Terrorism Experts on Parade

by , July 28, 2011

On Friday night and Saturday morning I scanned the newspapers and watched the usual after-the-fact nonsense on television in the wake of the horrific terror attack in Norway. The late edition of Friday’s Wall Street Journal featured a lead editorial blaming “jihadis” for the slaughter, an attack that was, per the editorial writer, launched because Norway is a liberal democracy. Even though it was a plausible turn on the “they hate us because of our freedom” argument, the Journal later expunged the editorial from its website. The New York Times meanwhile was quoting terrorism expert Will McCants, who also was blaming the carnage on Islamic militants, though both he and the Times later recanted. Over at the Washington Post, it was more of the same from the predictable and utterly reliable Zionist “conservative” Jennifer Rubin. Muslims are to blame, look no further.

At Rupert Murdoch’s Fox, blood was in the water and there was a virtual feeding frenzy, with a number of ready-at-hand “terrorologists” quick to pronounce that it was a Muslim deed and probably even linked to al-Qaeda, while the usual band of follow-on experts, including Christian Whiton, expounded for five minutes on the danger of Islamic terrorism even after conceding that the attack was carried out by a Norwegian who described himself as a Christian. Laura Ingraham and Liz Cheney were also quick to denounce the perfidious Muslims on Fox. “How could it be otherwise?” they asked.

On the NBC network on Saturday morning, Lester Holt interviewed a pundit who had been dutifully produced to explain what had occurred. He was Evan Kohlmann, who was described at the bottom of the screen as the network terrorism expert. Kohlmann had done his homework, and he stuck to his script, plausibly describing the likely link of the killer to extremist groups in northern Europe. But then he veered off to pursue his own particular fantasy. He said that the example of a single man killing a large number of people with a rifle and thereby paralyzing an entire country would likely serve as a teaching point for Islamic extremists who would do the same thing, rendering it unnecessary to learn how to make bombs and similar complicated devices. Kohlmann seemed to think that a Muslim could not work out how to buy a gun, aim at a crowd, and shoot it without outside help, or figure out that it is tougher to make a bomb than to pull a trigger.

It was somewhat intriguing that Kohlmann was giving advice on how to carry out a terrorist act, but it also seemed clear that he was trying to turn his narrative to somehow keep the terrorism focus on Islamists, even though it was already evident that they were not involved in any way in the incident. Other pundits followed suit, labeling the tragedy “domestic terrorism” to distinguish it from the Islamic variety. Lost amid all the shucking and jiving was the fact that hatred of Muslims undeniably served to motivate gunman Anders Behring Breivik.

Within the intelligence community and at the Pentagon, Kohlmann, like many of his expert colleagues, is widely considered a phony who has somehow ingratiated himself with those who want an affable young media resource who will say just the right things when it comes to terrorism, keeping the public suitably alarmed while exuding a facile expertise. His credentials and connections, are to say the least, unusual.

Kohlmann has a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University. He is 32 years old and has never worked in law enforcement, intelligence, or the military. Everything he knows about terrorism comes from his apparent obsession with the subject and his research in libraries and, more often, over the Internet. In other words, his actual exposure to terrorism and terrorists is largely academic or derivative in nature, and even there he is essentially self-taught. One observer has noted that “he appears to have risen almost without trace.”

Kohlmann does not have the tools that would normally be required even in the academic world to be considered well-informed. He does not speak or read any of the primary languages, such as Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and Pashto, that relate to the terrorist groups that he focuses on. He has never even traveled to either Iraq or Afghanistan. While he claims to have compiled one of the world’s largest databases on terrorism, it appears to be in languages that he can deal with, meaning most probably English. That means that he is limited to secondary sources written by others when he does his research and analysis, and the material has to be in English or translated from another language into English. Does all of that taken together make him something less than an expert? Well, it depends on how you define that word, but most intelligence professionals would agree that without practical experience, he has no idea at all of counterterrorist operations, possesses no particular insights, and is not worth listening to.

But Kohlmann does have excellent credentials in the agenda-driven, neocon-dominated world of terrorism punditry, and that is what really counts, because association with right-wing or pro-Israel organizations is a sine qua non. He first became involved in studying terrorism during his freshman year at Georgetown University. In 1998, he began an internship with The Investigative Project on Terrorism, a think tank set up by Steve Emerson — a notably Islamophobic journalist who had also become a terrorism expert. Emerson, who also cannot speak any Middle Eastern languages, was one of the first to proclaim that Oklahoma City was an attack by Muslims, without producing any evidence whatsoever, arguing that “inflicting as many casualties as possible is a Middle Eastern trait.” He later claimed that the “U.S. has become occupied fundamentalist territory.” As Alexander Cockburn once observed, Emerson’s “prime role is to whitewash Israeli governments and revile their critics.”

