Rohan Gunaratna debunked? | Sunday Observer

Rohan Gunaratna debunked?

Sri Lankan born author of several books on terrorism and Singaporean academic Dr Rohan Gunaratna made waves in Colombo this week when he made startling claims at a seminar organised by Gateway College, pointing to the “complete collapse” of the national security machinery in the country.

Delivering the keynote speech at a forum titled ‘Sri Lanka at Cross Roads’ held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for Strategic Studies last week, security and terrorism expert, Dr Rohan Gunaratna who is a Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam Centre for International Studies in Singapore claimed that an “operational wing” of the Military Intelligence had been “disbanded” and charged that the “indomitable spirit” of the security sector had broken down in recent years.

The claims were given wide publicity in the privately owned electronic media but raised eyebrows in other quarters that know the claims to be deliberately misleading or untrue. Dr Gunaratna’s sensational revelations have also cast the spotlight on his claims that have been debunked comprehensively before by top security officials and Governments all over the world.

At least two Sri Lankan security experts who spoke to the Sunday Observer refuted several of Dr Gunaratna’s claims at the Kadirgamar Institute last week, but did not wish to be named since he was known to them.

The experts told the Sunday Observer that the removal of roadblocks was natural when a country was coming out of a war mentality. The military mind set has to reset itself to peacetime, the experts explained. Most roadblocks were removed during the tenure of the Rajapaksa Administration, which remained in power for nearly six years after the war ended, the experts said.

“Soon after the war even during the second term of the last regime the military started getting more exposure and education on human rights,” a senior security expert noted. Continuing to keep roadblocks and a military presence would affect economic development and tourism, the security expert added.

Dr Gunaratna’s claim that all roadblocks and checkpoints were dismantled after the current government came to power was clearly misinformation, the expert said.

During the seminar, Dr Gunaratna made the false claim that 500 military intelligence officials had been “arrested or fingerprinted and photographed” by the CID. The truth is nowhere near that number. The CID Gang Robberies Branch, which has found itself in the crosshairs of pro-Rajapaksa politicos and analysts because it has led investigations into gross human rights violations including the murder and abduction of journalists and others, has arrested only 44 intelligence officials, most of whom are currently out on bail. (See infographic for details of arrests).

The CID has never printed or photographed any intelligence officials except those implicated in these grave crimes. The Sunday Observer learns that when the CID found handprints on murdered Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge’s car that the agency could not identify, it obtained a court order to obtain handprints from all members of the MI platoon allegedly implicated in the assassination. The prints were sent to the Government Analyst for comparison as part of the investigative process, subject to magisterial oversight.

The security experts who spoke with the Sunday Observer added that there was no evidence to prove Dr Gunaratna’s claim that an operational wing of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) comprising some 5000 officials had been disbanded.

Military personnel with operational experience and running the Sri Lankan military at the height of the war with the LTTE also refuted the terrorism expert’s claims.

In an interview, Army Commander Lt. General Mahesh Senanayake vehemently denied the allegations that military intelligence had collapsed in recent years. “Several officers accused of crimes had to be transferred elsewhere. This caused a short term setback, but prior warnings about the attacks were given and investigations into the attacks and arrests are happening rapidly which proves that the intelligence services are operating successfully,” the Army Commander noted.

“I can assure you that just because 10 or 15 officers are removed from service, intelligence services do not collapse,” asserted Field Marshal and MP Sarath Fonseka in an interview last week. The Field Marshall explained that during his tenure as Commander of the Army, he had removed Kapila Hendawitharana and several others who had been at the helm of the DMI and appointed replacements. Soon afterwards, it was military intelligence that provided information on right LTTE ships carrying weapons that the Sri Lanka Navy had destroyed. “Removing a few officers does not weaken the intelligence service,” he added.

(See table for full fact-check and details about Dr Gunaratna’s claims made at the Kadirgamar Institute)

Factual inaccuracies and bogus claims about security affairs have dogged Dr Gunaratna’s career as an academic and terrorism expert. In the Australian press, he has often been described as a “self-styled” expert on Islamic groups and terrorism.

Dr Gunaratna’s credibility has sparked questions to such a degree that a few years ago, 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”.

“A wide range of organisations—banks, governmental and non-governmental bodies, financial enterprises, religious and educational institutions, commercial entities, transport companies and charitable bodies are referred to in this book as having had contact or dealings with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Unless such references specifically state otherwise, they should be treated as nothing other than a suggestion that the organisations concerned were the unwitting tools of those who attempted, successfully or otherwise, to infiltrate, use or manipulate them for terrorist purposes,” the Berkley Publishing Group said in its “note”.

