Who is the real Rohan Gunaratna?
August 14, 2010 § 5 Comments
Rohan Gunaratna has been interviewed and quoted by many media outlets as a “terrorism expert”. To judge for yourself his credibility as an “expert source” please refer to the following:
The Age: Analyse This
Gary Hughes, 20 July 2003
Whenever a comment has been needed about al-Qaeda or terrorism, Rohan Gunaratna has been there to supply it. Who is he? Gary Hughes reports. Rohan Gunaratna describes as a spiritually defining moment the day in March 2001 when he learned that the Taliban regime in Kabul had ordered the demolition of the ancient, giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan.
But it was the destruction six months later of an icon of the modern world – New York’s World Trade Towers – that changed his life in a more practical way, launching a stellar new career as a global authority on international terrorism.Gunaratna was the right person in the right place at the right time.
Gunaratna was the right person in the right place at the right time.
The world’s media outlets were looking for experts to interpret how and why the world had changed and the Sri Lanka-born academic was great “talent”, providing dire warnings about the threat of Osama bin Laden’s shadowy al-Qaeda network.
No one seemed to worry that, until the September 11 attacks, Gunaratna’s acknowledged expertise had been largely confined to the activities of Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the Tamil Tigers.
In May 2002, as Australian SAS troops were hunting bin Laden’s followers south-east of Kabul, Gunaratna’s book Inside Al Qaeda : Global Network of Terror became an instant bestseller and his reputation grew accordingly, being described as one of the world’s foremost experts on Islamic terrorism.
Gunaratna, 42, had ridden a wave of success driven by the basic laws of supply and demand – there were not enough experts to meet the demand from the media and publishers for intelligence analysts able to provide a catchy quote or headline. And Gunaratna appeared happy to break the mould of the public’s traditional idea of an academic analyst, making at times startling claims based on what he said were his own intelligence “sources” and criticising governments – including Canberra – for not doing enough and being too concerned about civil liberties.
Gunaratna was also seized upon by the Australian media, including newspapers published by Fairfax, and promoted virtually unquestioningly as the leading authority on Islamic terrorism, particularly after the Bali bombing in October last year.
But Gunaratna and others who belong to this new breed of media-friendly commentators, who blur the distinction between academic analysis and politics and base research on information from anonymous intelligence sources, are causing concern in some circles.
Also under scrutiny are the financial links between analysts who highlight the dangers posed by terrorists and private corporations that stand to make money from an increased atmosphere of fear.
Members of Australia’s intelligence community, and in particular ASIO, are known to be dismissive of many of Gunaratna’s more sensational statements, such as claims that alleged military chief of the Jemaah Islamiyah network and senior al-Qaeda member Hambali had regularly visited Australia.
In Britain, The Observer newspaper’s home affairs editor and long-time writer on Islamic terrorist groups, Martin Bright, describes Gunaratna as “the least reliable of the experts on bin Laden”. He says Gunaratna is often used by the British authorities as an expert witness in the prosecution of Islamist terror suspects because they can rely on him to be apocalyptic.
In Australia, journalist and commentator on intelligence issues Brian Toohey is one of the few to have openly questioned Gunaratna’s credentials, describing him as a “self-proclaimed expert” and dismissing some of his claims as “plain silly”. He uses as an example a warning by Gunaratna published in November 2001 in the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council Review that terrorist groups might try to influence Australian politicians by rallying “10,000 or 20,000 votes” in their electorates.
David Wright-Neville is senior research fellow at the Centre for Global Terrorism at Monash University and until 2002 was a senior terrorism analyst in the Office of National Assessment. Although he won’t comment directly on Gunaratna, or any other individual analyst, he says that, like in any other profession, the abilities of so- called terrorism experts ranges from the very good down to questionable.
The lack of scrutiny of their abilities, says to Wright-Neville, is partly due to the shortage of analysts and experts available to meet the massive demand for public knowledge.
He says problems arise when analysts don’t make it clear when they leave the secure ground of known facts and enter into their own extrapolation when commenting to the media. The results can been headlines based on conjecture rather than reality.
Another factor, says Wright-Neville, is the use of unidentified intelligence or security sources by some analysts. Not all intelligence organisations are equally reliable and, particularly in some south-east Asian countries, can be highly politicised and running agendas for their governments. Individuals in intelligence agencies can selectively leak information to analysts – or to the media – to influence public debate.
| REALITY CHECK
The claim: In his book Inside al-Qaeda and in several interviews, Rohan Gunaratna gives graphic details of how terrorists planned to hijack a British Airways jet at London’s Heathrow Airport on September 11, 2001, and fly it into the British Houses of Parliament. The plot was foiled when aircraft in Britain were grounded immediately after the attack on New York’s twin towers. The source for the information was Indian intelligence interrogations of Mohammed Afroz, a 25-year-old Muslim and suspected member of al-Qaeda, arrested in Mumbai on October 3, 2001. Afroz told interrogators he had been to flying schools in Victoria and Britain and also planned to fly a plane into Melbourne’s Rialto Towers.
