The Lawyer Who Represented Terrorists Heads to Prison, as Unapologetic as Ever
Stanley Cohen in his Lower East Side apartment sporting a kaffiyeh — a symbol of Palestinian independence.
Photo by Celeste Sloman
Mid October, 2014.
Stanley Cohen abruptly stops responding to voicemails. When you dial his cell, you hear the telltale sound of an overseas phone call, followed by a hold message in Arabic.
Cohen is known to friends and foes alike as an eccentric of the highest order, a foul-mouthed criminal-defense attorney with unruly gray hair, a Saddam Hussein-straight-out-of-the-spider-hole beard, and a long history of representing enemies of the people the world over. In a 2002 profile, the Washington Post's Richard Leiby described him as "possibly one of the most hated lawyers in [New York City]." In his Lower East Side apartment, which doubles as his office, he displays photos of himself wearing a wide grin alongside Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder and spiritual leader of the Middle Eastern terrorist organization Hamas. Only weeks ago he wore a black-and-white-checked kaffiyeh for a press conference outside the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan where he'd just unsuccessfully defended Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the highest-ranking Al Qaeda member ever tried in a civilian court.
But going AWOL like this is a puzzling turn of events even by Cohen standards.
He is, after all, awaiting word on when and where to report to federal prison to serve an eighteen-month sentence for tax crimes. Granted, the date has been delayed repeatedly, but what judge in his right mind would allow Stanley Cohen to...disappear?
"Before you go to prison, you know, you have a party, you see your friends," posits one longtime friend of Cohen's. "This is the kind of guy he is."
Others speculate he has turned government informant.
On October 16, Cohen tweets that he's in Kuwait: "No, I have not dropped off of the face of the earth, I am in the ME for a very short but essential trip."
Six months earlier.
Cohen arrives without fanfare at the courthouse in Plattsburgh, off Interstate 87 on the shores of Lake Champhttps://twitter.com/StanleyCohenLawitlain. He has dressed sharply for what will likely be his last trial before heading off to prison — pinstripe suit, hair pulled back in a neat ponytail, beard tamed — but he looks harried as he ducks in a side door.
His client, 85-year-old Ronald Trombly, is on trial for vehicular manslaughter. Tests showed Trombly's blood-alcohol level was just over the legal limit on the spring evening in 2013 when his Buick struck and killed Ashley Poissant, age twenty-seven. A mother of three, Poissant had been out jogging on a rural road just shy of the Canadian border with a friend and the woman's teenage children. Rescue workers had to fish one of her pink Reeboks out of a tree.
Cohen considers this area his home turf, to a certain extent. He says he understands north-country people. Still, as he rises to question the would-be jurors, he seems out of place. Representing a cross-section of far-northeastern New York State, the members of the jury pool all speak with clipped, Canadian-sounding accents. Cohen's brogue is straight out of Port Chester.
In Clinton County, roughly the size of Rhode Island but with a population of only 80,000, the accident was big news, all the more so after a grand jury initially declined to pursue charges against Trombly. Amid the social-media fury that followed, the district attorney took the unusual step of convening a second grand jury. This one handed down an indictment.
The exchange clearly rattles Trombly. He is in poor health and will likely die in prison if convicted. Perhaps noticing the worry on his client's face, Cohen places a hand on the defendant's back and asks quietly if he's OK. Trombly nods, managing a weak smile. Cohen smiles too, then leans back in his chair, crossing his legs and slouching a little, tugging at his beard.
When the elevator door opens onto the Avenue D apartment/office, the lawyer is seated on a brown leather couch, a BlackBerry pressed to his ear, wearing tattered gray sweatpants, a vaguely Middle Eastern-looking tunic, and a pair of imitation-leather Crocs with the straps turned down, which is to say as close to untied as Crocs can get.
With the Trombly case headed for a plea deal by the end of the summer, it's hard not to conclude that Cohen's career is winding down. It has been months since he pleaded guilty in his own case: violating Title 26, Section 7212(a) of the United States Code by "impeding the IRS." It's a catchall charge stemming from a federal probe that revealed Cohen had taken cash payments from some clients, accepted labor in lieu of fees from others, commingled business and personal expenses, and failed to declare large cash transfers — all in order to avoid paying income tax, the government alleged.
