The prosecution’s terrorism expert witness doesn’t speak Arabic, hasn’t done much field research and wasn’t too forthcoming about his organization’s connections to the pro-Israel lobby. So what’s his insight into Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and is it accurate? Lara Turner examines the testimony.
Expecting a terrorism expert to have done vast amounts of field research in the Middle East to understand Islam and/or Middle Eastern history, and to at least speak Arabic should be a no-brainer.
But when Matthew Levitt took the stand to testify in the case of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev this week, few of those expectations were met.
Levitt, a Ph.D. who heads the Counterterrorism and Intelligence Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), is among a small group of “terrorism experts” who earn their living – $450 an hour in this case – by testifying in high-profile terrorism cases.
While Levitt told the court that the WINEP is a non-partisan organization, his description of it failed to mention that it is a conservative think tank founded by members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to provide terrorism research that was “friendly to Israel.”
Former employees acknowledge that WINEP was to be AIPAC’s cutout. “It was funded by AIPAC donors, staffed by AIPAC employees, and located one door away, down the hall, from AIPAC Headquarters.”
In his career as a government expert witness, Levitt has primarily testified about Hamas and how it is funded. He has written several books, papers and articles also stressing this connection.
While he is labeled a “terrorism expert” as a result of these writings and his work with WINEP, he has done very little field research, mainly because he cannot speak Arabic or Russian. He is also not an expert on Russia, Dagestan or Chechnya, Tsarnaev’s homeland and a region in the former Soviet Union battling its own issues with terrorism and wars with Russia.
Connecting Everything to Jihad
In fact, former CIA officer Robert Baer once likened Levitt’s Arabic language deficiency to “being an expert on China and not speaking Mandarin.” Hilariously, Levitt’s WINEP page is available in Arabic.
But, over the course of the past two days, Levitt took the jury on a journey through Tsarnaev’s tweets, music, reading material and the infamous boat note, connecting nearly all of the items shown to him by prosecutors to Islamic Jihad, including a Muslim flag with the Shahada prayer inscribed on it.
Defense attorney David Bruck, however, challenged him on this assertion showing that at least one tweet and some of the writings in the boat were actually scripture from the Qur’an and not radical material. He also pointed to Levitt’s highly-lucrative appearance that should net the “expert” several thousands of dollars.
In short, the defense painted Levitt as an opportunistic ideologue hired only to testify to the government’s line and not because he has much real background in the study of terrorism from all sides of the issue.