The reality: Afroz was released by an Indian court on indefinite bail in April, 2001 after Indian police failed to bring charges. As part of the investigation, Indian intelligence agents flew to Australia in February 2001 to check out his claims. It was reported after his release that New Delhi police believed Mumbai police made up the sensational claims allegedly made by Afroz. ASIO said in its 2002 annual report that none of the allegations made by Afroz that related to Australia could be corroborated and they were assessed “to be lacking in credibility”.
The claim: Hambali, the operation commander of the terrorist group behind the Bali bombings, Jemaah Islamiah, and other leaders had visited Australia a dozen times, according to the Australia edition of Rohan Gunaratna’s Inside al-Qaeda.
The reality: Attorney-General Daryl Williams said checks within Australia and overseas had failed to find any record of Hambali having travelled to Australia “under his own name or any known aliases”.
“The context in which information is obtained is vital,” he says.
It is also important not to put too much weight on intelligence sources. “Intelligence is an imprecise science,” says Wright-Neville.
Gunaratna’s credentials in biographical information published in books, magazines, newspapers and on the internet, are at first glance impressive. His book Inside Al Qaeda states: “Rohan Gunaratna, the author of six books on armed conflict, was called to address the United Nations, the US Congress and the Australian Parliament in the wake of September 11, 2001. He is a research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, St Andrews University, Scotland. Previously, Gunaratna was principal investigator of the United Nations’ Terrorism Prevention Branch and he has served as a consultant on terrorism to several governments and corporations.”
After The Sunday Age made detailed checks on Gunaratna’s biographical details, he confirmed last week that there was no such position as principal investigator at the UN’s Terrorism Prevention Branch and he worked there in 2001-02 as a research consultant. He also confirmed that, rather than directly addressing the UN, Congress and the Australian Parliament, he had actually spoken at a seminar organised by the parliamentary library, given evidence to a congressional hearing on terrorism and delivered a research paper to a conference on terrorism organised by the UN’s Department for Disarmament Affairs.
Gunaratna’s first six books on armed conflict were all relatively obscure works on the Tamil Tigers. One of the books, South Asia at Gunpoint, brought him to notice in Australia in October 2000 with claims that a Tamil Tiger support network had shipped a small helicopter and micro-light aircraft to Sri Lanka and that a Tamil Tiger arms smuggling ship had visited Australia in 1993. Although the local Tamil community was outraged, at least one of the allegations was shown to have a basis in fact. An SBS Dateline report telecast that same month tracked down the Newcastle shop owner who had been questioned by ASIO after being approached by an alleged Tamil Tiger sympathiser in 1994 wanting to buy hang gliders and have them shipped to Malaysia.
The information appears to have come through Gunaratna’s very close links with Sri Lanka’s intelligence service. Gunaratna worked for the Sri Lanka Government between 1984 and 1994.
The trail of financial support and weapons supplies to the Tamil Tigers took Gunaratna into the wider world of international terrorism, including Afghanistan, where the Tamil Tigers obtained small arms. His research into the Tamil Tigers and their methods also made him an authority on suicide bombers – knowledge that would stand him in good stead following the September 11 suicide attacks in New York and Washington.
In July 2001, he co-authored (with three others) an article called Blowback in Jane’s Intelligence Review, which looked at Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in light of evidence from the then recently completed trials of those behind the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The article was one of the first detailed examinations of bin Laden and the origins of al-Qaeda. It quickly became a point of reference after September 11.
One former Australian intelligence officer says a problem with Gunaratna’s approach is that he tends to look at international terrorism from the perspective of how it relates to the Tamil Tigers, who declared a truce in December 2001 and opened peace negotiations.
Gunaratna did much of his work on the Tamil Tigers’ international links while studying in the United States in 1995-96. It was then that he began establishing important friends in the small world of intelligence analysis.
He did a master of arts at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University in 1996 and research at the University of Illinois and University of Maryland. While at Maryland, he worked with Admiral Stansfield Turner, one-time head of US intelligence. While at Notre Dame, he linked up with the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland’s St Andrews University and its massive database on terrorist incidents going back to 1968. He also got to know the centre’s then head, Dr Bruce Hoffman, with whom he has co-authored a yet to be published book on terrorism.
Gunaratna moved to Scotland to complete his doctorate at St Andrews and work as a research fellow at the terrorism and political violence centre. He also got open access to the centre’s large terrorism database, one of just a small handful of such databases scattered around the world.
The database is a combination of material gathered by St Andrews and the Rand Corporation, the non-profit US thinktank established by the US Air Force. Now known as the RAND-St Andrews database on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict, it is largely maintained and updated by more than 30 students who comb the internet and newspapers and magazines from around the world for information on terrorist operations.
The database is not the only link between Rand and St Andrews and Rand and Gunaratna. Bruce Hoffman, the founder of the St Andrews centre for terrorism study, is now a vice-president of Rand and chief of its Washington office. And Rand, St Andrews, Gunaratna and Jane’s worked together last year as private advisers to Risk Management Solutions, helping the private American corporation develop a “US terrorism risk model” to sell to insurance companies worried about terrorist strikes.
