Probing the mind of the terrorist

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 12 Jan 2003


A huge gathering of early morning participants waited eagerly outside the ballroom of the Shangri-La in Singapore for the Institute of South East Asian Studies’ annual forum to begin last Tuesday. This moved a key speaker from the United States to remark that it is difficult to get people enthusiastic at 8am back home. 

As the crowd milled, attention was focused on Dr Rohan Gunaratna who was to speak on his pet subject – terrorism. Many walked up just to say hello, others tried to pick his brains on what was new with the world’s most notorious terrorist outfit, the al-Qaeda. 

These scenarios are routine for Gunaratna, who “emerged” with his insights on terror networks since the 9/11 attacks on the US.  

Chalking up 18 years of operational, policy and academic experience in the field, Gunaratna is seen as among the foremost scholars on terrorist organisations, infrastructure and support organisations. 

Prior to writing Inside Al Qaeda – Global Network of Terror, he published six books on armed conflicts. He has addressed the United Nations, the US Congress and the Australian Parliament since that fateful attack on the US, and is a familiar face on CNN.  

But as the war on terror may see no end, Gunaratna speaks of an unpredictable road ahead in his own domain. 

“I am committed to my field of study but there’s a limit as to what I can do. I am still learning everyday,” he adds in an interview at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies where he is presently based as a visiting senior fellow with the rank of associate professor. 

He speaks of his resolve, and dilemma. “My mission is to fight terrorism, but there is no standard textbook on it. On the other side, terrorist networks are constantly innovating techniques, tactics and strategies.” 

Gunaratna, who obtained his PhD at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland’s University of St Andrews, should know. His book on the al-Qaeda was based on five years of research, extensive interviews with members of the terror network and fieldwork in al-Qaeda-infiltrated zones around the world. 

He was fortunate to have had a head start in his field of expertise – his first-hand experience in a motherland infamous for the terror exploits of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was sort of a blessing in disguise. 

Gunaratna started out as a special assistant to Sri Lankan president J.R. Jayewardene’s science advisor in 1988, serving later as the president’s research assistant. 

He focused on Asian and Middle Eastern terrorist groups. In 1994, Gunaratna moved base to the US where he worked at the University of Illinois’ Unit of Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security with terrorism research coming under his scope.  

From there, he moved to St Andrew’s where further intensive research led to his PhD in 1999. He credits terrorism experts Bruce Hoffman and Paul Wilkinson as his mentors. 

Hoffman, who wrote one of the most acclaimed books on terrorism, Inside Terrorism, is associated with RAND which is the Pentagon’s unofficial security think-tank while Wilkinson, who heads St Andrew’s terrorism centre, is known as the father of terrorism research in Europe. 

“They are both highly experienced specialists and I owe my success to them, my tutors,” he says. The 42-year-old father of two boys says terrorism, put simply, is about frightening people. “It is both a psychological and physical threat.” 

“Terrorism as a tool of political protest must be sent out of fashion. People who kill children and women are not freedom fighters. They should take on the security forces.  

“As far as I am concerned, these (terrorist) groups have killed so many innocent people and taken away so many precious lives. We should hunt down terrorists. The element of fear should not cloud your judgment. We should never be frightened,” he says in a raised tone. 

There are many other terrorism scholars and experts, but the focus is now on Gunaratna as his latest publication deals specifically with the al-Qaeda threat. The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle have rated Inside Al Qaeda as an international best seller. 

In the book, the author reveals how Osama bin Laden provides much of the brainpower and most of the inspiration behind al-Qaeda and traces the terror network’s clandestine operations in many parts of the world.  

The al-Qaeda organisation, ideology and strategy, its “new theatres” and fresh threats also come under the gutsy writer’s microscope.  

He makes several references to Malaysia, one of which kicked up a storm among political circles here – no thanks to the UN. 

In the chapter “Asia: al-Qaeda’s New Theatre,” Gunaratna writes: In the 1980s and 1990s, when some Malaysian religious and political leaders were supportive of, and sympathetic to, the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) and the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front), these groups were able to establish a significant presence in Malaysia.  

But it was this observation that was to result in a controversy (excerpt): The MILF nurtures and maintains links with several individual members of political parties in Malaysia. The MILF’s links are ideological and political, e.g. with APU, Abim, Islamic Front of Malaysia, Front Malaysian Islamic Council, Kimma, Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement, Barisan Nasional and PAS. 

There was no mention of links with the al-Qaeda, but the UN’s Monitoring Group on Terrorism interpreted Gunaratna’s views it in its report as the Barisan having ties with the al-Qaeda. Last Thursday, it was reported that the UN had removed from its report the baseless allegation against the Malaysian Government. 

Gunaratna heaves a sigh of relief now that the dust has finally settled over the issue. 

“What happened was very unfortunate. The Malaysian politicians pointed the finger at me by reading the UN report, not by reading my book. 

“I have never linked the Barisan Nasional with the al-Qaeda. All I said was that there were ties with the MILF by virtue of the Barisan’s peace-brokering efforts involving the group. “Malaysia has done so much to resolve the dispute in Mindanao. Your country has been an honest broker.”  

Contrary to the UN’s “misinterpretation”, Gunaratna speaks of his admiration for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership in these challenging times, adding that the premier’s views on how to tackle the root causes of terrorism were spot on. 

“Malaysia is the most advanced Muslim country in the world, and is an example of a strong and stable leadership. 

“Malaysian security authorities are fully aware of what the terrorist networks are up to. The Malaysian special branch is especially efficient, as revealed in my book,” he stresses. 

Gunaratna quashes talk that he released the Inside Al Qaeda book at this juncture to cash in on the “terror craze”.  

“If I wanted to make money, I wouldn’t be in this profession,” he offers matter-of-factly. He also chides those who label him a US crony.  

“In my concluding chapter, I only praised two leaders (for their work in the fight against terror). One was President Musharraf of Pakistan, and the other was Dr Mahathir. I think these are the two great leaders of Asia. I did not praise President Bush.” 

Gunaratna emphasises his point by stating his opposition against any unilateral US action against Iraq, adding that the US should not confuse its war on terror with its mission against weapons of mass destruction. 

“The war against terror will not be won by military might alone. Dr Mahathir is absolutely right that an attack on Iraq will only spawn more terrorist groups and result in more terror attacks against civilians. 

“The terrorism threat should be addressed via both political and ideological warfare. In my view, 95% ideological and political, and 5% by military means.” 

On his future aspirations, Gunaratna says: “ I want to train a new generation of counter terrorism specialists for the South-East Asian region. 

“To study terrorism, one must be prepared to commit a lifetime towards research work. I have had a number of able Malaysian students under my charge at St Andrews.” 

Gunaratna, who has examined 241 videotapes on the al-Qaeda, ends with a final word on the terror network, which is sure to interest President Bush and his inner circle. 

“Osama bin Laden is definitely alive. He is somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.”  

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