The formal conviction, when it comes, will mean the revocation of Cohen's law license. The cadre of bloggers who faithfully rail against him now gleefully append "disgraced attorney" or "tax cheat" to their headlines. Some clients are having second thoughts about keeping him on as counsel.
Cohen simply shrugs.
"I'm busier than ever," he says, and with the wave of a hand proceeds to tick off a list. "I'm in the final draft of an appeal on U.S. v. Amina Ali, which is due August 23. I'm preparing for a trial on a significant drug-and-gun conspiracy in the Northern District of New York sometime in mid- to late September. I currently have a lawsuit against Egypt in the African Union. I'm about to file a lawsuit against Israel in Belgium. I'm still up to my neck in the debate and discussion about whether to go to the International Criminal Court for Palestine. I'm writing a brief on a trial I did in upstate New York in family court; we're writing the sentence memo on Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, and I've probably got another ten federal cases that are in their final stages." He smiles. "So yeah, I'm winding down."
In Cohen's telling, the Trombly prosecution isn't all that different from his standard fare. To him, the narrative isn't about a girl who gets mowed down by a pinch-faced old man who now faces his second DUI-related charge; it's the story of an overzealous prosecutor targeting a frail, unpopular geriatric, and a community in search of a scapegoat.
"Look, I think it sucks that you go after an 85-year-old," he says. "This was an accident. This was a tragedy. No one's a winner.
"He was getting fucked around by a prosecutor who's a political animal," Cohen goes on, one hand resting absently on the head of his chocolate lab, Emma, who lies on the couch beside him. "It was To Kill a Mockingbird without the religious component."
And yeah, he responds a little hesitantly when it's brought up, seemingly unaware he has implied the comparison: He's Atticus.
Scan a list of Stanley Cohen's past clients and you might get the sense he's deliberately trying to piss people off.
In 1986 he briefly represented Larry Davis, a Bronx drug dealer accused of shooting six NYPD officers. In 1990 it was separatist Mohawk Indians who'd seized disputed land and a major bridge in Quebec, killing a cop in the ensuing standoff. Then came the 13th Street squatters, who occupied swaths of the Lower East Side and did battle with police sent to evict them. Cohen has advised and occasionally represented the political leadership of the militant Palestinian organization Hamas for nearly twenty years. More recently he defended the group known as the PayPal 14, a faction of Anonymous that launched a cyberattack on the e-commerce site in support of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Interspersed with these cases flowed a steady stream of run-of-the-mill criminals and lower-profile terrorism defendants: In 2003 Cohen defended a group of North Carolina men accused of smuggling cigarettes as part of a funding scheme for Hezbollah; in 2013 it was two young men from New Jersey who tried to go to Somalia and join Al-Shabaab.
Cohen applies a two-stage litmus test before taking on a case: a personal affinity for the client and a genuine belief in his or her cause. He has represented Hamas not because he believes in the right to due process but because he likes Hamas. He's a fan. An advocate, even. He makes no apologies.
"I have never hidden from anyone that I one hundred percent support Hamas. I think it's the nightmare of our generation, what's going on in Palestine," Cohen says.
His disdain is deep, wide, and nonpartisan. He's no fan of Republicans, but ask him what he thinks of Barack Obama (whom he invariably refers to as "I Have a Drone") and he'll tell you, "I despise him. I think Nixon was a more honorable person than him. I think his life has been one big huge fraud. I think he's a bean counter. I think he's been concocted. That he's a creation of the people that sell us American democracy."
Cohen often speaks in complete paragraphs, in a shrill New York tenor that makes "huge" come out yooj. The hardest part is knowing when to close quotes. "I think his politics are as repressive and reactionary, and as dangerous and damning, as anyone we've ever had."
Is there a president Cohen did support? you might ask. "I liked Abe Lincoln," he deadpans. "Though I disagreed with him at times."
An artist's rendering of Cohen during the federal trial of Al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith late last year
September 23 is brisk but warmed by a bright sun, and en route home from court Cohen pokes a camel-overcoated elbow out the lowered driver's-side window of his beat-up Land Rover. With his eyes focused on the road, his head tilts forward and his enormous beard perches on his chest like a tomcat. He should be in prison by now, but he has been able to delay the process because he has cases that are still active.