Martin Bright, the home affairs editor of the UK’s Observer and long-time writer on Islamic terrorist groups has described Gunaratna as “the least reliable of the experts on bin Laden”. According to Bright, Gunaratna is often used by the British authorities as an expert witness in the prosecution of Islamic terror suspects, because they could rely on him to be “apocalyptic”.

Even Dr Gunaratna’s author biographies in books he has written, have often played fast and loose with facts. 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.”

However, after inquiries by the Australian media, Gunaratna himself confirmed that no such position had existed at the UN’s terrorism prevention branch, and that he had worked there in 2001-2002 in the capacity of a research consultant. According to the Sudnay Age, which did an indepth profile about the Sri Lankan academic as far back as 2003, Gunaratna had 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.

According to the same Sunday Age article titled Analyse This: “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.”

In 2002, Gunaratna claimed that Riduan Isamuddin alias Hambali, said to be the commander of Jemaah Islamiah the group behind the Bali bombings had visited Australia a dozen times. The claim was refuted by Australian Attorney-General Daryl Williams who said there was no evidence of Hambali ever visiting Australia.

In a February 2011, writing in the Sri Lankan newspaper Lakbima News Rohan Gunaratna claimed that the Canadian Tamil Congress was a front for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The CTC sued Gunaratna and on January 21, 2014 the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled against Gunaratna, ordering him to pay the CTC damages of $37,000 and costs of $16,000. In his ruling, judge Stephen E. Firestone stated that Gunaratna’s claims were unequivocally and incontrovertibly “false and untrue”.

The terrorism expert’s claims have been challenged a lot more recently, and a lot closer to home too.

In 2017, after Gunaratna told a security conference in Dhaka that ISIS was in Bangladesh and were behind the Holey Bakery hostage attack in July 2016, Bangladesh’s Inspector General of Police refuted the claim publicly, saying Prof Gunaratna’s claims were groundless and that the expert had no “ground level practical experience regarding militant issues” in the country. The Bangladeshi Chief of Police said the café’s attackers were home grown terrorists who might have had links to foreign terror groups through the internet. “His claim is nothing but his personal opinion,” he said.

In 2003, New Zealand human rights advocate and now Associate Dean at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch Dr David Small explained that before Dr Gunaratna had been exposed, his impact in Australia had been 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,” Dr Small told the New Zealand media at the time. 

*****

Opinion : Publicity hounds masquerading as “experts”?

By Jayanta Kurukulasuriya

Like mushrooms after a storm, the events of Easter Sunday have produced a crop of “Terrorism Experts”, both local and hybrid.

Another Singapore based Sri Lanka expert has arrived –Rohan Gunaratna conducting lectures, offering gratuitous advice and meeting with officials.

Who is Rohan Gunaratna? A local newspaper in a front page report on May 21 describes him glowingly as “an expert”. But closer scrutiny of his credentials indicates much to the contrary, rather a sensationalist with often wildly incorrect claims.

In 2013, Wijedasa Rajapkshe wrote of him - “Dr Gunaratna’s advice on conflict is more mythical than reality”. In 2017, the Inspector General of Bangladesh Police dismissed his claims of ISIS presence in Bangladesh by saying that he had no experience in “real issues”.

In 2011, the Canadian Tamil Congress sued Gunaratna for defamation, and on 21 January 2014, “the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled against Gunaratna, ordering home to pay the CTC damages of $37,000, and costs of $16,000. In his ruling judge Stephen E. Firestone stated that Gunaratna’s claims were unequivocally and incontrovertibly “false and untrue”.

Another example of a sensationalist claim was when in 2003, he claimed that there was a plot to fly planes into The British Parliament, and this was rejected completely by ASIO- the Australian Security Intelligence Service.

Commenting on the International terrorism expert’s books, the Pacific Journalism Review said that “his writing 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”. (David Small- “Terrorism expertise of Rohan Gunaratna questioned”).

His claim to the New Zealand Herald that “ sympathisers and supporters of various terrorist groups were in New Zealand” were also fully rejected by New Zealand’s Financial Intelligence Unit.

It is not the first foreign invitee who in very recent times, has arrived at the behest of a local politician, provided gratuitous advice relating to domestic politics, and left. 

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