HE is called the most renowned expert on Osama bin Laden or at least thats how the New York Post describes Sri Lankan Rohan Gunaratna.
Americans and the British see him as a guru on counter-terrorism, and in Singapore he is head of Terrorism and associate professor at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies.
Gunaratna is a much sought-after speaker and anyone watching him in action would be impressed with his knowledge of al-Qaeda and the intelligence information he claims to have.
On Wednesday, he was in Washington to address the independent US National Bipartisan Commission probing the Sept 11 terrorist attacks.
Malaysia apparently seems to be of special interest to him when he divulged to reporters details of a meeting by the Sept 11 terrorists in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000 details that until now were not known.
The so-called secret three-day terror conference was not new; what was new was that the meeting was chaired by terror mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and the attacks were code-named Operation Holy Tuesday.
It was the first time that Khalid Sheikh, who was arrested in Pakistan in March this year, was said to be involved.
According to Gunaratna, the meeting was monitored by the Malaysian Special Branch at the request of the CIA.
The meeting was held to review the progress of the operation and to map out their future course of action, the Post quoted him as saying.
Gunaratna, a counter-terrorism consultant for the US and British governments, claimed he had access to records of interrogations of captured al-Qaeda leaders.
He said Khalid Sheikh told his members at the meeting in Malaysia that the targets would include the World Trade Centre and the attacks would be carried out on Sept 11, 2001.
He was the emir (leader) of Operation Holy Tuesday the al-Qaeda term for 9/11, the Post quoted Gunaratna as saying.
Going by his information, the terrorists had picked the date nearly two years before the attacks were carried out, dispelling some theories that the hijackers acted on their own timetable and might have brought forward their plans after Zacarias Moussaoui who was alleged to be among the hijackers was arrested by US authorities in August 2001.
Gunaratna even said that Moussaoui had a vision of crashing a plane into the White House, but his colleagues did not take him seriously.
According to him, the 12 terrorists who met Khalid Sheikh at an apartment in Kuala Lumpur included two hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who flew to US via Bangkok and Tawfiq Attash, a planner of the October 2000 bombing of USS Cole in Yemen.
Gunaratna said that although the CIA took pictures of those who attended the meeting, no one realised that Khalid Sheikh was there until last year after al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was captured and told US interrogators about it.
Gunaratna's claims have been denied by US intelligence officials.
We have no information to suggest that Khalid Sheikh Muhammed was at the meeting in Kuala Lumpur. We dont believe it to be true, said one official.
So, did the meeting take place as Gunaratna described it? Your guess is as good as mine.
n The Niger connection
FIRST it was British Prime Minister Tony Blair who faced severe criticism in Parliament for using flawed intelligence to partner the United States in the invasion of Iraq.
Blair has defended his assessment, telling British MPs that it was not a fantasy and that the intelligence services themselves stood by their assessment. Until now, 100 days later, no weapons of mass destruction have been found.
In the US, political commentators almost felt sorry for Blair who was facing a tough battle almost on his own from not only the opposition but also from within his party.
The winds have shifted across the Atlantic and now President George W. Bush is feeling the heat for using false information in accusing Iraq of trying to buy uranium from Africa for a nuclear weapons programme.
What was particularly embarrassing for the administration was this inclusion in the presidents State of the Union address.
The controversy had been building up and hit fever pitch while the president was in Africa on a five-nation tour.
All major newspapers have been very critical of the president and his administration, particularly Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. Bush and Rice have blamed it on the CIA.
On Friday evening, CIA director George Tenet acknowledged that his agency had made the mistake.
First, the CIA approved the presidents State of the Union address before it was delivered.
Second, I am responsible for the approval process in my agency.
And third, the president had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound.
Many here see Tenet as the fall guy while others say the president has perfected the art of shifting the blame.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen compared Bush to a CEO who has to keep restating corporate profits.
The president recently restated some of the reasons for invading Iraq. Saddam Husseins nuclear weapons programme, which Bush told the world was being reconstituted, may in fact not exist.
The White House the other day restated its earlier insistence that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from the West African nation of Niger. It turned out that the supporting documents had been forged. The White House admitted that in a press release left behind after Bush had left for Africa.
Similarly, the accusation that Iraq was buying high-strength aluminium tubes, which Bush said were used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, has to be restated. The tubes appear to have been bought for another purpose and may not be high strength after all.
As for the charge that Iraq was bristling with other weapons of mass destruction, none has yet been found, raising the distinct possibility that in an upcoming quarter this, too, will be restated and the Bush administration will take a one-rime charge against future credibility.
Even though Tenet has accepted responsibility for this fiasco, it does not look that the issue will end here and the president can expect a torrid time when he returns from his African tour.
One plus point for the president is that despite this upheaval, there is no public outcry or anger over being lied to. Public apathy is not a thing that is prevalent only in Asian societies its the same here.
The only thing that would most possibly move them is when the toll of American soldiers killed or maimed in Iraq keeps rising.
o Johan Fernandez is Editor, North America Bureau, based in New York (e-mail: johan10128 @aol.com)
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