Rand, in turn, is linked to the $US3.5 billion Carlyle Group, which holds stakes in some of the world’s biggest arms and defence corporations, through the former US defence secretary and deputy CIA director Frank Carlucci, who is chairman of the group and a Rand board member.
The Carlyle Group employs former President George Bush as a senior adviser, uses former US Secretary of State James Baker as its senior counsellor and has former British Prime Minister John Major as chairman of its European arm. Earlier this year, it bought a third of QinetiQ, the company floated by Britain’s Ministry of Defence to commercially exploit non-secret security and defence technology. QinteQ has been negotiating with the British Government to buy the soon-to-be-privatised Security, Languages, Intelligence and Photography College, where British spies are trained.
In his biographical details on the site of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, where he is an assistant professor, Gunaratna states one of his past positions was “principal investigator, QinetiQ Project on Terrorist Information Operations”.
Gunaratna moved to Singapore this year to help establish a regional centre for terrorism research at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Nanyang Technological University, where he is titled assistant professor. Not surprisingly, the centrepiece of the new research centre is a database on terrorist activities in the Asia-Pacific region.
Gunaratna says his expertise on al-Qaeda comes from interviews with the group’s “penultimate leadership” and rank and file members, hundreds of documents seized after the invasion of Afghanistan and the debriefings of al-Qaeda suspects in more than a dozen countries.
It was that kind of information that led him in March to state definitively that Australian David Hicks, who has been detained at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba after his capture in Afghanistan, was “not a member of al-Qaeda”, “did not plan to attack civilian targets”, “never intended to attack a civilian target” and was a “romantic” not taken seriously by other Taliban fighters.
Eyebrows were raised among fellow intelligence analysts when Gunaratna reversed his position on Hicks two weeks ago, after the US announced the Australian was one of six detainees it had enough evidence against to put before a military tribunal. This time Gunaratna, said Hicks had undergone “more advance and more specialised training” with al-Qaeda, which “had some special plans for him”.
Gunaratna attributed his change of heart to information gained from “more recent investigations” and given to him by sources he refused to identify.
Another person with raised eyebrows was Hicks’ Adelaide lawyer, Frank Camatta, who maintains that Gunaratna could not possibly have had access to transcripts of his client’s interrogations in Guantanamo Bay. “We’d sure like to know who his sources are,” says Camatta.
Pacific Journalism Review (PDF): The legitimising of terror fears: Research or Psy Ops?
Peter Cronau, 2003
ABC: The Media Report, 11 September 2003
Armed conflict and military intelligence are staples of the evening news, so “experts” haunt our media. But does the media rely too much on “experts”, and has their presence changed the way ideas are discussed.
Mick O’Regan: Hello, and welcome to the program.
As we open the newspapers this morning and listen to the radio and TV, it’s all too obvious that the scourge of terrorist violence continues to wreck lives around the world. Writing in The Australian newspaper, the Prime Minister, John Howard, acknowledges the millions of words that have been written about September 11th, and comments that the volumes of analysis cannot disguise the fact that the attacks were ideological statements by fanatics.
To understand these attacks and the people behind them, the media has increasingly relied on expert commentators to unravel the complex, historical, religious and political elements that underpin them.
So today, conscious that September 11th is much more than just a date on the calendar, it’s an international shorthand for remembrance, for war, and for a world view, we’re going to consider how experts are used in the media, by talking to some.
John Walker: Its difficult to see that the world is either a safer place or that there are less causes of terrorism either in our region or in the Middle East over the last two years. What concerns me is that these things are not central issues for debate.
Andrew Norton: Well I actually think people are vastly better informed about these issues than they were two years ago. Two years ago most people hadn’t heard of the Taliban, were only dimly aware of Islamic fundamentalism, so I actually think that even if the detail is lacking like it is for every issue in the public mind. At a broadbrush level, people actually are much more aware of the issues than they were two years ago.
Scott Burchill: I think the lesson is very clear, that if you want to really understand these issues, you need to wait for considered opinion by people who perhaps haven’t made career moves to present themselves as experts on terrorism, but who can draw on their long-held experience and knowledge of history and international politics to place what is a very complex series of events in some sort of historical context. So that’s unfortunately a waiting game, you will need to wait for considered analysis which will come some time after these events.
Mick O’Regan: Our experts: Scott Burchill, lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University; Andrew Norton, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, and John Walker, from the Australian Defence Forces Academy.
At the moment I think the community is increasingly reliant on expert information to better understand policy responses to key problems in the areas of security, military conflict and terrorism.
Now it helps that some commentators are very clear about their views, and the sort of policy outcomes they seek. Earlier this week one very prominent American commentator, William Kristol, spoke to Peter Thompson on the Radio National Breakfast program. Kristol has had a long career as an advisor to Republican politicians in the States, and is now the editor of the conservative political magazine ‘The Weekly Standard’.
Regarding the debate now raging in America about the adequacy of US strategy in the Middle East, William Kristol focused on how the debate was framed.
William Kristol: You know, it depends how you look at it obviously. I think that’s the key really, in a way. The Administration, since the war has not framed the issue quite as dramatically as it really deserves to be framed, I really think we’re at a turning point, a hinge-point, for the 21st century. Either the Middle East will improve and the world will get safer, or it won’t improve, and then we really face an awfully scary prospect over the next 10, 20, 30 years.
