Young Analyst Tracks Traffic on Jihadist Web Sites Word of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death spread rapidly among his followers. By early Thursday, Internet chat rooms frequented by Islamist extremists were buzzing. Among those reading along was a young American by the name of Evan Kohlmann, who has become a sought-after expert on the sites.
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Young Analyst Tracks Traffic on Jihadist Web Sites

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Young Analyst Tracks Traffic on Jihadist Web Sites

Young Analyst Tracks Traffic on Jihadist Web Sites

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Word of Zarqawi's death spread rapidly among his followers. By early this morning, the internet chat rooms frequented by Islamist extremists were buzzing. These are web sites where al-Qaida members and sympathizers swap thoughts on everything from which suicide vest works best to which U.S. military base might make a good target.

But today the sites were jammed with responses to the Zarqawi news. Among those reading along was a young American by the name of Evan Kohlmann.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly paid him a visit.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, reporting:

Evan Kohlmann's phone started ringing at three this morning. He didn't bother to answer it until six, when he rolled out of bed and literally into his office, a desk about two feet away. Kohlmann's got three massive computer screens set up and he routes his internet traffic through the Philippines. So anyone online trying to figure out where he is might guess somewhere near Manila.

In fact, we're sitting in his bedroom in Manhattan. And Evan Kohlmann, 27-years-old, munching on cashew nuts, wearing what looks suspiciously like last night's pajamas, doesn't quite fit the image of international terrorism expert.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. EVAN KOHLMANN (International Terrorism Expert): Hello? Hey, Pete, how's it going? Yeah, in Arabic.

KELLY: That's NBC on the phone, asking how to find a particular Jihadi website. This is what Evan Kohlmann does everyday. He tracks the chatter among hardcore extremists. Websites in Arabic, members only, password protected.

One of the most important is al-Hizba. That's where Zarqawi's group had officially weighed in.

Mr. KOHLMANN: This is a communiqué from Zarqawi's organization, the Mu Jahidi and (unintelligible) Council, acknowledging that he has become a martyr and saying that Zarqawi's death is expected. And that behind him there is a new generation of commanders who will rise up and take his place.

KELLY: Within seven minutes, the first response rolls in.

Mr. KOHLMANN: So let's see what they say. The first line says, Allah uh-Akbar, Allah uh-Akbar. God is the greatest, God is the greatest.

KELLY: Kohlmann's Arabic is okay, but not great. So he taps the rest into instant translation software.

Mr. KOHLMANN: "May Allah accept among him the struggling martyrs. He's the agent of God." So you see people are not demoralized here. They're celebrating this.

KELLY: Is there anyway of knowing are these people in Iraq? Are they elsewhere in the Middle East, do we know?

Mr. KOHLMANN: Well, it's impossible to know specifically, but I can tell you that a very large number of the people that use this forum are based in Europe and the Arabian Gulf. When I say the Arabian Gulf, places like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar. And they're following this like Americans follow baseball or the NBA Finals.

KELLY: Evan Kohlmann started snooping around Jihadi websites when he was still in school. He was studying Islam and the Middle East at Georgetown and he got an internship that involved online research. By September 11, he started law school at Penn. He ran out of class that day and never really looked back.

His bedroom/office is a gallery of photos of al-Qaida leaders. Today, he's skimming through the latest postings on Zarqawi.

Mr. KOHLMANN: Oh, my God. Right away, there's now 13 pages of responses.

KELLY: Particularly noteworthy, Kohlmann says, are the other official postings today from Zarqawi's group. These are communiqués detailing recent operations, carjackings, bombings, kidnappings. Kohlmann picks out one claiming credit for a kidnap and notices this was just posted.

Mr. KOHLMANN: This right here was posted at 2:17. So this was posted at least 45 minutes after they already announced the death of Zarqawi. So is this a cry saying, hey listen, we're still here, business as usual? Sure.

KELLY: Kohlmann says Zarqawi was keenly aware he wasn't likely to be around forever. That after he was reportedly nearly killed last year, Zarqawi formally named a number of deputies so that when he death was announced, his successors would already be in place.

Mr. KOHLMANN: So, for instance, this claim of responsibility, it's signed by the deputy commander of al-Qaida. A guy named Abul ab-Dokman al-Iraqi. In other words, an Iraqi, someone who's going to take the reins for Zarqawi after this death.

KELLY: Kohlmann starts skipping around to other sites. Here's a French one where somebody writing under the name Hamburg Cell is explaining everything will be okay despite Zarqawi's death because, "Allah protects his faithful."

By this afternoon, a couple of the big websites are offline. Kohlmann says it's not clear whether somebody shut them down or they crashed, overwhelmed by the sheer number of visitors.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, New York.

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