Transnational Terrorism: Learning from Sri Lanka – I
by R Hariharan on 28 Apr 2018 1 Comment

The US-led global war against Islamic terrorism, launched in the wake of Al Qaeda jihadi terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September 2001, seems to be never ending. More and more nations across the globe in Africa, Asia and Europe are getting involved in the war against Islamic terrorist groups with only marginal success, particularly after the rise of the Islamic State.


The Syria-based group, originally an affiliate of Al Qaeda, has emerged as the world’s most dreaded terror organization within a span of three years. The Islamic State (also referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant - ISIL and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria –ISIS) has internationalized the worst manifestation of Islamic terrorism, attracting Islamic youth not only from the Arab World and Asia, but from Europe and the US as well.  


According to the University of Maryland Global Terrorism Data Base, in the year 2014 alone there were as many as 12,571 terrorist attacks carried in just ten nations (Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Somalia, India, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, Philippines), resulting in 34,647 fatalities. Most attacks were carried out by Islamic terrorist groups affiliated to the Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. South Asia has continued to remain the hot bed of Islamic terrorist activity with Pakistan, Afghanistan and India occupying the second, third and sixth positions respectively, with 2146, 1820 and 859 terrorist attacks among the top ten nations in the list.



In the context of the global war on terror, the Sri Lanka government’s decisive victory over the internationally networked Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers), in the fourth episode of the Eelam War in May 2009 stands as one of the few success stories. The LTTE had been fighting for the creation of an independent state of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka for over two and a half decades. Sri Lanka army’s success came after 22 years of failure in the earlier episodes of the war. Sri Lanka’s success in completely wiping out the Tamil Tigers can provide valuable lessons for nations fighting terrorism across the globe.


Background to the rise of LTTE


The LTTE is a degenerated manifestation of the failure of the democratic polity of Sri Lanka to address the grievances of the ethnic Tamil minority population articulated for the over five decades from 1956. Over the years, the LTTE had cleverly used the historical grievances of the Tamils to emerge as the self-styled saviour of Tamils. It exploited the Tamil minority populations’ feeling of alienation from the mainstream and desire for an independent Tamil Eelam to transform itself into a transnational terrorist movement in a span of 25 years.


The LTTE had no clear-cut ideology for Tamil Eelam, although in 1983 it articulated its aspiration for the creation of a socialist Eelam. But later on socialism as an ideology was not to be found in its political tracts. It ingeniously utilized Tamil nationalism raised often to chauvinist proportions as the rallying point to draw support for its war efforts from Tamils the world over.


At its peak in 2005, the LTTE was perhaps the best-organised insurgent body in the world, controlling approximately nine districts of Northern and Eastern provinces largely populated by the Tamil minority. In the areas under its control, the LTTE had organised a judicial system, opened a bank and raised its own police force. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in a press release on 10 January 2008 rated the Tamil Tigers as “among the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world.” The FBI said  the LTTE had “quite a resume; perfected the use of suicide bombers; invented the suicide belt; pioneered the use of women in suicide attacks; murdered some 4000 people in the past two years; and assassinated two world leaders – the only group to do so.” The report answered its own poser, “Why should you care?” saying, “because its ruthless tactics have inspired terrorist networks worldwide, including Al Qaeda in Iraq.” 


The LTTE was probably the only insurgent force with capability to carry out conventional and unconventional operations on land, sea, and air. It effectively used propaganda and psychological warfare techniques in cyber space to support its overt and covert operations. The LTTE’s highly motivated Black Tiger suicide cadres were employed to create shock effect by killing of prominent leaders, government officials or destroy lucrative high value targets like the Bandaranaike International Airport and the Central Bank in Colombo, causing heavy loss of men and material.


Prominent Black Tigers victims included Sri Lanka President Ranasinga Premadasa and India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and scores of Sri Lanka ministers including Foreign Minister Kadirgamar, parliamentarians, senior army officers and leaders of rival Tamil militant groups and well known Tamil political leaders like Appapillai Amirthalingam and Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam. These attacks struck terror among the population, demoralised the national leadership and helped propagate the myth of LTTE’s invincibility. 