Peter Thompson: You and your co-author use the term that the US may need to ‘wage perpetual war for perpetual peace’; what do you mean by that?
William Kristol: That might have been a slight rhetorical overstatement. Well I do mean that I don’t think war is going to disappear from the future of the human race, I think we always will need to be prepared for war, I think the US does have a particular role as the world’s strongest nation, and certainly the strongest nation on behalf of freedom and democracy to be willing to, if necessary alone, but hopefully with friends and allies, to beat back threats, whether terrorist threats or dictators who are invading their neighbours, so I don’t think we should kid ourselves, as some Europeans tend to, that war is going to disappear or that the whole world is going to start looking like Switzerland or even like the European Union.
So whether for East Asia or in the Middle East, I think strength is necessary, I do think the terrorist attacks on us in particular were invited by weakness over the last 10 or 20 years in response to Middle East terrorism on our part, and that’s been a problem of both Republican and Democratic Administrations from Reagan on really. So I think we face the need to fight, and I think we will fight, and I think we’ll win. I just wish we had a greater sense of urgency and had committed more resources to Iraq in particular.
Mick O’Regan: William Kristol, editor of the conservative American journal, ‘The Weekly Standard’, speaking to Peter Thompson earlier this week.
Kristol’s acknowledgement that the framing of debates is crucial to communicating your political message highlights one way expert commentary is used in the media, providing a context in which actions can be understood. It’s also critical to realise the interaction of the political cycle with the release of information. Throughout the war on terror, information about the nature of risks and the best way to counter threats has been of the utmost political significance, as Scott Burchill explains.
Scott Burchill: I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. Both mid-term Congressional elections, but I think more significantly now, the Presidential election in November next year, effectively rules out of consideration the United States opening a new front in what is called the war on terror. It’s often said now in many of the discussions about US politics, that the war campaign has been handed over to Karl Rove, who is President Bush’s electoral and opinion poll advisor, and the first edict that he issued was that there are to be no more fights, no more wars, until the election is over. So I think it’s impossible to remove this as an issue.
But I’d like to come back to one issue also about the lead-up to the war in Iraq, and show you how these things can be easily confused. There was a considerable discussion about the legality of the war, and many listeners will remember that the Australian government issued a very brief legal advice to suggest that intervention in Iraq was legal without a further Security Council resolution. Well the fact is that the overwhelming body of legal advice suggested that without another Security Council resolution the war in Iraq was in fact illegal.
However, it’s fairly easy to find dissenting voices, so the public is left trying to evaluate exactly where the truth is, when the government tells them one thing, but without actually finding some advice on the internet or reading very widely in the legal area, they wouldn’t be aware in fact the government’s advice on this was minority advice, which was well out of step with broader legal opinion. So how do they evaluate?
Mick O’Regan: Well how should they evaluate? Should that have been a task for the media to undertake, to actually show up those inconsistencies, or should there have been different advice offered?
Scott Burchill: Well I think what the media can do is locate the nature of that advice in the general view of this particular issue. So instead of simply arguing or reproducing the government’s position and saying, ‘Well, there is another position but the government is on firm ground’, the public probably needed to be told that the overwhelming majority of international lawyers who specialise in the use of force in international affairs, felt there was absolutely no legal basis for a war against Iraq, and that the government’s position was well out of step with the broad opinion. But they weren’t told that, and therefore they weren’t really in a position to contest the issue on that basis. The issue effectively was neutralised by the government doing that particular strategy.
Mick O’Regan: Scott Burchill, from Deakin University.
So, is the media, with its reliance on format and brevity, up to the task of untangling the intersecting lines of spin, expert commentary, and political tactics?
Scott Burchill: Well we’ve seen a small number of experts who have been regularly employed to offer short sound bites in response usually to events on the ground whether they be a terrorist attack or as we saw during the war in Iraq, progress during the campaign, and clearly I think perhaps the disappointing aspect for me is that the priority seems to be to get a voice that is coherent, who can express their views concisely in small sound bites, but not really challenge the content of what they say.
And I think this is only partly the fault of the media, because perhaps journalists aren’t in the position to follow up and question some of the assumptions and claims that are being made. And so we get a sort of an ubiquitous presence of some leading commentators on terrorism, who claim to be experts, but we’re not really getting a very diverse range of opinions.
Andrew Norton: In defence of the media there are only a limited pool of people who actually are qualified to comment on these, and they’re usually on a very short time line, and therefore they go for whatever expert happens to be available. But the difficulty is the lack of mechanisms after that to balance what has been said in the immediate aftermath of an event like Bali.
Mick O’Regan: So when you talk about mechanisms, what do you mean? Some sort of follow-up to evaluate the predictions that people have made?
Andrew Norton: Well you can have things like that, but even say programs like in the United States where you get several people on a panel arguing together at the same time, which gives viewers or listeners a chance to actually evaluate claim and counter-claim as they’re being made, rather than days or weeks after the event, trying to remember what was originally said, and then weigh it against the next expert you happen to be listening to.