He's cheerful and punchy, despite having just lost one of the biggest cases of his career. At this very moment, his client, Abu Ghaith, is being escorted out of the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan in a blue jumpsuit and shackles, having just been sentenced to life in prison.
Most Americans first saw Abu Ghaith a few weeks after September 11, 2001, clad in a brown robe, seated next to the man who would later become his father-in-law, Osama bin Laden, on a stone outcropping high in the Afghan mountains. Speaking in Arabic, Abu Ghaith threatened more violence: a "storm of airplanes," as he put it. In the years after the terrorist attacks that left a layer of dust on the street Cohen is driving on, the Kuwaiti-born cleric served as Al Qaeda's chief spokesman.
A federal jury has convicted Abu Ghaith of conspiring to kill Americans and providing material support to terrorists after prosecutors successfully argued that his videotaped speeches, delivered while seated quite literally at the right hand of bin Laden, attracted recruits to Al Qaeda's cause. His oratorical skills, the government alleged, were as effective as a bomb.
Cohen doesn't dispute Abu Ghaith's role as a mouthpiece. But he maintains that the cleric is guilty only of incendiary speech, and that people should not be punished for their words. (He was the equivalent of a "shock jock," Cohen contends — an agitator and nothing more.) He also believes the government had no interest in a fair trial, given the high stakes established by the Obama administration's decision to hold the proceeding in federal court rather than at a military tribunal such as those the Bush administration convened after 9-11. The court denied the defense team access to some witnesses, citing national-security concerns, and Cohen suspects the government endeavored to make overseas travel difficult. "This was a nice, clean, pure political showcase that they did not want any problems with," he claims, adding that he's already planning an appeal.
"There are certainly a lot of issues," he muses, driving cautiously, coddling the gas pedal. "The nature and extent of surveillance of defense teams is an issue. We know for a fact that the State Department tried to prevent us from going to Yemen. We spent four months trying to get a visa to go to Mauritania to see a major Al Qaeda guy, and they kept jerking us around, jerking us around, jerking us around, jerking us around." He shakes his head. "Three weeks after the trial was over, it was granted.
"At the end of the day, it's all speech," Cohen sums up, hands at precisely ten and two. "It's all words!" He looses one hand from the wheel and gestures. "It's like, 'Fuck you! In your face!' Like, 'I'm going to mess with you, I'm going to drive you nuts.' The guy sat down next to bin Laden, and he said, 'Fuck you.' "
He trails off.
"Where am I gonna park illegally, is the other question."
Cohen was thirty by the time he graduated Pace University School of Law and got a job doing grunt work for the Legal Aid Society. His supervisor at the time remembers Cohen as a standout even then, "one of the most hardworking and talented attorneys that we had." (Though he describes himself as a longtime friend, the former supervisor spoke on the condition that the Voice not publish his name, given his prominence in New York legal circles.)
Despite the quotidian monotony of post-law-school toils, Cohen had brushes with the sorts of cases that would come to define his career. 1986 saw his representing Davis, the Bronx drug dealer, who became something of a folk hero when he managed to slip past twenty-seven officers surrounding his hideout. Captured after a multi-state manhunt, he later won acquittal.
Four years later, Cohen came to the aid of a group of Native activists who seized control of a bridge and several thoroughfares near the town of Oka, just west of Montreal. The Oka Crisis, as it came to be known, escalated into an armed standoff that lasted more than two months, during which one police officer was killed and the Canadian Army was called in. The conflict stemmed from a decision by the city to expand a local private golf course onto land claimed by the Mohawk tribe that included a tribal burial ground.
The crisis prompted sympathetic protests across Canada and racist outbursts in surrounding towns. A quarter-century later it is widely seen as a turning point in the nation's Native-rights movement. Cohen himself was arrested at its conclusion, along with many of the activists, but the charges — seditious conspiracy — were later dropped.
