The intelligence flowed from detainees at the Guantanamo camp located on a stretch of American territory neighbouring Cuba. The operation took shape in Washington D.C. It was carried out in deep inside Pakistani territory in Abottabad, on the doorstep of the Islamic nation's war college, one likened to that of the Sandhurst Military Academy in the United Kingdom.
Osama bin Laden, a terrorist leader who masterminded the 9-11 attacks in the United States, killed or maimed thousands, met with his death. That ended a near decade long manhunt but laid bare some interesting facets. Main among them is the worldwide outreach of the US intelligence community as they spent a decade literally looking for needles in haystacks to compose an intelligence picture. That allowed their Commander-in-Chief, Barrack Obama, to authorise the operation. Emerging details have led to some controversy. However, their most wanted man for whom a $ 25 million reward was in place is no more.
Last Tuesday, warnings of the threat of reprisal terrorist attacks came to the United States from the other end of the globe. "There is a very high threat of terrorist attack against places in Pakistan that are frequented by Australians and other Westerners," declared the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in Canberra. "We continue to receive a stream of credible reports indicating terrorists are in the advanced stages of planning attacks, including in Pakistani cities," a statement said.
|An aerial view of the Sydney Harbour with the Opera House and the bridge.
I learnt two weeks ago that warnings of this nature from the DFAT are not based entirely on intelligence assessments alone. There are a number of both government and non-governmental agencies. They gather "humint," (human intelligence) or intelligence available in the public domain, analyse and make educated assessments to the Australian government.
There was one such body set up in Sri Lanka for a similar purpose - the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of Foreign Relations and Strategic Studies. It was meant to comprise persons of eminence in their own fields to dissect issues as they affected Sri Lanka and advise the External Affairs Ministry. Instead, it lost strategic direction and ended up as another body under the Presidential Secretariat. On May 24, the Sunday Times commented editorially on the issue. It noted, "For quite sometime, this newspaper among others, has been urging the Government to get this autonomous think-tank functioning, given the strategic importance of Sri Lanka and the undercurrents in the world of international relations.
“But, no: for some petty reason, the Government stubbornly ignores the visionary concept of such an institute which bears the name of its founder - and the Government is now running helter-skelter to collate material and to put together a White Paper that will challenge the various allegations contained in that (UN Panel) report."
The editorial was to have its sequel. Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga raised issue with President Rajapaksa. The institute was immediately brought under the External Affairs Ministry. However, the enforcement of the institute's clear-cut objectives remains to be executed.
Early last month, I was a guest of the Australian Government's International Media Visits (IMV) Programme that focused on foreign affairs, regional security and defence issues. It covered a string of meetings with think-tanks, a defence college and bodies that advise on foreign policy in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.
Arrival in Sydney by a Qantas Airbus A 380, now the world's largest aircraft, was to have its own interesting moment. I was asleep in the upper deck when a Steward left the Immigration Arrival Card and an invitation to an express queue. Woken up by the cockpit announcement that the giant aircraft had begun its descent, I had mistakenly said "yes" to one of ten questions in the form.
A passenger had to have "no" for all ten such questions to be allowed exit without Customs examination. Realising my mistake, I had corrected it and placed my initials. The Immigration Officer was not happy that I had marked "yes" when the answer should have been a "no." After a string of questions, he marked "2" in my card.
At the Customs, I was directed to Bay 2. There a worker loaded my baggage to an x-ray machine. I could not see the officers since this machine blocked my view. Just then, I heard a voice saying "Mr. Iqbal Athas, welcome to Sydney." The Customs Officer emerged from one end of the machine to say, "I am an avid reader of the Sunday Times." I explained my mistake in filling the form. "This happens to most people. Do not worry about it. You're okay," he said as I cleared my baggage. The next half hour was spent on a conversation with the officer, a one-time Sri Lankan and a student at Royal College.