Mick O’Regan: Andrew Norton from the Centre for Independent Studies and before him, Scott Burchill.
The sharp end of the debate over expert commentary in Australia at the moment concerns the appropriate response to the threat of international terrorism, primarily from South East Asia and in particular from Indonesia.
In the aftermath of the Bali bombings we wanted every shred of information we could get about terrorist threats in Indonesia. Enormous energy was expended, analysing what happened in Bali, while comparatively little was devoted to the spate of deadly bombings at the end of 2000.
It’s as if terrorism had arrived in the archipelago in October last year.
However for many people the real terrorism in Indonesia for the past 25 years has been State terrorism, conducted by its own military and security forces. This sometimes seems to escape the newly-minuted experts on global terror, such as the Sri Lankan academic, Rohan Gunaratna, the author of ‘Inside Al-Qaeda: global network of terror’.
Gunaratna’s career has developed rapidly from dealing with the specifics of the civil war in his homeland to being an international authority on global terrorism. He’s widely quoted in the media where his unequivocal predictions ensure celebrity. In May this year he was interviewed on the ABC Lateline program by Tony Jones.
Rohan Gunaratna: The Australian government has taken this threat very seriously because Australia is aware of a number of operations Al-Qaeda attempted against Australian targets, starting with the December 2001 plan to destroy the Australian mission in Singapore. Subsequently of course we witnessed Bali, but even before that, there has been a number of attempts to destroy Australian targets. So I believe that the Australian government has taken appropriate steps to better respond to this kind of threat.
Although interestingly, the Australian government decided not to close its embassy in Saudi Arabia when both Britain and the United States did that; was that a wise move? I mean was it thought that that threat had already passed?
Rohan Gunaratna: I think that threat to an Australian target in that region would be much less than a threat to an Australian target say in South East Asia, because other than al-Qaeda, there are a number of associate groups of Al-Qaeda, such as Jemaah Islamiah, Abu Sayaf Group, Moral Islamic Liberation Front, Lashkar Jundullah, these groups that are targeting Australian interests in South East Asia.
Mick O’Regan: During the interview, Rohan Gunaratna went on to outline the links that he argues exist between Al-Qaeda and various South East Asian groups, especially Jemaah Islamiyah.
Rohan Gunaratna: Jemaah Islamiah although is a regional South East Asian group, it is also acting as the South East Asian arm of Al-Qaeda, because the operational head of Jemaah Islamiyah, Hambali, is also a member of the military committee of Al-Qaeda. Because of that, Jemaah Islamiah is in many ways acting as an extension of Al-Qaeda in South East Asia.
Mick O’Regan: Rohan Gunaratna, with Tony Jones on Lateline back in May.
The media’s need for detailed commentary on terrorist groups has resulted in Gunaratna being seen as an objective commentator on terrorism, but his analysis of the situation in Indonesia gives cause for concern.
The linkages he poses are based on information from leaked intelligence documents, and as a forthcoming article in The Pacific Journalism Review notes:
‘His trust in Indonesian intelligence officers and in intelligence reports prepared by the very security forces who have themselves been implicated in incitement and even direct involvement in violent conflict, is nothing short of astounding.’
Those linkages are also a problem for other researchers who focus on the historical contexts in which different groups have emerged in Indonesia, and their disparate political goals.
John Walker lectures at the Defence Forces Academy.
John Walker: I think over the last two years movements and groups who have a fairly longstanding history in Indonesia, and intellectual debates in Indonesia, which have been around since the 1920s, are suddenly being couched in new global terms. So things like the Acehnese Independent Movement, people are now trying to link it to Al-Qaeda. Well there may or may not be links, the point about the Free Aceh Movement is, as with many things in Indonesia, the proper context is not global terrorism, the proper context is the post-Soeharto era, it’s 25 years of State terrorism, not this new thing that is of concern particularly to US policymakers.
And my concern I suppose is that because Scott mentioned, something happens on the ground, defence and strategic analysts and a very small number of them, have to comment. They accept the policy parameters, and whilst it’s one thing for governments to deal in policy terms, I think it’s quite different for analysts to, because if you just accept the parameters, then that sets up the debate. And that may or may not provide the insights.
Mick O’Regan: The sort of insights that Rohan Gunaratna has provided seem to depend on information which is difficult to verify and emerges from a very narrow band of sources.
Critics of his work, such as John Walker, highlights a tendency to use generalised notions of global terrorist networks rather than studying the distinctive historical and political attributes of specific groups.
This is especially important when speculating upon the links between Al-Qaeda and other groups.
John Walker: If you look at the three, say best-known Indonesian ones at the moment: Gerakan Aceh Merdeka the Acehnese independence movement, Jemaah Islamiaah and Laskar Jihad. Jemaah Islamiaah is purported to want a pan-national Islamic caliphate in sort of maritime South-East Asia. So bigger than the Indonesian State. Laskar Jihad appear to be ultranationalists determined to attack anybody who threatens the boundaries of the Indonesian Republic as it exists. And the Acehnese want a separate Acehnese Islamic Sultanate in North Sumatra.
