analyzing so-called "terror experts"
There have been a litany of so-called "terrorism experts" travelling
the world, peddling oft outrageous, sensationalist claims about Muslim
communities in the West, encouraging fear and distrust, and
campaigning to have civil liberties curtailed in the name of "fighting terror".
This article deals with Dr Rohan Gunaratna who is arguably one of the
more prolific of them
A LITTLE GOING A LONG WAY
One of the interesting effects of September 11 has been the way in
which the sudden media and public interest in terrorism has
transformed the careers of otherwise obscure "experts". Many have
sought to cash in on September 11, but few have been able to go so far
with so little as Dr Rohan Gunaratna.
Gunaratna, a research assistant at St. Andrews' University in
Scotland, is, according to the profile on his webpage, an
"acknowledged expert on terrorism in South Asia". As a Sri Lankan,
his area of expertise is in the Tamil Tigers, a militant Tamil
separatist group. Of the publications listed at the Centre for the
Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), Gunaratna has
authored four - all of which relate specifically to Sri Lanka's Tamil insurrection.
Despite that, since September 11, he has been one of the most prolific
commentators on global terrorism, being courted by the media and by
governments. He recently visited Australia, where he made a number of
widely reported, but 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.
The first media appearance of Gunaratna appears to have been in the
August 3, 1997 edition of Scotland on Sunday. Here, the amusing
claim is made that the Tamil Tigers had developed a high-tech body
suit to wear during their suicide bombings that would ensure the head
is not destroyed but rather is transformed into a "lethal projectile -
sometimes traveling as far as two hundred yards". Gunaratna declared
this body suit "more advanced than the body suits used by any other
groups", and warned of "technology transfer" to the Middle East. No
evidence was given to support his claims, and the media ran it on the
basis of him being an "expert".
On October 7, 2000, Gunaratna appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald,
warning that ships belonging to the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) had been
"sighted" in Australian ports, and that Australian Tamils have somehow
been shipping "mini-helicopters" and "micro-light aircraft" for use in
attacks on government troops.
Gunaratna's claims naturally attracted widespread criticism. His book,
"International & Regional Security Implications of the Sri Lankan
Tamil Insurgency" (privately published), was described by the
Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations as, "a book replete with
factual errors and devoid of indexes, footnotes, or any evidence to
substantiate the claims made".
An SBS Dateline program screened on October 4, 2000, featured
Gunaratna making a series of unproven and untested claims such as that
"every working Sri Lankan Tamil is taxed 300 British sterling pounds
per year" to support the Tamil separatist movement. The program, to
which Gunaratna contributed heavily, was challenged by the Tamil
community in Australia, resulting in the investigating reporter behind
the program eventually resigning.
CASHING IN ON TERROR
After September 11, Gunaratna cashed in on the widespread interest in
terrorism and seems to have successfully recast himself as not just an
expert on Tamil terrorism but as an expert in terrorism as a whole.
The first newspaper to quote Gunaratna after September 11th, was the
Financial Times of London on September 13th. Gunaratna was quoted
because of his expertise in the Tamil Tigers who also employed suicide
bombings as a weapon.
On September 18, 2001, in the San Francisco Chronicle, Gunaratna
presented himself not just as an expert on Sri Lankan terrorism but an
expert on "Islamic terrorism". Warning of an "endurance period" that
a suicide bomber spends in secular society without succumbing to
temptation, Gunaratna said that he becomes a "programmed machine".
"He lives in your country. He wears the clothes that you wear. He has
a good time. And though he comes from a poor country and experiences
what America is, when he is given the order -- get on the plane and do
this -- he still does it... To ensure that he doesn't change his mind,
others follow him around... They preach to him selected verses in the
Koran. They remind him, 'You'll be a martyr. You'll be remembered for
Noone pointed out to Gunaratna that the alleged hijackers were Saudis
- not from poor countries. Of course, such oversights might be
excused, as Gunaratna is still in the early stages of his
transformation from an obscure expert on Tamil affairs to a world
expert on "Islamic terrorism".
INCITING FEAR IN AUSTRALIA
On September 27, 2001, the Sydney Morning Herald reports Gunaratna's
declaration that he had "evidence" of numerous terrorist groups active
in Australia, including Hamas, and that Australia must establish an
"anti-terrorist unit" to root them out. The article reports that, as
has become characteristic, Gunaratna declines to mention his source or
any evidence to support these accusations. Interestingly, Gunaratna
warned that liberal laws are to blame - a theme that remains
consistent in his Quixotic adventure. Despite Gunaratna's claims of
compelling evidence, neither the Australian government, nor its law
enforcement apparatus, have admitted any such presence or taken steps
to eradicate it.
