The War on Terror's professional witness
Evan Kohlmann does the rounds
Analysis The recent conviction of Mohammed Atif Siddique on terror charges highlighted the role of globetrotting professional witness Evan Kohlmann. Defenders in the US and UK have come to recognize him as a figure brought in to furnish opinions which are only of use to prosecutions in the frightening of juries. Kohlmann was also tapped by New Scotland Yard and the Crown in the well known case which resulted in the recent conviction of al-Qaeda's super-cyber 007, Younis Tsouli.
For the past couple of years, Kohlmann has been reasonably ubiquitous in US news reports on terrorism. By example, after the alleged London ricin gang was found not to be an al-Qaeda gang by jury, Kohlmann told Newsweek magazine, "These are dangerous people who are followers of [Hook] Hamza."
Donald Findlay QC, defending for Siddique, said at trial: "Instead of being brought from the US to be put in the witness box, [Kohlmann] should have been put in the dock." This was in apparent reference to Kohlmann's website, Globalterroralert, which had digital video collected from the web "such as the beheading of a US hostage", which was "[the] most horrific ever shown to a jury" according to The Scotsman newspaper.
Paradoxically, Siddique was sent over for possessing digital materials collected from the web and associated in court as preparations for martyrdom in the cause of global terror. He was also convicted on charges of "setting up websites with links to terrorist publications which showed how to use weapons and make bombs".
It's worth pointing out the obvious in that depending on your point of view, websites of anyone explaining the details of terror cases and/or publishing accompanying terror documents can fit this rather loose categorisation. It's a catch-all that would seem to guarantee conviction for any Muslim found to have even the most penny-ante collections of jihadi fulmination from the web on the computer in the bedroom.
In terror cases such as Siddique's, as well as others, the strategy is to have the prosecution or professional witness recite fearsome quotations from documents gathered off the internet and owned by those in the dock. One source familiar with the practice but who must remain anonymous commented earlier in the year, rather perceptively, that writing about "murdering and pillaging [those] who don't share your faith is the scheme of some old villains". And such villains include authors of the Old Testament as well as the Koran.
In Kohlmann's hot wash-up on the Siddique trial he dubs Siddique's digital collection an "encyclopedia of terrorist knowledge". Then follows a blizzard of names, none connected with Siddique, but authors writing about jihad whose works have been distributed throughout the net and that were found in Siddique's possession.
However, it does not appear to stand apart from the standard jihadi cant one has become accustomed to reading in newspapers.
“Martyrdom or self-sacrifice operations are those performed by one or more people, against enemies far exceeding them in numbers and equipment, with prior knowledge that the operations will almost inevitably lead to death," begins one unexceptional excerpt. A partial transcript from a jihadi video is also furnished. "We ask Allah to create severe pain and damage amongst the ranks of the Americans, the infidels, and those who ally with them... by Allah, nothing will elevate [Islam], nothing will bring it honor except for Jihad in the Path of Allah... Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!" - conveys the general gist of it.
Speaking practically, using these in absence of physical evidence like explosives and their ingredients or other weapons now appears sufficient to convince that the owner must be a bomber who has been intercepted in the nick of time.
In the US, defenders have tried to have Kohlmann barred from presenting testimony, with poor results.
Marvin Miller, a Virginia attorney who was unsuccessful in getting Kohlmann eliminated from one terror case, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in late 2006 that "He gives an argument to scare the jury about terror and fear". For another newspaper, Miller opined that Kohlmann furnished "good propaganda. He runs off at the mouth and a lot of judges won't control him the way they will other witnesses."
Nevertheless, Miller's client, Ali Chandia, was convicted in 2005 of providing material support to terrorism in a group of convictions which came to be known as cases involving the Virginia Paintball Gang, so named because according to the government, the defendant and others trained to attack American troops by playing it in the VA countryside.
According to a search of Lexis - an inexact and sometimes peevish database of newspaper articles - between 2003 and late 2006 Kohlmann testified in five US terror trials, all wins for prosecution. Various newspaper articles reported Kohlmann earning from $10,000 to $15,000 per case. In the UK, the Crown is thought to pay him over $300/hour plus expenses.
In one case in Albany, NY, for which he was paid $5,000, Kohlmann was deposed by defense attorney Kevin Luibrand.
In the trial of Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, prosecutors wanted Kohlmann to comment on a political group - Jamaat e-Islami Bangladesh (JEB)- said to be embraced by one defendant, in one brief surveillance transcript.
Luibrand deposed Kohlmann prior to the trial with the aim of showing the witness to not be an expert. Although the motion to preclude the witness was unsuccessful, Kohlmann stumbled through Luibrand's questions, at points answering "don't know" to quite a few inquiries on the nature of groups and political parties in Bangladesh. It is a slightly complicated bit of business and so the transcripts are furnished in original .pdfs. (1, 2, 3)
Former imam Aref and pizza shop owner Hossain were convicted anyway, in a case which was built upon an FBI sting operation; they were lured into a money-laundering operation/fake terror plot said to be for the financing of the sale of a shoulder-fired missile for the killing of a Pakistani diplomat in New York. The case remains in the news because of its dodgy nature, and has been viewed by many as entrapment served by the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program. Aref's lawyers argue he was denied due process and a fair trial, and that US government secret arguments given only to the judge and prosecution abridged both. ®
George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighborhood hardware stores.