A white New York City lawyer would seem an unlikely choice to help a separatist tribe, but documentary footage shows Cohen in front of several army tanks, clad in proto-hipster skinny jeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt bearing a quote from Shakespeare's Henry VI: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
"We were suspicious of him at first," says Minnie Garrow, a Mohawk who was involved in the Oka occupation. "We didn't know who he was. But he showed up, we talked to him, and people eventually trusted that he was sincere."
In the mid 1990s Cohen got involved in the squatters'-rights movement, when the NYPD cracked down on artist collectives living in vacant Lower East Side buildings. (That's where he met his longtime assistant Peter Spagnuolo, a poet and writer who was one of the squatters on 13th Street, where a climactic face-off took place with police.)
In more recent years Cohen has become something of a star on Twitter (@StanleyCohenLaw), where he interacts tirelessly with his 18,000-plus followers and regularly receives a dozen or more heartfelt messages of support in a day.
Mercedes Haefer, a defendant in the PayPal 14 case, says he has earned friends partly by being available. He'll offer legal tips and informal advice on Twitter at all hours. "I've seen T-shirts with Stanley Cohen's face on them," Haefer says. "You say 'Stanley,' and everyone knows who 'Stanley' is, everyone knows exactly which Stanley you're talking about."
Haefer, who at age 23 has become like a surrogate daughter to Cohen, relates how he quietly sent a few hundred dollars to her fellow defendant Josh Covelli to cover veterinary bills Covelli couldn't afford to pay. It's something neither Cohen nor Covelli ever mentioned. (Asked later about the donation, Cohen scoffs sarcastically, "It's probably a violation of the tax code.")
Ahmed Yousef, a prominent voice in Hamas nearly since its inception, has known Cohen since the mid Nineties, when the lawyer was retained to represent Mousa Abu Marzook. Speaking via Skype, Yousef admits that he and the Hamas leadership were skeptical that a longhaired Jewish attorney from New York was the best choice for the job.
"No, I didn't know if this guy will be the one who can handle the case or not," Yousef remembers, citing Cohen's eccentric personal style and the fact that he essentially worked out of his home. There wasn't a secretary in sight. The setup "was not elegant in the way we are accustomed to," as Yousef puts it.
But the Palestinians knew they needed someone who understood the American judicial system and the political nature of Abu Marzook's case. And on those counts, Cohen came highly recommended. "We had heard from the Arab Americans that he was a serious man, dedicated, and someone who handled cases for oppressed people across the world," Yousef recalls. (Cohen's work with the Mohawks, it seems, had not gone unnoticed.)
"He's not, to us, a lawyer, and not a politician," Yousef says. "He's an intellectual."
Cohen's Jewish background doesn't hurt either, Yousef admits. "He's a Jewish guy and he's an American. He can say something that we cannot say without being accused of anti-Semitism."
Click to enlarge.
Photo by Celeste Sloman
Cohen was born in Port Chester, a working-class suburb about thirty miles northeast of Manhattan off I-95. His mother, Sylvia, was a bookkeeper; his father, Irving, a door-to-door salesman. ("He was Willy Loman," Cohen says.) His older brother Joseph is now a Baptist preacher; Cohen says the two rarely speak.
"I went from one of the top four or five students in my class to flunking just about every course my senior year and having to go to summer school to graduate," Cohen recalls of his high school career. It was the late Sixties, he explains, and he was caught up in "music, drugs, and girls." He shrugs. "And revolution."
Cohen was raised in an Orthodox household, and his views on Israel didn't comport with those of his family. While serving in the Army, Irving Cohen had liberated Nazi death camps, cradling "fifty-pound skeletons" in his arms. Cohen, who narrates the story with patent admiration, believes the experience colored his father's views on the establishment of an Israeli state: For Irving Cohen, Israel was an answer to a horror.
"I always thought I was much closer to my mother," he goes on. "But the older I get, the closer I end up being to my father."
How so? Another shrug.
"Well, she had a big mouth. She was a fighter, she was a yeller. She was a letter-writer. She didn't suffer fools easily. And my father was, you know, quiet. But he was very strong and stoic in his fundamental beliefs. Which has been pretty much the linchpin of my adult life, I think it's fair to say."