On the same day, the Financial Times reported that Gunaratna has
labeled Germany the base for al-Qaeda in Europe. Again, he blamed the
"tight limits on how intelligence and police officials can gather
evidence against suspects, a strong civil liberties tradition and easy
access to education and welfare provision".
The Australian reported, also on September 27, 2001, that Gunaratna
had identified no less than seven terrorist groups operating in
Australia, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and the "Chechen Mujahideen".
In The Age, September 27th, again, Gunaratna rallied against the usual
enemy of civil liberties, claiming, "Your laws, the legal system is
very weak in responding to this type of terrorist support network".
On October 5, 2001, The Mercury (Hobart) reports Gunaratna as again
making the unsupported claim that seven terrorist groups operate here.
Continuing to tilt at windmills, this modern day Don Quixote calls on
the Federal Government to pass laws to "restrict the operations of
these groups and prevent them spreading 'propaganda'". What kind of
operations is not mentioned, nor what kind of "propaganda".
He said that here were several hundred members in total in Australia,
who recruited and indoctrinated new members in the aims of the
terrorist groups. "These are terrorists who have killed many women
and children and these groups are functioning here." It is difficult
to find anyone in the Australian media who has come close to Gunaratna
in making such an outrageous statement without being debunked and
condemned as alarmist. Nonetheless, his fear-mongering was widely
reported and accepted.
ALLEGATIONS OF POLITICAL MANIPULATION
The Herald-Sun on October 5, 2001 quotes Gunaratna as making an even
more ridiculous and outlandish claim. After blasting our "weak laws",
he explained the reason why: "The reason your politicians are not
passing this legislation is because some of these groups are lobbying
your MPs and telling them we will give you so many hundred votes from
this migrant community and you must help us and raise our concerns in
Parliament." He hoped the current climate of outrage against
terrorists would compel politicians to act, because Australia was
vulnerable and presented "a target-rich environment".
So now he is claiming that terrorist groups that have killed women and
children are approaching Australian politicians and paying them off
with promises of "hundreds" of votes? A claim that anti-terrorism
laws are being held back because the terrorists are manipulating the
politicians is scandalous and Gunaratna should have been throroughly
interrogated by the media over such a claim.
Associated Press reported on November 20, 2001, that Gunaratna claimed
that Islamic terrorists would soon attack cruise ships because they
are "considered prestigious because there is a perception that they
are filled with wealthy Americans." To suggest that al-Qaeda's
apparent hatred of the West is driven by a hate of "wealthy Americans"
is nonsensical, given that Gunaratna has himself been traveling the
world instilling fear of the amazingly affluent Bin Laden network.
INCONSISTENCIES IN GUNARATNA'S STORIES
On December 10th, 2001, in an Opinion piece published in the
Australian, Gunaratna ran the now familiar script about our weak laws
and the need to curtail civil liberties. He made the same unsupported
and baseless claim of terrorist groups operating in this country, but
this time he appears to have either forgotten the number he quoted to
the same paper on September 27th or has discovered a new group since
then. He claimed that there were now eight terrorist groups operating
here, as opposed to seven! It is hard to take seriously someone who
despite his apparent academic credentials, has failed to provide
references or evidence for any of his broad claims. It is even harder
to take someone seriously who seems to have forgotten what he told the
Australian press just three weeks earlier.
Gunaratna then made the inciteful and, as as become his modus
operandi, unsupported accusation that these terrorist groups are
"operating through front, cover and sympathetic organisations may take
the face of human rights and humanitarian groups as well as community
organizations". Naturally, he doesn't name them, or point to any
evidence - as this would expose his claims to scrutiny and, maybe
On January 9, 2002, Gunaratna began peddling his standard wares in
Singapore. The Straits Times reports that he accused Parti Islami
seMalaysia (PAS), a Malaysian political party, had links to al-Qaeda.
PAS described Gunaratna's accusation as libel, and pointed out that
all political achievements of PAS had been throught he ballot box.
On January 30, 2002, Jana Wendt interviewed Gunaratna on SBS's
dateline. When asked what information he had been able to glean from
the videotapes of Bin Laden about al-Qaeda's future direction, he
answered: "In fact, one of his last messages, Osama said that the
frontline, or the battleline, is now at 100m and it should be extended
to 300m. It very clearly meant that his message to the wider support
base is "You should take the war out of Afghanistan." Wendt then
asked, "You say "very clearly meant". How can you be so sure that that
was the coded message that he was transmitting to his followers?"
