Matt Stone on RevolutionMuslim; exchanged e-mails with Anwar al-Awlaki.
ARRESTED: July 2010.

Mohamed Osman Mohamud
PLOT: Attempted to detonate a car bomb at a Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon.
WEB PRESENCE: Submitted articles to online magazines Jihad Recollections and Inspire.
ARRESTED: November 2010.

Samir Khan
WEB PRESENCE: Edits Inspire; founded the blog InshallahShaheed in 2003; posted frequently on RevolutionMuslim.
CURRENT LOCATION: Left U.S. in 2007, at large in Yemen.

The Terrorist Search Engine