As he prepares to go to prison, Stanley L. Cohen is packing up and moving out of the spacious loft on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he plotted legal defenses for members of some of the world’s most notorious terrorist groups.
Stacked one atop another on the wood pallet floors, a jumble of packed boxes fills the apartment, which is also his home. His well-cared-for large plants take up much of the rest of the space.
Cohen, who faces an 18-month stint behind bars for obstructing and impeding the Internal Revenue Service, should be settling in now for his last few weeks of freedom. But instead, he is recovering from and reflecting on the tragic meaning of a long, strange trip abroad that he took in October. Astonishingly, even as the government prepared to jail him, it supported the radical lawyer in a tangled — and ultimately failed — foray to the Middle East to negotiate the release of American aid worker Peter Kassig from Islamic State militants. To Cohen’s despair, ISIS, the brutal force now in control of large swaths of Syria and Iraq, beheaded Kassig on November 16.
But neither jail nor what he calls the government’s bungling of the Kassig talks is the center of Cohen’s focus just now — it’s Lower East Side gentrification.
“Look at that building going up next door,” he said, shaking a fist at the 11-story high-rise under construction just outside his south-facing window. “Everything’s crowding in. There’s no more light in here!”
This, not prison, is what is driving Cohen out of the neighborhood and from the Avenue D apartment he has leased for the past 10 years. Cohen has rented the loft space from a Brooklyn-based Palestinian family affiliated with Fatah, the Palestine Liberation Organization faction, at below-market rates and no rent increases during this time in return for legal work he did for them. After finishing his sentence, the controversial 62-year-old-lawyer, who has defended members of Hamas and Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, among a rogue’s gallery of clients, plans to relocate to his Catskills country home.
But that’s just short term. Cohen, who views the successful prosecution against him as having been drummed up for political reasons, plans to decamp eventually to Europe or the Middle East to join an international law firm as “a consultant/litigator.” He also hopes to teach part time.
His political enemies may see that as a victory of sorts. Cohen is famous, or infamous for some, not just for taking on controversial clients, but also for doing so because he feels a personal or political affinity for the accused. Besides Hamas, the Islamist militant group with a record of attacks on Israel targeting civilians, those cases have included activists from Peru’s Shining Path, the Weather Underground, the Irish Republican Army and the American Indian Movement.
But it is the failed effort to free Kassig that people are calling about as Cohen vacates his loft.
As detailed by the British newspaper the Guardian on December 18, just months before sending him to prison, the U.S. government approved and supported a mission sending Cohen to Kuwait and Jordan to negotiate with jihadists close to ISIS. Cohen, who was first approached by Palestinian friends to help free Kassig, sought the Justice Department’s support in winning the young American’s freedom even as ISIS was threatening to execute him imminently. The FBI’s backing for Cohen’s mission included expenses totaling $24,239.
According to Cohen, the failure of his mission was in part due to the U.S. government’s failure to act when his initiative was aborted midstream, just as the talks were showing promise. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, one of the most widely revered theologians among Muslim jihadists, was reaching out to ISIS officials on his behalf to save the life of Kassig, a 26-year-old international relief worker.
Suddenly, in the middle of these talks, the Jordanian government arrested Maqdisi for having contacts with ISIS; this, despite a written communiqué to Cohen from his FBI contact in Washington that appeared to clear the way with Jordan for Maqdisi to reach out.
The FBI official’s October 23 message to Cohen in Jordan — texted in response to a detailed protocol Cohen had laid out under which Maqdisi would be allowed to conduct the talks without fear of interference or arrest by Jordanian security officials — said, “The call is a go.”
Kassig was beheaded a bit less than three weeks after the Jordanians arrested Maqdisi.
FBI officials told the Guardian that notwithstanding Cohen’s understanding of the communiqué, the FBI did not provide assurance that Maqdisi would be immune to possible reprisal. The FBI did not return a call from the Forward seeking further information about what happened.
Contacted December 24, the same day that a Jordanian pilot was shot down and captured by ISIS, the Washington embassy of the government of Jordan was not able to obtain comment from Amman on the episode by the Forward’s print edition deadline. Dana Zureikat Daoud, the embassy’s press officer, explained that officials that day were preoccupied by the pilot’s plight. Daoud did not respond to a later email renewing the request for comment.
Sitting in his dark, semi-packed-up loft more than one month later, Cohen is still trying figure out why the U.S. government didn’t pressure Jordan and thereby give an American citizen what seemed like his best chance for life.
“Every American parent should understand that when push comes to shove, it could be their kid,” he said.
If consummated, the negotiations in which Cohen was involved would have included an agreement by ISIS to halt all kidnappings and beheadings of civilians; in exchange for this, Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, another widely respected jihadist theologian, would have agreed to cease and desist their scathing public denunciations of ISIS.
The United States will not pay the ransoms ISIS demands for its hostages, and federal law threatens any family members who do so with prosecution. But Cohen’s plan, which involved Al Qaeda contacts he had developed while preparing his defense of Bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, earlier this year, involved only this nonmonetary incentive.
