December 19, 2014

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Lawyers call terror expert ‘unreliable’

Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press
COLUMBUS — Lawyers for a man charged with plotting to attack a shopping mall want the government’s terrorism expert prohibited from testifying in an upcoming trial. They say the expert is not reliable and has his facts wrong.
The expert, Singapore-based Rohan Gunaratna, is scheduled to testify at the August trial of Nuradin Abdi, 35, a Somali immigrant arrested three years ago. Prosecutors say he wanted to bomb an unspecified Columbus-area shopping mall; the alleged plot was never carried out. It’s unclear how many expert witnesses the government might call, but federal prosecutors have agreed to a request by Abdi’s lawyer for a July hearing to determine the reliability of Gunaratna’s testimony.
The government says Gunaratna will testify about the history of radical terrorist networks including al-Qaida and its recruitment strategies. He will also testify about terrorist training in Ethiopia between 1995 and 2000 at a time the government alleges Abdi traveled to Africa to obtain such training.
Abdi is charged with conspiring to provide support to terrorists and specifically to al-Qaida and to using false travel documents. If convicted, he could get up to 80 years in prison.
Abdi’s attorney, Mahir Sherif, says his client may have been an angry man but wasn’t involved in any terrorism conspiracy.
Gunaratna will also testify that Abdi’s behavior mirrors that of members and supporters of terrorist groups, but will not give his opinion about Abdi’s intentions, according to a September 2005 court filing by the government.
Gunaratna is a professor at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore. He comments frequently on international terrorism to the media, including The Associated Press.
In 2002, he interviewed John Walker Lindh as a defense consultant and submitted a report to a federal judge that concluded Lindh never swore loyalty to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.
Lindh, an American captured in Afghanistan in November 2001, is serving a 20-year sentence after pleading guilty to supplying services to the Taliban and carrying an explosive during commission of a felony.
In 2004, Gunaratna testified as a government expert on world terrorist groups in the Idaho trial of Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, acquitted of using his computer skills to foster terrorism.
Gunaratna has also served as a prosecution witness in terrorism cases brought by Canadian and British prosecutors.
He relies too heavily on uncorroborated and possibly inaccurate sources, Sherif argued last week in a filing in U.S. District Court in Columbus.
“While some of what Dr. Gunaratna would testify to may be the truth, it would be virtually impossible for an impressionable jury to sort fact from fiction,” Sherif wrote. Much of Sherif’s arguments are based on newspaper and magazine profiles critical of Gunaratna. A message was left with Sherif seeking comment.
The government said Abdi is avoiding the relevance of Gunaratna’s proposed testimony and instead “challenges its reliability based largely on cherry-picked comments and opinions of a few journalists and other individuals, most of whom are not experts in the relevant field,” according to a Monday response filed by assistant U.S. attorney Dana Peters.
For the Abdi trial, Gunaratna produced a 34-page report about Abdi’s alleged terrorist activities, including 172 footnotes for the source of his statements, according to a separate filing Monday by Peters. That report is not a public document.
Gunaratna tests the information he receives about terrorism by comparing it to other sources and information, the government said in rebutting Abdi’s request.
As a result, “Gunaratna is unquestionably qualified” to serve as an expert witness, Peters said.
Gunaratna, 45, said Wednesday it’s common for defense lawyers to try to exclude an expert if they think the testimony will have a major impact on the trial’s outcome. He wouldn’t comment on his upcoming testimony but said he doesn’t take assignments randomly.
“I only take on cases where I have deep knowledge and understanding of the case itself,” he said.
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On the Net:
U.S. District Court, Southern District of Ohio: http://www.ohsd.uscourts.gov/aboutct.htm

Contested expertise
NAME: Rohan Gunaratna.
AGE: 45; Born Sept. 4, 1961, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
EDUCATION: Certificate of General Education, Stella Maris College, Malta, 1981; Master’s in International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, 1996; doctorate in International Relations, University of St. Andrews, Scotland, 1999.
POSITION: Professor, Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
OTHER EXPERIENCE: Senior Fellow, Centre for the Study of Political Violence and Terrorism Research, University of St. Andrews, 1999-2003.
BOOKS: “Inside Al Qaeda,” 2002; editor, “The Changing Face of Terrorism,” 2004, and “Terrorism in the Asia-Pacific,” 2003.