Describing the LTTE as “no ordinary terrorist group,” Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s defence secretary during the war, emphasized its special features while addressing the Galle Dialogue Maritime Conference in 2010: The first was its “well-organised international network that provided both funding and logistical support to its domestic outfit. It also had a network of operatives within Sri Lanka that had infiltrated every part of the country. It had a ruthless ground force, a fledgling air force and a sophisticated naval wing. At its height the LTTE not only controlled large area of land, “but crucially up to two thirds of Sri Lanka’s coastline.” According to him its ability to control the coastline and attack Sri Lankan naval vessels as well as attack targets on the mainland posed a grave security challenge to the country.


The LTTE’s naval arm - the Sea Tigers - had an estimated strength of 1500 cadres. It had a variety of operational craft including a few Fast Attack Craft (FAC) captured from the Sri Lanka Navy. The Sea Tigers’ boats were generally armed with machine guns, rocket launchers and cannons. In all probability, command boats were fitted with radar. The Black Sea Tigers with their stealth capability using fishing fleets as cover destroyed over 31 naval craft crippling the Sri Lanka navy till 2002. 


The LTTE was perhaps the only insurgent force in the world to boast of an “air force.” Its technological improvisation had seen the conversion of its air force fleet of piston-engine light aircraft into a rudimentary light bomber force. Though it was a small force of about four light aircraft, two helicopters and a few micro light aircraft with limited operational capability, it carried out three daring bombing missions of the Katunayake Sri Lankan air force base near Colombo, the Jaffna air base at Palali and some oil storages near Colombo in the year 2007. Though these forays caused no major damage to the Sri Lankan installations, they had tremendous psychological impact causing panic among the civilian population.


Through this financial and logistical chain, the LTTE obtained various sophisticated equipment, all sorts of heavy weaponry and enormous quantities of ammunition with which it engaged our Defence Forces over the years. It is pertinent as well as disturbing to note that much of this activity took place in a post 9-11 world, despite increased global awareness and sensitivity about the dangers posed by international terrorism.


The LTTE’s financial network operated with varying levels of impunity in many countries. The weapons they procured quite often came from unscrupulous sources within respectable nations. Finally, their cargo ships travelled mostly unimpeded through international waters. However, by 2007-08 on obtaining of intelligence about LTTE’s floating warehouses, the Sri Lanka Navy was able to engage and destroy ten vessels even as far as a thousand miles away at sea. The destruction of these ships was a key factor in crippling the LTTE’s ability to sustain itself during the Eelam War IV.


The LTTE had shown great resilience to bounce back from operational setbacks in the three earlier episodes of Eelam War between 1983 and 2002 as well as in its war against the Indian Peace Keeping Force from 1987 to 1990. However, in the fourth and final episode of the Eelam War, the Sri Lanka army dealt a mortal blow to LTTE with the killing of its charismatic leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and the entire leadership team in the final stages of the war in May 2009. The LTTE suffered a crippling loss of over 22,247 cadres and auxiliaries in the Eelam War IV alone. As against this Sri Lanka Security Forces lost 23,790 men in the entire Eelam wars spread over nearly 26 years! 


Sri Lanka Tamil Diaspora


Tamil is an ancient Dravidian language; spoken by nearly 74 million people according to an estimate. Most of them live in the state of Tamil Nadu in south India and in the north eastern parts of Sri Lanka. Tamil is a live and vibrant language with a rich literary and cultural tradition. The language serves as a focus of identity and heritage for Tamils all over the world. During the last two centuries, Tamils have migrated from India and Sri Lanka to different parts of the world. In many countries like Australia, Canada, Fiji, France (Réunion), Germany, Malaysia, Mauritius, South Africa, Singapore, and the United Kingdom, Tamils form an important population segment among migrants of South Asian origin.


The Tamils living overseas include Tamils of Indian and Sri Lankan origin. There are subtle social and cultural differences between these two communities. They have been broadly maintaining their distinct identities overseas also. However, despite such minor differences, Tamil ethnic populations across the globe have retained their strong allegiance to Tamil cultural traditions. 


Historically, the growth of Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora came about in three distinct waves.  These coincided with the periods of ethnic upheavals and riots. The language riots of 1958, introduction of standardization rule in 1971, and the 1983 anti-Tamil riots were the major happenings that triggered the large scale movement of Sri Lanka Tamil population as emigrants and refugees. The first two waves were smaller and made up of people aspiring to improve their opportunities in more equitable societies. However, the 1983 pogrom saw the exodus of nearly 200,000 Tamils during the course of a decade. These refugees, spread over 50 countries, form the hardcore of Tamil Diaspora directly affected by the Sinhala-Tamil confrontation. Unlike the earlier emigrants, many of them belong to the poor and less qualified segments of the population. The LTTE’s armed insurgency had a special appeal in this category of Tamils.