Another linchpin has been Joni White, a Mohawk painter and sculptor whose work covers the walls of Cohen's apartment. The two met in the Nineties when he was working closely with the tribe. He was forty-three, she twenty-one. They never married, but refer to each other as husband and wife. She doesn't care for interviews — she prefers to stay out of the spotlight his work tends to attract, Cohen says — and though the two live together, they're often separated. "She has her life, I have mine," Cohen says.
Shortly after 9-11, Cohen was quoted saying he'd defend Osama bin Laden if such a thing were ever asked of him. The Jewish Defense Organization, a radical Zionist group, retorted, declaring him a "self-hating Jew" and a "traitor," both to America and Israel. Cohen says he received death threats that he regarded as sufficiently credible to report to the FBI.
Though Cohen often speaks in absolutes, he bridles at any suggestion that he's a moral relativist. He'll defend suicide bombings, for example, but pressed about whether he supports the killing of civilians, he responds in an exasperated trill that of course he's not saying it's OK to kill noncombatants. It's obviously a crime to kill innocents. But Israeli citizens, he argues, are combatants. Virtually every Israeli citizen, he points out, is a reserve member of the Israeli Defense Forces, the IDF (Cohen often refers to them as the IOF — the Israeli Occupation Forces): What's the difference between an attack on a bus that might claim collateral damage, and an Israeli missile, nominally aimed at armed militants, that does the same? A distant cousin of his was killed in a suicide bombing, he says. He regards such tragedies as the unavoidable costs of war.
"He's a hateful human being," says prominent civil-liberties attorney and fellow New Yorker Alan Dershowitz, no stranger himself to unpopular causes: Dershowitz famously defended the right of a group of neo-Nazis to march through a primarily Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois, in the mid 1970s. Still, he's no fan of Cohen. "He's not a human-rights lawyer — don't confuse him with people like me. This guy will only essentially defend people who hate Jews, hate Israel, and who support Hamas and those causes. I don't see any difference between him and a very dedicated and determined Ku Klux Klan lawyer. He's just a 'cause' lawyer. And his cause is a very bad one."
Dershowitz, who has been critical of some Israeli policies, sees a huge distinction between opposing Zionism or the Israeli state and supporting groups such as Hamas that employ virulently anti-Semitic rhetoric and back it with violence. "Supporting groups like Hamas or Hezbollah simply defies rationality," Dershowitz argues.
A screen-grab of the "Haters" section from Cohen's website
Cohen takes no small amount of glee at the anger he arouses in his critics. His website, istanleycohen.org, includes a section called "Haters" adorned with a Photoshopped image of him with elephantiasis of the testicles, along with the caption, "A Jew with a Nutsack Swollen with Anti-Jewish, Anti-Israel and Anti-American Venom!" The "self-hating Jew" appellation (which he calls "childish crap") he includes in his Twitter bio (enclosed in quotation marks along with "Antizionist" and "beard aficionado"). While he's not religious, Cohen says he identifies strongly with Jewish tradition and resents the idea that his relationship to his own culture might be defined by his stance on what he describes as a "predatory" political movement.
"Look, I had a bar mitzvah, I went to Hebrew school," Cohen says. "My position is: Judaism is fifty-six-hundred fucking years old. Zionism is a hundred and ten years old. What was Judaism, a fucking fraternity waiting to be rushed and discovered by Zionism? Zionism is a political movement. It's the Tea Party."
Cohen's less strident critics say he gives dangerous voice to terrorists. FrontPage magazine called him and one of his clients, writer and activist Mona Eltahawy, "a pair of jihad defenders" who "personify the proverbial match made in heaven...or hell." (Cohen has that one on his website too.)
Cohen draws a strong distinction between Hamas — designated a terrorist organization by U.S. authorities, but also the elected government in Gaza — and cross-national organizations such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the radicalized rebel group better known as ISIS.
ISIS clearly worries Cohen.
"I think the U.S. government would love bin Laden to be alive right now. I think bin Laden is probably the only person in world, if he were alive, who could start to rein in this ISIS," Cohen says, spitting the name as if it were an obscenity. "They've got problems now. They never had problems like this with Al Qaeda. And there's no one out there that has the charisma, that has the position, that has the presence in the Islamic world to deal with ISIS right now."