Now these three movements, all of which are broadly I suppose, Islamic militant, actually have three, not just different goals, but mutually exclusive goals. So it’s far from clear that that labelling them as Islamic militants, furthers any sort of understanding. And it gets worse than that because there is evidence that Laskar Jihad, or members of former Laskar Jihad, because it claims to have disbanded, have actually gone to Aceh in the last six months to engage with the Acehnese and to fight the Acehnese. So these are mutually exclusive objectives and there’s scope for conflict. And yet in media debates they’re all Islamic militants. It just seems to be not to be at all helpful.
Mick O’Regan: John Walker.
Scott Burchill also has reservations about Gunaratna’s work, suggesting the Sri Lankan’s confidence in his own conclusions and his availability to the media are critical factors in his profile.
Scott Burchill: And that’s why in the war against terrorism, Rohan Gunaratna was so ubiquitous, is because he didn’t have any shades of grey, he was absolutely certain in what he said. He could say things like Hambali, the Jemaah Islamiaah senior operative, had visited Australia 12 times, when in fact the Attorney-General could find no evidence of him ever having visited Australia at all, either under that name or a range of aliases. Now if he says that with great certainty, then journalists, even if they’re not that impressionable, come away with the view that this is a man who knows what he’s talking about because he shows no ambiguity, there’s no doubts in what he says, and it gets duly reported that way.
Mick O’Regan: The information that underpins much of Rohan Gunaratna’s work is also the subject of concern within the academic community.
The analysis of his work in The Pacific Journalism Review includes the following remarks about the footnotes in the section of his book dealing with Indonesia:
‘Ten of the 25 footnotes state the source as Indonesian intelligence officers or the intelligence report. Another eight cite press articles. His writing here on Indonesia reveals a remarkably narrow selection of sources, a profound lack of knowledge, and a flawed understanding of the history of the Indonesian armed forces and of their intelligence operates.’
For John Walker, this represents a major problem with Gunaratna’s work.
John Walker: If you want to talk in any sort of detail, say for example about Al-Qaeda, or Jemaah Islamiyah, without access to classified information, the providence of which you don’t know, you’re left being very sceptical. When dramatic events happen like the Bali bombing or the hotel bombings in Jakarta, the media actually don’t want people being sceptical. There is a requirement to have some explanatory power, and I think that’s where Rohan Gunaratna has found his metier. And he relies very heavily on apparently leaked security documents from the United States government, which people just are unable to verify.
The texts are not available, so we can’t see whether he’s interpreted them correctly, and intelligence documents or intelligence material is actually very hard to analyse, it’s a very subtle process. So even if the documents that he claims to have access to, whether the records of interview that he has access to, are real and have not been spun by the people providing them, we still don’t know whether his analysis is necessarily accurate. And there is I think a tendency to avoid people who will say things like ‘Why a war on terror?’ I mean the branding’s very important, so a nice catchy phrase like ‘a war on terror’, you don’t have time in a 2-minute grab for radio to deconstruct that. And I think that’s also a real problem.
Scott Burchill: If you think of the amount of attention which has been given to the Bali attacks on October 12th 2002, we still don’t know with any degree of confidence whether Australians were specifically targeted, whether it was a mistake and that Americans were targeted, or whether it was a generic anti-Western attack. Now the actual answer to that question is very significant for the kinds of strategies that you may develop to counter these kinds of threats. Claims by Mr Gunaratna that this was definitely specifically targeted at Australians, without any supporting evidence of any kind, doesn’t leave the public with any way of adjudicating or verifying, as John said.
Mick O’Regan: The issue of classified, official documents finding their way into the hands of people not meant to read them has been big news this week in Australia.
The media coverage has centred on the cross-examination of Andrew Wilkie, who resigned from the Office of National Assessments, the ONA, because of disagreements over the government’s characterisation of the threat posed by Iraq.
The Labor Party now wants to know how details of Wilkie’s report found their way into the public domain.
John Faulkner: Can the Minister confirm that all ONA documents are routinely classified, numbered, bar-coded, and individually grammatically configured to identify the source of leaked documents? Can the Minister also confirm that all of these safety measures would have been used on the ONA report on Iraq written by Andrew Wilkie, and dated December 2002? Does the Minister therefore believe that these measures will assist the Australian Federal Police to quickly and accurately identify both the source of the leak of that document and also any person who receives and uses the content of that classified report?
Mick O’Regan: Senator John Faulkner, demanding answers on why some classified documents end up in the wrong hands.
It’s not a new problem, but in the context of political arguments over the war on terror, leaking sensitive information to the media has become an important element in how the public debate is conducted.
As Scott Burchill explains, filtering information through acknowledged ‘experts’ is a tried and tested way of promoting government policy.
Scott Burchill: I think some of the experts have been in receipt of deliberate leaks of government information and intelligence, if you like they’ve been used as conduits for government propaganda, and if you look at the sources of some of the recently published books on Al-Qaeda and anti-Western Islamic terrorism generally, you’ll often see that the sources of some of the claims are confidential intelligence briefings. Now what that means is that the expert has been in receipt of a document and has faithfully reproduced it as argument. Well that’s one way in which governments get their own particular spin on events out into the public domain without having to actually say it directly to the public, they do it through what is essentially a compliant and supportive academic.