Geo-strategically, the LTTE had shown that even in an island nation it was possible to overcome the limitations of manoeuvring space to carry out successful insurgency operations. The LTTE made it possible by innovatively organising an international logistics and supply chain using sympathetic sections of Sri Lanka Tamil Diaspora. This helped the LTTE to establish a foothold in 42 countries. The network operated both overtly (in countries where non-militant activity was permitted) and covertly in three ways: fund collection and proxy business operations for financial support, international lobbying and public relations, trafficking in humans and drugs and clandestine procurement of arms and military equipment.


Typically, LTTE sympathisers infiltrated into existing expatriate Tamil social, cultural and religious bodies and took control of them to use them as vehicles of social communication, propaganda and fund collection. LTTE had even grabbed the ownership of places of worship to exert such influence. With the help of Tamil Diaspora, LTTE’s overseas elements also ran both legitimate and illegitimate businesses. According to one report, the annual Tamil Diaspora funding for the LTTE was estimated at US$ 100 million. Jane’s International Review in August 2007 assessed LTTE’s revenue through worldwide legal and illegal businesses at $ 200-300 million a year.


Important foreign centres of LTTE were located in Australia, Canada, France, Norway, Denmark, South Africa, Switzerland, Thailand, UK and USA. Actually, after 32 countries proscribed LTTE activities, the activities of a number of  LTTE front organisations and NGOs came under scrutiny and many lost their status and their assets were frozen in the US, UK and Canada. However, even after the defeat of LTTE in 2009, remnants of the overseas network have continued their existence, though with diminished visibility.


The LTTE’s overseas centres carried out propaganda and public relations work by taking control of ethnic Tamil organisations and turning them into their own front organisations for their covert activity. The centres liaised with local political parties particularly at the local and provincial level to act as LTTE pressure groups. In Canada, Norway, UK, and even in the US, LTTE used the latent sympathy of political parties for the Tamil struggle for equity to influence elected representatives.


Tamil Diaspora all over the world contributed financially, either voluntarily or under coercion, to the LTTE coffers. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report published in March 2006 documented the LTTE’s use of extortion and intimidation against Canadian Tamils to raise funds for its operations, and to silence critics of its human rights practices. Such reports of coercive fund collection were reported in Europe also. According to HRW, many individual families and businesses were approached to pay sums of money ranging from £2000 to £100,000. Perhaps this report influenced Canada’s decision to proscribe LTTE as a terrorist entity on April 8, 2006.


Role of Tamil nationalism


Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamils form 11.15 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 20.36 million population, according to Sri Lanka’s Department of Census and Statistics, in 2012. However, two other Tamil speaking communities, Muslims (9.3 per cent) - listed officially as Moors - and Tamils of Indian origin (4.12 per cent) have maintained their distinct political and social identities.


The rise of Dravidian ethnic consciousness as a dominant political force in Tamil Nadu in the 1950s influenced the thinking of large sections of ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Tamils struggling for their rights against Sinhala majority domination found the Dravidian political parties’ emphasis on the distinctness of Tamil identity relevant to their situation. 


However, from 1956 onwards Sinhala nationalism became a major factor in politics, with increased dominance of Sinhala language and culture, leading to progressive alienation of Tamils from the national mainstream. The non-violent protests of Tamils yielded no results. On the other hand, in 1972 a revised national constitution favouring the Sinhala majority was introduced. The Tamil demand for a federal structure to preserve their distinct identity found no satisfactory response from the majority community. As a result, even moderate Tamil leaders started talking of creating an independent Tamil Eelam state as the only solution.


In the 1977 elections, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), a political front demanding the creation of Tamil Eelam, scored a thumping victory in Tamil areas. However, the government used political trade-offs to stave them off rather than incorporate them. The failure of TULF politicians to produce results eroded their credibility among Tamils and Tamil militant groups took over the political leadership. Between 1977 and 1987 as many as 35 Tamil militant groups sprouted all over the north and east of Sri Lanka. This period also saw the rise of Velupillai Prabhakaran and the emergence of the LTTE as a powerful insurgent force. At the same time, the use of armed forces by the state to stamp out the militant activity also increased. 


(To be continued)

Next month, it will be nine years since the LTTE was defeated in Sri Lanka. Written on May 5, 2016, Col Hariharan’s paper is still relevant. The views expressed are author’s own

Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group, Paper No 6369

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