He sighs and shakes his head. "You've got a quarter of a million guys running around, just fighting anyone anywhere, with no rules, with no central leadership. Who else but ISIS would end up uniting the U.S. and Hezbollah? Oh, it is a difficult time.
"I understand that [Hamas is] a designated foreign terrorist organization," he goes on. "I think they're freedom fighters. The U.S. government considered Nelson Mandela a terrorist for thirty years. I mean, you know, fuck them with their designations!"
Cohen is insistent that his political views are what prompted the charges against him. Any tax-law violations were inadvertent, he says, and he only pleaded guilty to put an end to an investigation that had gone on for more than two years, putting a strain on his career and his private life.
He says he never took "a dime" for his work on behalf of Hamas. Garrow, the Mohawk activist, says he never asked for payment during the Oka Crisis. He represented the PayPal 14 pro bono, too. He has done a steady, though diminishing, business in and around the Mohawk territories ever since Oka. There's plenty of paying defense work to be found: Thanks to a tricky jurisdictional situation and vast stretches of open terrain, the area has been a cross-border smuggling hot spot for decades, and Cohen has represented more than a few drug defendants. He was also paid for his work on the Abu Ghaith trial, he says, through the cleric's family back in Kuwait, and he was paid for the Trombly case as well. He also says that, in his line of work, taking payments in cash just isn't that unusual, a fact several attorneys in similar circles confirm. (Of course, not reporting those payments is unusual.)
Many who know him don't doubt his sincere concern for poor clients, his generosity, or the fact that his finances are probably a mess. (He certainly isn't given to extravagance: He appears to own two suits, at most.)
And he isn't above bowing the virtual violin when it comes to his financial straits.
He appealed to supporters for donations to his defense fund in the IRS case, claiming he'd racked up more than $600,000 in legal fees. (He says he collected about $10,000 in contributions.) And this past fall he tweeted that "it's not easy to impede the IRS code, especially when other than a cabin in the woods you have nothing."
Court files indicate that over the past decade, Cohen was pulling down about $500,000 a year. Most articles about him note that his apartment is an enviable space, with high ceilings and exposed beams and brick. And his "cabin in the woods" is a 2,200-square-foot home near a picturesque lake in Sullivan County, complete with beautiful landscaping and stonework.* It's not a mansion, but nor is it a shack.
Cohen insists that few lawyers would be in the financial situation he is after thirty years of practicing law. Much of his income, he points out, goes toward covering expenses. He says he has no savings and has in fact accreted significant debt defending the case against him. He acknowledges that he's not going hungry and says he isn't trying to mislead anyone. And everyone who owns a place up north calls it a "cabin."
He characterizes the charges as a fallback for a Department of Justice that would have liked to see him do time for other transgressions. If they have a problem with the clients he works for, he says, "Indict me for it! Not some bullshit tax shit!"
Adds Cohen: "There was absolutely no intent to impede the IRS. I don't give a fuck about the IRS. My problem is I'm a terrible businessman. Ninety percent of what they said I did, I didn't do, or I did for completely benign reasons. Ten percent of what they said I did, I did and I didn't give a shit about. You make a decision, in the long run, about what's in your best interest, and in your family's interest."
For all the rhetoric, Cohen's anger is nearly always tempered with a laugh or a smile, an impish, grinning combativeness that prevents him from coming off as a boor (or a bore). And for all the bluster, there's the occasional glimpse of vulnerability. In nearly five hours of interviews, the only question he ducks is a straightforward one: Why has he never had children?
"I never really thought about it," he says, and tries to change the subject.
Cohen at home before heading to prison. "He's not, to us, a lawyer, and not a politician," says Hamas adviser Ahmed Yousef. "He's an intellectual."
Photo by Celeste Sloman
December 8, 2014.
"I suspect within two weeks there will be 1 if not 2 congressional hearings that will cripple this administration's foreign policy," Stanley Cohen posts on Twitter.
Two days later: "I wish it were Friday or Monday. The Guardian will, shall we say, cause [Obama] some sleep deprivation."
December 14: "So in mid October I 'disappeared' for several weeks in the ME. Read about it tomorrow in the Guardian. US foreign policy doesn't exist at all."