Mick O’Regan: Of course compliant academics are a lot easier to deal with than angry bureaucrats. The scandal in Britain over the suicide death of weapons scientist David Kelly highlighted the fact that often the people with the most knowledge on a subject are the ones limited in what they can say, they’re the ones forbidden to speak.
But given the government’s need for confidential information, is it foolish to think that public servants should ever be able to speak on the record?
Scott Burchill: Not really, because in fact in the case of Dr Kelly he was backgrounding journalists in the full knowledge of his departmental minders and masters. And you can hardly blame him, given that the Ministers in the Blair government were leaking information, backgrounding journalists, comprising intelligence dossiers that were heavily weighted to present a particular argument. So they can’t really blame the bureaucrats if they were simply emulating the behaviour of their political masters. But on the other hand, of course, their first and primary responsibility is to provide independent advice to government, and if they do get into the public realm and they do start speaking about their issues, then of course it makes it more difficult for them to offer government advice which is unaffected by public debate and their role within that debate.
Mick O’Regan: Where the public debate has been robustly taken up is by think-tanks, where research is more likely to be focused on specific policy outcomes, especially compared to university research.
John Walker: Very few academics come to an issue wanting to achieve a policy outcome. I can’t imagine that anyone coming out of a think-tank to speak on an issue isn’t cogniscant of the broader policy implications and trying to effect a policy. And I think that has disadvantages I think in terms of the provision of information for the public, but it’s good for journalists because governments put out policy, there is a policy framework there, and think-tanks immediately engage in those terms. So it’s digestible, it’s not confusing to the public, and of course they are very practised in being concise and sticking to message.
Andrew Norton: Look I actually think there’s a broader range of inputs into the debate. I don’t think there’s less than in the past. The sheer fact that satellite means we can bring in American experts I think is on the whole a good thing, that we get this kind of immediate diversity of views that we can’t provide in Australia because we’ve got a relatively small local set of experts, plus we’ve got the think-tanks which now employ people so they can actually participate in public debates in a way they perhaps couldn’t if they held jobs within a bureaucracy or jobs in academia where they were too busy teaching or doing other research. So while I think there may be some problems in the access that some people have to the media, overall I think there’s a wider variety of voices being heard.
Scott Burchill: Well the ABC for example, makes extensive use of US-based think-tanks for commentary on foreign policy developments, and has done particularly during the war against terrorism and the war against Iraq. But in my cynical moments, I suspect that what really motivates the journalists who choose these people, is not so much the content of what they say but their ability to present an issue in a concise and lucid way. And I think think-tanks are much better attuned in many ways of doing this, they’re much more media savvy than the universities are.
The universities don’t have in most cases, a systematic way of providing that short-notice expert opinion, whereas the think-tanks I think are ever ready to provide speakers on a range of issues who can reduce the complexity of issues to a few short lines. Now there are problems in doing that because you do miss the complexity, the context, the background and the historical lead-up to events. But in my experience of being in the media, it’s not so much what you say, it’s how you say it.
Mick O’Regan: And ain’t it just the truth?
Our experts talking about experts today were Scott Burchill, from Deakin University in Victoria; and also my thanks to Andrew Norton, from the Centre for Independent Studies and to John Walker from the Australian Defence Forces Academy.
We endeavoured to speak to Rohan Gunaratna about his work and the criticisms of it, and we will keep trying because obviously we’re very keen to hear from him.
And that’s The Media Report for this week. As always, thanks to producer Andrew Davies and to our technical producer, Jim Ussher.
David Small, 24 August 2004
Rohan Gunaratna will take part in a week-long seminar on terrorism and counter-terrorism organised by the Religious Studies Department at Wellington’s Victoria University.
Gunaratna is a self-styled expert on Islamic groups and terrorism. He is still being described as “the former principle (sic) investigator for the United Nations Terrorism Prevention branch” [Sunday Star-Times. 15 August 2004] although Australian journalists have established that no such post has ever existed.
Martin Bright, the home affairs editor of the Observer and long-time writer on Islamic terrorist groups has described Gunaratna as “the least reliable of the experts on bin Laden”.
Gunaratna’s current project to establish a data base of Asian terrorist groups has been said to blur the line between freedom of academic research and intelligence-gathering for governments.
Gunaratna tends to rely on what he claims are inside contacts within intelligence networks. By their very nature, however, no claims based of these sorts of sources can be independently tested.
To the extent that they can be investigated, there are many instances where they have been found to be questionable. For example:
Gunaratna’s claim that Hambali, said to be the commander of Jemaah Islamiah the group behind the Bali bombings, had visited Australia a dozen times was refuted by Australian Attorney-General DarylWilliams who said there was no evidence of him ever visiting Australia.
Gunaratna’s claims of an Australian connection with an alleged plot to fly planes into the British Houses of Parliament were described be ASIO as “lacking in credibility”.
