London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Controversial US lawyer Stanley Cohen has found himself in the international headlines on a number of occasions this year. He defended Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sheikh Suleiman Abu Ghaith; he defended himself in another courtroom on tax charges, ultimately pleading guilty and accepting a prison sentence; and he led the doomed efforts to secure the release of Abdul Rahman Kassig from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Cohen, who is expected to start an 18-month prison sentence next month, spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about his judicial career in general, and his defense of Islamists and Muslims in particular. He also discussed the efforts to secure Kassig’s release, which ended with the aid worker’s execution earlier this month.
Cohen had brought together a group of non-ISIS jihadist clerics to negotiate with the ISIS leadership, not just to secure Kassig’s release, but also to open a dialogue over the group’s policy of capturing and executing journalists, aid workers and civilians with the ultimate aim of ending this. The talks ultimately broke down after Jordan’s intelligence services arrested a prominent jihadist figure, Abu Mohamed Al-Maqdisi, who was leading the talks with the ISIS leadership, contravening—according to Cohen—a negotiations protocol that had been agreed by both the FBI and Amman.
Asharq Al-Awsat: In your estimation, how many Islamists have you defended in total?
Stanley Cohen: Although I have represented several dozen, if not more, Islamists in individual cases in the US and abroad, my work in class action and broad-based civil and human rights litigation has probably been on behalf of many millions of Muslims throughout the world. This would include lawsuits against Israel, the US and other state and corporate actors and entities, in many international courts including at the International Criminal Court [ICC]. In addition, over the last 20 years, I have often found myself asked by various Islamist movements and leaders for legal and political opinions on a host of issues and strategies unrelated to any pending cases.
Q: You have defended a number of famous Islamists in the courts, including Hamas deputy leader Musa Abu-Marzuq and Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sheikh Suleiman Abu Ghaith. What stands out for you the most when dealing with cases such as this?
If there is a common strain among these clients, movements and leaders it has been a direct connection to human rights issues, be they national liberation, self determination, or the pursuit of justice. In addition I have had a genuine affection for many of the leaders and movement members I have worked with, as people committed to working not in their own self-interest but on behalf of the despaired and despised, the marginalized and/or occupied. In all my political cases, I am either generally supportive of the political goals of a client or movement or personally like the person. In many of these cases, both hold true; this has been especially true in cases involving the rights and pursuit of justice for Palestinians.
Q: You have previously stated that you liked Abu Ghaith personally, while you have also met with and defended other larger-than-life Islamist figures like Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman and Abu Mohamed Al-Maqdisi. What can you tell us, on a personal level, about these figures?
I have yet to represent an Islamist leader on a criminal case who was not targeted largely because of his politics, speech or association. Each of them found themselves in court precisely because of political decisions made by political opponents in the US or elsewhere or because of the political agenda of the US, Israel or their surrogate states in the Middle East, the Gulf or North Africa. Each of these clients are dynamic and selfless, committed totally to the pursuit of justice for their community, people or region. I should also point out that many of these clients and their families became and remain lifelong friends that I have shared many personal and family moments with, and this is especially true of Musa Abu-Marzuq.
Q: How did defendants, like Hamas and Hezbollah officials, first hear of you? How did you get your start defending cases such as this?
I had, for a number of years, represented Albanian and Bosnian Muslims in traditional cases, and so Muslim civil rights groups in the US increasingly reached out to me for assistance and advice on a host of matters. When Musa Abu-Marzuq was arrested returning to the US in 1995 a number of these groups reached out to me to take his case—and I did. After successfully representing Abu-Marzuq, more and more movements and groups reached out to me for assistance in the US and abroad. In sum, having prevailed on the Abu-Marzuq case, the door was opened to me as a political defense attorney in the Middle East in a way that few others have ever experienced.
Q: Why do confirmed jihadists trust a self-proclaimed Jewish anarchist lawyer with their lives?
I have worked long and hard for over 20 years in the Middle East and elsewhere representing numerous Muslim leaders and groups in this regard. I have been all over the region, visiting the Middle East probably between 50 and 60 times, meeting with and befriending many persons who have come to trust my opinion, knowledge and commitment to justice, especially those in the Middle East that have been vilified and attacked for little more than their religion and drive for self-determination. In addition, I have learned much about the tradition, culture and religious beliefs of the people of the region. I have lectured often, participated in debates, and spent a considerable amount of time in the public eye. I suspect that this combination of personal and professional history, work and support for the rights, independence and justice of those in the region has been the reason why a bridge of trust has been built between me and so-called jihadist movements and leaders, independent of religion.
Q: You pled guilty to charges relating to failing to properly file tax returns and obstructing the IRS after a long battle in the US courts. You’ve said that you believe that the US authorities are targeting you out of “revenge.” Do you think this targeting will stop now?
Long before the IRS witch hunt began, the US government targeted me because of who I represent, the views that I take about US leadership and officials, and my willingness to challenge and expose its policies at home and abroad. This will continue until the day I die as neither prison nor US government persecution will either silence or intimidate me or cause me to change my lifelong commitment to human rights work, activism and justice.
Q: Given all this, would you still do everything that you have done or would you change some of the cases you took over the years, for example?