Gunaratna then claimed that he could be absolutely certain that this
was a coded message because "well, Osama usually speaks in parables,
in that kind of language - indirect language - and this is his way of
sending a wider message to his supporters."
Osama speaking in parables? Did Gunaratna get confused between his
terrorism studies and bible studies: "All this Jesus said to the
crowds in parables; indeed he said nothing to them without a parable." (Matthew 13:34)
It is doubtful that Gunaratna even understands Arabic, let alone to
the point that he could understand the allegories often used in a
language that is amongst the world's most flowery. One gets an
insight into the extent of Gunaratna's "mastery" of Arabic in his
article entitled, "Blowback" and published in Jane's Intelligence
Review (August 1, 2001). He claims that al-Qaida membership is drawn
from two distinct Egyptian terrorist groups (Islamic Group of Egypt
and Islamic Jihad). He then calls them "Gamaya al Islamiya" and "Al
Gamaya al Islamiya", however, in Arabic, both names have the exact
same meaning of "Islamic Group". It is analgeous to saying, "Islamic
Group" and "the Islamic Group". The correct name would, as any
self-respecting "terror expert" would have known, be al-Jihad
His interview with Wendt continues: "As you know, other than the core
organisation of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda also has extensive linkage to a
number of Islamist political movements and Islamist terrorist
organisations, so al-Qaeda depends not only on its operatives for
action against Western, primarily US, targets but also action by these
A series of unsupported, incredulous, and oft ridiculous statements,
and one might have expected the media to have woken up to Gunaratna
and his racket. Not so.
The November 2001 edition of The Review, the magazine of the
Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council, described Gunaratna as the
"sort of figure in short supply in Australia". Thankfully.
In an interview with The Review, Gunaratna warned that here in
Australia, "the terrorist support networks that are often operating as
charities as front cover and sympathetic organisations. These
organisations take the face of human rights and human caring
organisations and they have got grants of several respectable
grant-making foundations in Australia, in the West, and this must
stop. And the only way this can stop is, if the public are vigilant
and if the public maintain pressure."
His concluding message to the Australian political establishment was
happily conveyed by the Review. He said: "I also have a special
message for the politicians especially of Australia, some of these
terrorist organisations exercise constituent or electoral pressure and
you must not succumb to this pressure. A terrorist group can come and
tell you, look we will give you 10,000 or 20,000 votes in the next
election. You should include this in your manifesto or you should air
this in your parliament. It will be highly counterproductive for
political leaders to succumb to this kind of pressure because this
will damage the security, not only of your country, but international
security in general."
The idea that someone would address the Israeli lobby, raising the
alarm on the ability of powerful lobby groups to influence political
opinion is laughable.
What is, of course, not laughable is that on October 5, 2001,
Gunaratna told the Herald-Sun the same story but instead claimed that
only hundreds of votes were being promised. He said: "The reason your
politicians are not passing this legislation is because some of these
groups are lobbying your MPs and telling them we will give you so many
hundred votes from this migrant community and you must help us and
raise our concerns in Parliament."
By November, Gunaratna's scenario was politicians being offered tens
of thousands of votes. The sensationalist vote-manipulation story had
now undergone the same treatment as his earlier, "terrorist groups in
A further inconsistency is in Gunaratna's claims as to even how many
terrorist groups are "capable for conducting suicide missions". In an
article entitled, "Suicide Terrorism: A Global Threat", originally
published in Janes Intelligence Review and reprinted in Turkish Daily
News on September 14, 2001, Gunaratna claims that there were 10 groups
capable of using suicide terrorism. In Janes Intelligence Review
(September 24, 2001), just ten days later, the number jumps to 12 with
Gunaratna writings: "at present, 12 Middle Eastern and Asian terrorist
groups are capable of conducting suicide operations."
It is impossible to know whether Gunaratna is an exaggerator, a liar,
absent minded, careless, or simply ignorant of the facts. The answer
is, however, irrelevant. Regardless of the reason, these
inconsistencies, lack of proof and outrageous, unsupported claims
should make Gunaratna a completely incredulous source for information
on terrorism and the situation here in Australia. That Gunaratna has,
till now, been able to peddle his tabloid-style sensationalism to an
accepting and largely unquestioning audience is a sad indictment on
some sections of the media and also a reflection of the blanket of
hysteria that has covered much of society since September 11.
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