Despite this, it is not hard to imagine some reasons that the United States may have failed to act aggressively to dissuade Jordanian authorities, or even urged them to enact the arrest. As monochromatically as outsiders view the world of jihadists, the differences and divisions among them are crucial to those in that world — and potentially useful to counterterrorism opponents in the West. Few of these divisions have been more notable than the split that has emerged between ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Both Maqdisi and Abu Qatada had served prison time for their alleged connections to Al Qaeda. And notwithstanding their jihadist worldview, both men strongly opposed ISIS for a variety of reasons, including the group’s kidnapping and beheading of civilians. Their denunciations, along with ISIS’s own glaring lack of experts in Islamic law of comparable stature to counter them, were posing a serious long-term challenge to ISIS’s legitimacy in the Muslim world.
Kassig, a former Army Ranger who had done medical and relief work in Palestinian refugee camps and for refugees from Syria’s civil war, was someone Maqdisi and Abu Qatada were eager to help. The outline of the deal shaping up when Maqdisi was arrested grew out of his talks with a former student of his who now serves as ISIS’s chief scholar. With Maqdisi’s arrest, talks did not just come to a halt; Cohen’s own role was fatally compromised. Other potential jihadist contacts concluded they could not trust his assurances.
“There are two competing theories about what happened,” Cohen related. “One is that the deal was sandbagged by the surrounding states, which wanted the U.S. to back off, because they could not have private actors seen as achieving what they could not.”
The more disturbing possibility, Cohen said, is that the U.S. government either encouraged Maqdisi’s arrest or simply allowed the Jordanians to stop the negotiations.
“They might have feared a rapprochement between Al Qaeda and ISIS,” Cohen said. The United States, he speculated, may have found that price too high to pay for Kassig’s life. “As each piece began to fall into place, I think they became increasingly worried,” he noted.
Cohen snorted at this concern. “Anyone who follows this knows that these guys could sit together for three weeks and then be fighting over dessert one week after that,” he said.
Cohen described his own feelings after the trip as “sad.” But the experience was also eye-opening for what he said he learned about jihadist politics. “I learned that the veterans of Gitmo and the Al Qaeda guys are becoming the new Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.
The experiences of many former inmates at American prisons in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq have forged a generational cohort with a longer worldview, Cohen said. The Muslim Brotherhood’s own fortunes have fallen greatly since the group’s government in Egypt was ousted by a 2013 military coup. But according to Cohen, the former U.S. prison inmates whom he dealt with on this trip, many of them connected to Al Qaeda, now see political struggle as their own path to power.
“They want to rid the area of Western, colonial control,” he said. “That ain’t going to happen by planting bombs in office buildings…. In the long run, the way to drive the West from the region is to outflank them…. You slowly but surely build yourself up — become ward leaders, so to speak. I see an increasing number of Gitmo vets becoming active this way.”
As part of this process, figures long connected to Al Qaeda, like Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, “are willing to stand up against the lunacy of ISIS,” he said, adding of ISIS, “They’ll be gone in five years.”
Meanwhile, Cohen’s own personal loyalties remain unabashedly with Hamas, a group designated by the United States and Israel as a terrorist organization.
The wisecracking attorney, who was raised in a moderately observant Jewish family in Westchester County, New York, today describes himself as an atheist and an anarchist, but is still proudly Jewish culturally and socially. So, what exactly is the attraction for him of this violent, authoritarian, conservative religion-focused, sexist and anti-gay group with a founding charter widely denounced as anti-Semitic — whatever he thinks of Israel?
Dismissing this question as one “worthy of Likud,” Cohen replied: “Does Hamas have strong religious ties? Yes. Is it a group that believes in Islamic tenets? Yes.” But first and foremost, he stressed: “I see Hamas as fundamentally a national liberation movement. I see their progressive work and their social services in the Palestinian population.”
Though he used to see “winning Israeli hearts and minds” as a prime task to end the occupation, Cohen said, the events of the past year or two have disabused him of that.
“I’ll take [Hamas’s] politics any day over a Tel Aviv leftist who sees marching in a gay pride parade as the political event of the year,” he said.
As he spoke, the phone rang. At the other end: an attorney for the family of Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent, who was arrested by Iranian authorities in July and held in solitary confinement for most of the time since then.
“I’m really sorry, but I don’t think I can do much” Cohen told his caller. “My connections with the Iranians aren’t very good these days.”
Still, Cohen offered to try reaching out through Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite militia allied with Iran. There, the lawyer said, he still retains some useful ties.
Contact Larry Cohler-Esses at firstname.lastname@example.org
Larry Cohler-Esses was the Forward’s assistant managing editor and news editor. He joined the staff in December 2008. Previously, he served as Editor-at-Large for the Jewish Week, an investigative reporter for the New York Daily News, and as a staff writer for the Jewish Week as well as the Washington Jewish Week. Larry has written extensively on the Arab-Jewish relations both in the United States and the Middle East. His articles have won awards from the Society for Professional Journalists, the Religious Newswriters Association, the New York Press Association and the Rockower Awards for Jewish Journalism, among others.
Stanley Cohen's Radical Detour on the Way to Prison