Although the price I have paid for my work and views has been heavy it is not nearly as heavy as my many friends and colleagues who have been assassinated, tortured, displaced or remain detained for years on end, guilty of no crime but their beliefs, ethnicity or religion. Compared to the millions of mostly civilians who have lost their lives, friends, family homes and freedom, the price I am paying for my efforts pales in comparison. If I had it to do all over again, I would; no regrets, second thoughts or compromises. As I have said for years: “We live, we fight, we die, and if along the way we give much more than we take it has been a worthwhile and righteous journey.”
Q: What is the most difficult case of your career so far?
There is no one case in particular of a political nature with regard to my work in the Muslim world that stands out as the most difficult—for they have all been difficult for much the same reason. I have probably handled more “terrorism” cases—real and fake—than any other attorney in the US. All of them are accompanied by the presumption of guilt, and driven by ignorance, hatred, Islamaphopia, and a thirst for revenge. Moreover, they are typically less informed by questions of actual guilt or innocence, than by a political agenda—be it on a local, national or international level. These factors render such cases the most difficult and among the least in which justice can be obtained, no matter how hard the fight, commitment or expertise. However, having said this, the recent political persecution of Suleiman Abu Ghaith was, for many reasons, about the most difficult defense I have undertaken, with him prosecuted as a convenient substitute for Osama Bin Laden and tried in the shadow of the footprint of the World Trade Center.
Q: Is there anybody you wouldn’t defend? If you had a chance to defend Osama Bin Laden, would you?
I was asked one day after the 9/11 attacks whether I would have represented Osama Bin Laden; my answer today is the same as 13 years ago: I don’t know. Had he been arrested I would have approached his possible case and defense the same as all other political ones—based on whether I saw a common political or personal bond with him; whether we “connected” in some way. And if I did, and was asked, I likely would have represented him.
Q: Have you ever received threats or intimidation from ordinary Americans, and particularly the Jewish community, for your defense of prominent Islamists?
There have been fairly constant threats, childish ridicule and attempts to intimidate or punish me from numerous groups and persons because of my work over the last 20 years or so. Many of these have come from the Zionist community, here and abroad, and many from self-professed “patriots” of all different stripes and religions. It comes with the turf and has always been ignored by me and my family.
Q: You played a pivotal role in back-channel efforts to secure Abdul Rahman Kassig’s release from ISIS? How optimistic were you about securing his release?
I was convinced and remain so that left to our own device with minimal assistance and, most important, non-interference from state actors, especially the US and Jordan, Abdul Rahman Kassig’s life would have been saved and that some profound changes regarding the manner and means by which civilians—especially journalist and aid workers—were to be dealt with [by ISIS] in the future would have been accomplished.
Q: How did you feel when you heard that ISIS had executed him?
Unfortunately death and destruction [have] been a constant companion to me over the last 20 years given the work I have done and its location. As I said, I have lost more than a few close friends (if not family) to the assassin’s bullet or missile, usually fired by Israel or the US. In this light, Abdul Rahman Kassig’s death was particularly painful, not because he was an American, but because unlike others this is a death where we worked to specifically stave it off, with knowledge that it loomed large. Moreover, it was not “just” a human being we worked to save but to build a bridge of change. With our betrayal and his murder, far more was lost than one life, or one’s credibility. At day’s end we attempted to alter a deadly, growing and runaway path, even if only slightly, and with his death it collapsed.
Q: There have been different accounts regarding just why these efforts broke down, but it seems clear that this was after the Jordanians arrested Abu Mohamed Al-Maqdisi. Have you received any clarification as to how the Jordanians were able to break the negotiations protocol you agreed with the FBI? Does the FBI now acknowledge that this security protocol was in place and that the Jordanians breached it?
For now the truth about the betrayal is not known and may not be for years. Regardless of what the FBI has tried to sell, there was an agreement among us with the US and Jordan that a five or six point protocol was in place that permitted Sheikh Maqdisi to speak with the religious leaders of ISIS as part of the attempt to obtain the release of Abdul Rahman Kassig without fear of his arrest or reprisal—it was negotiated and reduced to writing before being agreed to. Whether it was Jordan which elected to breach the agreement, the US, or both, the result remains the same.
Q: The Guardian report into these back-channel talks confirms that Kassig’s release would have come as part of a wider reconciliation between ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Do you think any such reconciliation is in the works, and would it have been worth saving one man’s life, given that it could have been spun as a victory for ISIS and used to further strengthen the movement?
Although it makes for good reading, the negotiations did not present as a quid pro quo a broader reconciliation between anyone—whether ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or the Al-Nusra Front—and none seemed possible or desired, by anyone involved, at least on our end. At best, we would have possibly seen an end to the public exchange, argument and vitriol that had occupied so much of the public interest and attention by the media and some political leaders in the months leading up to the negotiations. In short, the claim that the negotiations, if successful, would have created a “tsunami” of terrorism is little more than self-serving rubbish used to justify a decision that ultimately caused the murder of Abdul Rahman Kassig to proceed and served to disempower a much needed and growing group of regional and independent non-state actors.
At the end of the day the US, Israel, and their surrogate states have thrived on regional instability and rhetoric for years; tragically, a Kassig release would have marked an undesired step backwards for those power brokers.
This interview was originally conducted in English.