At Emerson’s Investigative Project, Kohlmann was responsible for tracking Maghreb-based militant groups and monitoring websites, which soon became his particular interest despite his lack of any relevant language skills. He began writing articles on terrorism for The Journal of Counterterrorism & Security, one of which was co-authored with yet another comradely terrorism expert, Rita Katz. “Pandering to Terrorists” argued that calling Hezbollah a resistance group is a dangerous misconception because it is actually a terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel and even the entire Western world. Katz, an Israeli Zionist who actually knows Arabic, later set up her own organization called Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE), which cherry-picks information from Arabic-language websites to keep government officials and private clients informed of the terror threat from Muslims.

Kohlmann has written a book, Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network. It postulates that Bosnian Muslims are linked in a worldwide conspiracy with al-Qaeda affiliates in Afghanistan and have successfully introduced the latter into Europe. One critic dryly noted that “Of all the Muslims in the world, Bosnian Muslims are irrefutably the most secularized ones … religion has always had a rather insignificant role in the social life of the Muslims in Bosnia. Given this incontrovertible fact, how can anyone even attempt to link the Muslims of Bosnia to the Muslims in Afghanistan? … Kohlmann bases his argument [that all Muslims were working together across the globe] on the fact that a small number of Mujahedeens arrived in Bosnia in 1992 in order to aid Bosnian Muslims in the war.”

Another critic described how sloppy and poorly edited the book was: “From the get go Mr. Kohlmann is making cardinal mistakes starting from names of the places, and people (even ex Croat president), to the flipping [of] geographical positions of numerous places in the book. Mr. Kohlmann’s writing … is flat out incorrect and far from the truth as one could get.” Kohlmann has also produced a video called The al-Qaida Plan, a documentary sponsored by the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions. It was used as evidence during the Guantanamo trial of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, bin Laden’s chauffeur. The 90-minute video combines film clips showing the evolution of al-Qaeda from its formation in 1988 until the 9/11 attacks, including video of fighters training at a camp and gruesome photos of those killed in the East Africa embassy bombings. The chief prosecutor of the Guantanamo tribunal agreed that the film was prejudicial, which is exactly why it was shown, because it “props up the official government version of events on 9/11 and asserts that there was a coordinated ‘overarching conspiracy’ by operatives of Osama bin Laden to carry out the attacks.”

Kohlmann is also no stranger to the U.S. judicial system. He has frequently appeared in court as an “expert witness” paid for by the prosecution in terrorism cases, never for the defense, something that has been referred to as the “guilty-verdict industry.” This has bolstered his reputation and earnings, but for those unfamiliar with expert witnesses, the term is frequently a misnomer, with the prosecution or defense putting up someone who can plausibly make a case without necessarily possessing any real expertise. Kohlmann has provided testimony in 17 court cases in the United States, plus nine more in Europe. The cases are often “based on charges of conspiracy or supporting a terrorist organization, where the individual’s guilt is established by association … the demand for Kohlmann’s expertise by prosecutors is not surprising … [he] tends to demonize Islamist groups, and to link disparate groups and individuals into an encompassing narrative of international terrorism.”

There have been frequent challenges raised about Kohlmann’s expertise, both regarding his command of the facts and his analysis. A genuine “expert witness” should ideally have publications subjected to peer review or other intimate knowledge of the issue being examined. In one case, Kohlmann was supposed to be an expert on the Bangladeshi Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, but under cross examination “it transpired that he had never written any papers on the party, nor been interviewed about the group. He had never been to Bangladesh, could not name the country’s prime minister nor the name of the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami.” But he was still permitted by the court to be an expert witness.

Fortunately, sometimes a smarter-than-average judge will not be taken in. That actually happened to Kohlmann in London, where a judge downgraded him from expert witness to “fact witness” because a 19-page report produced by him on a Libyan group had clearly been completely researched on the Internet. In short, the judge ruled that Kohlmann had no direct knowledge of terrorism or terrorists relevant to the case.

Kohlmann is just one manifestation of the global war on terror’s big-money expert business. Like many of his colleagues, he is selling a product, and the product is all too often denigrating and targeting Muslims because he knows he will have access to the mainstream media to do so. Why does he do it? Partly because he knows that’s where the money is and partly because it has given him his moment of fame. Andy Warhol said someday everyone would have 15 minutes of fame, and it might be that this is Kohlmann’s time in the sun. Someday perhaps he will regret what he now does for a living, but, for the present, asking him to develop a conscience or a sense of responsibility would likely be to seek too much. In the meantime, he continues to do that which brought him to prominence: playing the role of an expert in order to arouse the same sort of fear in jury and military commission members as well as television viewers as neocon websites incited in the Norwegian terrorist.

Read more by Philip Giraldi