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POLITICS: ‘Expert’ Draws Attention to Business of Counter-terrorism

Analysis - By Tim Shorrock

WASHINGTON, Nov 4 2003 (IPS) - The Sep. 11 attacks on the United States and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq have spawned a new industry of terrorism experts, who have made their mark by explaining their theories to the media and advising governments and corporations on how to cope with threats to national security.

The leading figures in the business in the United States are R James Woolsey, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director who now directs the Global Strategic Security practice of Booz Allen Hamilton, the global consulting company, and Richard Perle, a former Department of Defence official who has extensive investments in Trireme Partners, a private equity fund focused on the U.S. homeland security marketplace.

Both men are members of the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Board and were adamant supporters of “regime change” in Iraq. In their private roles, they have profited considerably from the tough foreign and domestic policies they advocate.

For every Woolsey and Perle, there are unknowns who shoot to superstardom on the basis of their detailed knowledge of industries like shipping or terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. The latest entry to this elite club is Rohan Gunaratna, a Sri Lankan who once toiled in obscurity as an academic expert on the Tamil Tigers, the rebels who pioneered the use of suicide bombings on the island nation. Today, on the basis of a bestselling book, ‘Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror’ and exhaustive research on the al-Qaeda network and other terrorist groups for security institutes in Singapore and Israel, Gunaratna has become one of the world’s leading experts on terrorism.

He is a favourite of the broadcast media for his pithy quotes about emerging threats from the shadowy world of Islamic extremism. He appears frequently on the Cable News Network, the British Broadcasting Corp and Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

In July, Gunaratna sparked headlines when he appeared before the U.S. task force investigating the Sep. 11 attacks.

He made the startling claim that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a senior al-Qaeda leader and one of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants, was not only present but chaired a January 2000 summit meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where the Sep. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., were allegedly planned.

That meeting has been the source of considerable controversy in the United States because it was monitored by Malaysian intelligence on behalf of the CIA, which subsequently tracked the movements of two al-Qaeda attendees, Khalid Al-Mihdhar and Nawaf Al Hazmi, to Los Angeles. Those two men later took part in the Sep. 11 hijackings, and the CIA was chastised for not passing their names on to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Gunaratna’s claims about the 2000 meeting were based on U.S. intelligence debriefings of Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan earlier this year. But they were emphatically denied by the CIA. “He’s totally incorrect,” said CIA spokesman Bill Harlow following Gunaratna’s testimony. “He got it wrong.”

Since then, Gunaratna has changed his story about Mohammed – if only slightly. Last week, in a speech on ‘Al-Qaeda’s Network in South-east Asia’ at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA in Washington, he did not mention Mohammed’s name when he discussed the Kuala Lumpur meeting.

But he claimed that the Sep. 11 plots were hatched in Malaysia and a subsequent session in Thailand “shortly after the first two hijackers entered” the United States. His conclusion: “South-east Asia was a very important place in the development of the Sep. 11 operations.”

Al-Qaeda, he said, moved into the region – specifically the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Burma and Malaysia – from Afghanistan, which had been transformed after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 “into a terrorist Disneyland”.

There is no doubt that Gunaratna is a master at the sound byte, which partly explains his many media appearances. But on this occasion, he did not tell the sponsors of his speaking appearance that he is also a paid consultant to multinational corporations and insurance companies.

Gunaratna was introduced as head of terrorism at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and honourary fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel.

The Sasakawa Foundation also said he “led the team that designed and built the U.N. database on ”al-Qaeda, Taliban and Associated Entities”.

But much of Gunaratna’s talk – including the quote on a “terrorist Disneyland” and his prescriptions for opposing al-Qaeda’s “misuse and abuse of religion” – can be read verbatim in an on-line report, ‘Managing Terrorism Risk in 2004’.

This report is prepared by Risk Management Solutions (RMS), a California-based company that studies political and other risks for a range of business clients, primarily in the insurance and oil business.

The website of RMS lists Gunaratna as someone who has developed computer models for its clients and appears at its press conferences.

In September 2002, according an RMS press release, Gunaratna “served as a key advisor” when RMS developed a ‘U.S. Terrorism Risk model’ in collaboration with the University of St Andrews, Gunaratna’s alma mater.

Other participants in the model included senior U.S. officials from the RAND Corp, the U.S. Air Force think tank, and the Central Intelligence Agency, the release said.

One of RMS’ clients is Marsh USA Inc., the company that employed L Paul Bremer before he was named the chief U.S. administrator of Iraq by U.S. President George W Bush. Others RMS clients include BP Energy Inc, Merrill Lynch and Hess Energy Trading Co., the firm’s website shows. Gunaratna’s business ties with RMS were not disclosed to the Sasakawa Foundation, an official with the organisation told IPS.

In his 45-minute talk in Washington, Gunaratna displayed a brilliant command of numbers, names and places. But his speech contained little analysis.

Explaining why al-Qaeda turned on the United States after exploiting U.S. military aid to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, he said that bin Laden wanted “to inspire and show the way for other Islamic terrorist movements that even the United States can be attacked”.

Nor did he offer many clues about why guerrilla groups in the Philippines, such as the Moro National Liberation Front, or Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, might have a grudge against governments in Manila and Jakarta, which are both close allies of the United States.

But he said he is sure that, with the terrorist underground shattered in Afghanistan, South-east Asia is the next big battleground in the war against terrorism. “The threat has clearly moved beyond al-Qaeda,” he said. “We are seeing very clearly a second generation” of fighters who “want an Islamic state where Islamicists live”.

Pointing to the recent bombings in Jakarta and Bali and other attacks, he declared that the “complexion” of terrorism in South-east Asia “has changed because of al- Qaeda penetration”.

Gunaratna’s apocalyptic talk is precisely what bothers many analysts. One sceptic is Martin Bright, home affairs editor of the ‘London Observer’, who has been writing for years about Islamic terrorist groups. He believes Gunaratna is unreliable and said in an e-mail interview that he is “not a great fan.”

Bright noted that in a recent interview with BBC, Gunaratna attributed “without question” recent attacks on U.S. forces to al-Qaeda – and then went on to say “that the biggest problem the allies face in Iraq is lack of intelligence about the people carrying out these attacks”.

“So how does he know who carried out these attacks when the massed ranks of the allied intelligence do not?” asked Bright. “I think he’s a dangerous man who sells a specialist kind of ‘expert’ product dripping in panic and terror.”

Gunaratna’s relationship to the United Nations is not all that it seems. A U.N. spokesman in New York told IPS that Gunaratna may have provided some information to the U.N. terrorist database. But he said the official curator of the “watch list,” which was started in 1999, is the U.N. Security Council.

Some of Gunaratna’s other institutional relationships, such as the institute in Israel where he is an honorary fellow, are far deeper than a simple title suggests.

The chairman of the board of Israel’s International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Shabtai Shavit, is the former director of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, according to the institute’s website.

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