On December 19, the Guardian published an 8,000-word article about Cohen's Middle East adventure.
The story, written by Shiv Malik, Ali Younes, Spencer Ackerman, and Mustafa Khalili, reads like a thriller.
In October 2013 ISIS rebels in Syria had kidnapped an American relief worker named Peter Kassig, whom they were now threatening to execute in the same manner they'd killed a number of captives before him: beheading them and releasing a video depicting the act via social media.
In early October of 2014, Cohen received a call from Palestinian activists who knew Kassig from the time he'd spent working in a refugee camp in Lebanon. They knew his days were numbered, and they hoped the New York lawyer could help. Though reluctant at first, Cohen had a change of heart after reading articles about Kassig, who had converted to Islam after his capture and changed his name to Abdul-Rahman.
Cohen's plan to secure the 26-year-old American's release hinged on two clerics: Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, an influential Jordanian long associated with Al Qaeda; and Turki al-Binali, a Kuwaiti who has emerged as the primary spiritual force behind ISIS. The two have a long history — Binali is a former pupil of Maqdisi's — but have been estranged in recent years. Maqdisi and many of the world's older, more established jihadi thinkers have been increasingly critical of ISIS, on theological and strategic grounds. It might seem like internecine quibbling, but the schism has been significant.
Based in Kuwait, Cohen's Al Qaeda contacts — a product of his work with Abu Ghaith — believed the only plausible way to get to ISIS was through Maqdisi. If Maqdisi could persuade his former student to spare Abdul-Rahman's life, Binali had the leverage to make it happen.
Maqdisi agreed to meet Cohen at the latter's hotel, and the two hashed out a plan that was acceptable to both. Maqdisi believed murdering aid workers, journalists, and, crucially, Muslims was both contrary to scripture and counterproductive to the goals of militant Islam. He would reach out to his former student and try to repair their rift, he told Cohen, for Abdul-Rahman's sake and for the movement's.
It soon became clear, however, that the talks would not be limited to Abdul-Rahman's predicament. Maqdisi, to Cohen's surprise, intended to hammer out a broader reconciliation between the religious figures behind Al Qaeda and ISIS. Such a deal would have serious implications. The scholars associated with Al Qaeda have global reach and far more credibility among jihadis than the clerics associated with ISIS. To the extent that the established religious hierarchy is able to act as a theological check on the perceived legitimacy of the Islamic State, greater comity between the two groups could strengthen both.
(Asked if he'd welcome a thawing of relations between the two terrorist groups, Cohen indignantly deflects the question, asking, "What if [Abdul-Rahman] was your brother?" He later acknowledges the possibility that bigger things may have been brewing between the groups and that Maqdisi might have considered him to be a useful foil.)
Owing to a recent conviction on terrorism charges in his home country for which he'd served a five-year sentence, Maqdisi was barred from making contact with militant groups, which meant that reaching out to ISIS could land him back in prison. If he were to contact Binali, then, at the very least Maqdisi would need tacit permission from the Jordanian government.
Jordan is a close U.S. ally, and Cohen thought his FBI contacts could smooth the way. After some initial hesitation, he got what he took to be assurances from a member of the FBI's counterterrorism unit. (Cohen shared with the Voice an email in which an FBI agent suggests Maqdisi could safely get in touch with Binali, free of Jordanian interference. "Was just told by my coworker in the country you're in the call is a go," the U.S.-based agent wrote after contacting a colleague stationed in Jordan.)
From Cohen's hotel on October 23, Maqdisi used the messaging service WhatsApp to make contact with Binali. It was a slow process: The two had personal differences to patch up before moving on.
Having put the men together, all Cohen could do was wait. He spent much of his time in the hotel, hoping his BlackBerry would buzz. He also did something he's not very proud of.
"I was changing stations, and I saw Morgan Freeman," he recalls gravely. It was The Magic of Belle Isle, in which Freeman stars as a cranky alcoholic novelist with writer's block who finds a new lease on life in a small town.
Cohen loves Morgan Freeman. But he'd sworn off the actor's films last year after Freeman accepted an award from Israel's Hebrew University, earning the ire of Palestinian activists. So he changed the channel out of principle.