On a visit to a seaplane yard in the Sydney harbour next day, I engaged the young pilot who flew a single engine ten-seater Otter aircraft. He had flown similar aircraft in Alaska before taking up the job in Sydney. When it came to an air tour of Sydney, I was invited to sit in the co-pilots seat. I was strapped with the safety belt and told not to touch the joystick (aircraft control column) or step on the rudder pedal. Trouble began when we had climbed 500 feet and was over Bondi beach. Only one in the group of five Chinese tourists seated behind spoke English. He asked whether it was safe for them with me in the co-pilot's seat. "He is going to do the landing," said the Pilot. He whispered in my ears "don't you try that." The Chinese gentlemen explained it to his colleagues in his language as the aircraft climbed to 1,000 feet to go over the symbolic Opera House and the harbour bridge. Then, when the pilot was busy with the wheel near his right leg (the elevator trimmer) to descend at sea, all eyes were on me. After touch down, they heaved a sigh of relief.
In Sydney, the largest populated city in Australia, I joined a discussion at the Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism. It is part of the Macquarie University. Professor Peter Anderson heads it. He has been a police officer for 40 years and a one-time Minister for Police and Emergency Services. The Centre promotes research, delivers postgraduate programmes and provides professional education and consultancy services. The 13 strong staff includes a Sri Lankan -- Shanaka Jayasekera, who once served in the Peace Secretariat in Colombo. His speciality with the 13-member academic team is to monitor the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Now that the Tiger guerrillas are defeated, he has become interested in the activities of their rump abroad. A week ago, he was in the Netherlands to appear as an expert witness in a court. The team also includes an expert psychologist who is now carrying out empirical research into, human reasoning and decision-making.
At Sydney's Lowy Institute, an independent international policy think tank created to generate new ideas and dialogue on international developments, Programme Director Rory Medcalf explained their work. A former senior strategic analyst with the Office of National Assessments, Australia's apex intelligence service, he said the Institute's work is not limited to a particular region. "Our mandate is broad and we deal with economic, political and strategic issues," he said.
A 43-minute flight from Sydney lies Canberra, the sprawling national capital of Australia with wide roads and beautiful parks. It derives its name from Kanberra, the aboriginal name for meeting place. In 1908, the place was chosen as a diplomatic compromise between those who contended for Sydney and Melbourne.
After a meeting with the Centre for Excellence in Policing and Security at the Australian National University, I met Brigadier (retd.) Michael C. Kehoe, Director of Studies at the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies of the Australian Defence Force College.
Together with a serving Vice Admiral from the Australian Navy, he made a presentation on the Centre's Officer Education and Training. The objective is to prepare selected career officers for command and staff appointments. The current year's 172 course members include Lieutenant Commander Ruwan Rupasena of the Sri Lanka Navy. A member of the 12th intake of the Kotalawala Defence Academy, he served at Navy Headquarters in Colombo before being assigned for this course.
A discussion with those at the Office of National Assessments, Australia's premier intelligence agency, with analysts covering the South Asian region was thought provoking. The ONA assesses and analyses international, political, strategic and economic developments for the Prime Minister and senior Ministers in the National Security Committee of Cabinet.
After a roundtable at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, there was a discussion at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Civil Military Excellence. Another 45 minute flight and we and our Liaison Officer Kerry Singh, a third generation Indian, among others, were in Melbourne. It is Australia's second largest city with a population of more than three million, among them many Sri Lankans.
There Michael MacKellar of the Australian Institute of International Affairs explained the objectives of his organisation. They are a non profit organisation seeking to promote interest in and understanding of international affairs in Australia. A round table discussion followed at the Global Terrorism Research Centre at the Monash University. The Centre's head, Dr. Peter Lantini and a team monitors global hot spots where the scourge of terrorism continues.
These were a few of the many engagements with think tanks in Australia. I found that the separatist war in Sri Lanka had generated great interests at most of these think tanks and research centres. Many were readers of the Sunday Times internet edition and were familiar with accounts in the Situation Report. Undoubtedly, Sri Lanka can take a lesson from Australia by encouraging universities, among others, in specialising in various aspects including international affairs and the country's relations with other countries.
Senator Michael Foreshaw, the Chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade of the Australian Parliament, whom I met in Sydney, spelt out Australia's mission. A lover of cricket and a man who recalled many Sri Lankan cricketers by name, he said Australia wanted to increase its role in South Asia. "We want to engage positively with various governments," he said.