In March 2003, Gunaranta claimed (without producing evidence) that Australian Gunantanamo Bay prisoner, David Hicks, was “not a member of al-Quaeda” and “never intended to attack a civilian target”. In July, after the US announced Hicks would be tried as a terrorist, again without evidence, Gunaratna alleged that Hicks had undergone “more advanced and more specialised training” with al-Quaeda. “A person does not receive that level of training unless both he and his trainers had some special plans for him”.
The British publisher of Gunaratna’s book, Inside al-Quaeda, took the extraordinary step of issuing a disclaimer as a “Publisher’s note” advising the reader to treat the book’s contents as mere “suggestions”.
In January 2003, Gunaratna told the New Zealand Herald (again without evidence) that “there are a few sympathisers and supporters of various terrorist groups in New Zealand” and claimed to have seen their fundraising leaflets. Now he alleges that there are about a dozen groups linked to terrorist support networks operated in New Zealand, fundraising, recruiting and distributing propaganda. Although this would be against New Zealand law, the latest (April 04) government report about the unit responsible for dealing with such matters, New Zealand’s Financial Intelligence Unit, reveals that they have not identified or had suspicions about any terrorist-related assets in New Zealand, and have not frozen any assets with suspected connections to the financing of terrorism.
Commentary from Dr David Small:
Before he was exposed, Gunaratna’s impact in Australia was to heighten people’s sense of fear and suspicion, particularly in relation to Islamic groups and migrant communities. He was also assisting the justifications for laws that undermined hard-won human rights and civil liberties. Now he is bringing this message to New Zealand with claims that “the terrorist threat to New Zealand is not very different to the threat to Australia”.
New Zealanders have demonstrated through our most recent terrorist experience, the Rainbow Warrior bombing, that we don’t need to be on a heightened state of alert to notice terrorists in our midst, and we don’t need special legislation to catch them.
Gunaratna is cloaking his own personal views in a veneer of objective academic expertise in order to push New Zealand further into the War on Terrorism.
New Zealanders should treat his views with scepticism, continue to be welcoming and trusting of migrant communities, and rely on our common sense about the right balance between actual risk and the value we have long placed place on human rights and civil liberties.
At the very least, Gunaratna should be asked to hand over to the Police all the evidence that he claims to have about terrorist support networks operating in New Zealand.
For further comment, phone David Small on 021-1323739. Dr Small is a human rights advocate, an academic at the University of Canterbury, and an Advisory Board member of the Action, Research and Education Network of Aotearoa
Crikey: Richard Farmer’s chunky bits
Richard Farmer, 28 October 2009
Repetition I know but still valuable advice. I am reminded again this morning by the big run given to Rohan Gunaratna in The Australian of how helpful it is to give yourself a grand title if you want to be quoted as an expert on something. In Mr Gunaratna’s case he is “of the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research” which sounds much better than being a “former student in Finland, claiming to be a recipient of an untraceable Australian-Europe award to study American-Australia diplomatic and security co-operation” as he was described in Crikey earlier this week by the maverick former Aussie diplomat Bruce Haigh.
The good doctor feeds the insatiable appetite of journalists for so-called experts whenever there is a terrorist or security crisis. He keeps bobbing up on all kinds of media — he is clearly an ABC favourite — because the first thing a reporter does when covering a new story is look up the press cuttings or Google references to see who has given a view on a subject before. Thus in The Oz today Rohan Gunaratna, talking as “a leading terrorism expert”, was allowed to authoritatively reveal that a “small number” of Tamil Tigers are in immigration detention in Indonesia having been intercepted on their way to Australia.
What was not disclosed was that the Professor, himself a Sinhalese Sri Lankan, previously was employed by his government. That knowledge might have helped readers understand what was meant by his comment that “I am unable to disclose (how many) because it is now a matter of investigation. But certainly you can ask the Australian authorities because they’re also aware of those investigations.” The comment certainly made him sound like a real insider unable to disclose everything he knows about the murky world of Tamil Tigers.
For an assessment other than Bruce Haigh’s on Prof Gunaratna’s academic abilities you might care to start with a look at some views expressed on the blog site of Michael K Connors of the City University in Hong Kong.
Sourcewatch: Rohan Gunaratna
Rohan Gunaratna is a Singapore-based “terrorism expert” at The Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS) where is currently an Associate Professor. Previously he was a research assistant at St. Andrews’ University (Scotland)’s Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV) where he was listed as an “acknowledged expert on terrorism in South Asia”. He is the “former principal investigator of the UN’s Terrorism Prevention Branch, Gunaratna has been called the world’s top expert on Al Qaeda”. As a Sri Lankan, his area of expertise is in the Tamil Tigers, a militant Tamil separatist group. Of the publications listed at the CSTPV, Gunaratna has authored four – all of which relate specifically to Sri Lanka’s Tamil insurrection. However, since September 11, he has been a prolific commentator on global terrorism and often appearing as a terrorologist pundit. He recently visited Australia, where he made a number of widely reported, ill-substantiated, and unchallenged, claims that there were several “child-killing terrorist groups” operating in Australia, hiding behind community and humanitarian fronts, whilst manipulating the Australian government through powerful lobbying of politicians. More