But it had been a stressful few weeks. There was nothing else but dreck on. He switched the channel back.
"I said, 'I'm giving myself dispensation today,' " Cohen says. "I swore my interpreter to secrecy. I felt terribly guilty."
A few days later, as Maqdisi was making slow progress with Binali, Cohen's Al Qaeda contacts summoned him to Kuwait City for more talks. It was there, at the palatial Jumeira Beach Hotel resort, that he received bad news: Maqdisi had been arrested.
Officially, the arrest had nothing to do with Abdul-Rahman: Jordanian police had taken Maqdisi into custody on a charge of incitement that reportedly stemmed from an internet posting released months before. But Cohen believes the timing was no coincidence. He speculates that someone — maybe the Americans, maybe the Jordanians — didn't want to see Al Qaeda and ISIS mend fences, regardless of the consequences for Abdul-Rahman. Some participants in the negotiations suspected the outsider from New York had set them up. Desperate, Cohen asked if the FBI could get Maqdisi released and save the talks. In an email dated November 10, his contact at the bureau wrote that there was nothing the FBI could do. "Given the current activities there and the number of people being taken into custody," the agent wrote, "it doesn't look like the US will have much influence."
Six days later, Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig was dead.
December 20, 2014.
Cohen's apartment is packed up. Boxes are stacked in rows, and most of the artwork has been wrapped in plastic, ready to be carted away. A dozen large, lush potted plants have been pushed together near a window.
Cohen insists he isn't worried about what comes next. In sixteen days he'll report to the federal penitentiary in Canaan Township, Pennsylvania, about twenty-five miles northeast of Scranton. The biblical land of Canaan corresponds roughly with present-day Israel and Palestine, but if the coincidence strikes Cohen as ironic, he isn't letting on; when he announced his assignment — and his prisoner number, 19846-052 — he misspelled the name of the facility as "Cannan."
Eighteen months translates to a year with good time, and early release would put Cohen in a halfway house. Realistically, he'll be in for about nine months, he figures, if he behaves himself. He is a little worried about that, though — he's not used to taking orders, and there will be a lot of that.
Despite his hopes, the prior day's Guardian article has proven anticlimactic. He was expecting a scandal — a congressional investigation, the whole nine yards. But after a spate of news coverage, most of it outside of the mainstream media, the furor quickly dissipated. As he sits in his nearly empty apartment in his pinstripe suit — he'd dressed formally, expecting TV cameras — he seems deflated. He is also pained by Abdul-Rahman's death.
"It's a shame the way it ended. It really sucked," he says. His other dog, a miniature dachshund named George, lies belly-up on his lap, head lolling. "It was working according to plan. And then it just crashed to shit." He shakes his head. "Crashed to shit."
Cohen says he has been hearing from supporters. Someone has started a petition at MoveOn.org, destined for the White House, asking for a pardon for his crimes (767 signatures at press time).
Cohen says he isn't expecting a pardon. He's not afraid to go to prison. He'll miss his wife, he'll miss his dogs. He'll miss the work. But he intends to keep busy. Plenty of inmates need legal advice. He has long wanted to write a book about his life, and there's bound to be time for that now. He has been to prison dozens of times — to visit clients, he points out, not acknowledging the vastly different circumstances. He also hints, with a mischievous grin, that he could have avoided it: Several countries offered him political asylum. What countries? Cohen isn't telling, at least not right now. "Read it in the book," he says.
"People will come to see me. Some people will, some won't. Some will write, some won't. There'll be emails. There'll be this, there'll be that."
He pauses. "Better at sixty-four than thirty-five."
A week later, Cohen's Lower East Side apartment is vacant. He has temporarily relocated to Clinton County. At two o'clock on the afternoon of January 6, he'll turn himself in at Canaan. For now, though, he's on Twitter, fielding messages from his followers. At about nine o'clock he seems to let his guard down.
"So I am sitting in the mountains surrounded by all the plants I brought from NYC, with both dogs snoring and time running short," he types.
Correction published 1/7/15: Owing to a reporting error, the original version of this article stated that Stanley Cohen owns a house in Clinton County. Cohen's house is in Sullivan County. The above version reflects the corrected text.
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