Piercing a security blanket

Published : Apr 29, 2000 00:00 IST

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which is waging a separatist war against the Sri Lankan state, has staged many deadly suicide attacks, on the battlefield and off it. What makes it such a lethal force, and how can the Sri Lankan security fo rces face the challenge?


THE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has staged about 180 suicide operations since July 1987. All these have been within Sri Lanka, with the exception of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by Thenmuli Rajaratnam alias Dhanu on May 21, 1991. With a few exceptions, the LTTE has claimed responsibilty only for the suicide-attack operations it has conducted against military targets in Sri Lanka's northeastern region. The organisation refrains from claiming responsibilty for operat ions against VIP targets as also non-military infrastructure targets. The LTTE has demonstrated that its suicide-attack capabilities can be effectively used both in battlefield guerilla situations (as in the northeast) and off-the-battlefield terrorist s ituations (as in the south).

In the spectrum of possible suicide-attack operations, the easiest ones for a terrorist group to undertake are those against civilians; and the second easiest are infrastructure targets. In reality, a bomber who targets civilians looks for a target of op portunity. If a bomber on a mission to destroy civilian life comes across an easy military or political VIP target, he or she is likely to try and attack that target rather than the civilian target.

Usually VIP targets are on the move and protected and therefore they call for considerable preparation before an attack. Such preparation ranges from the penetration of a target society or a target government to mount surveillance of the target; planning and rehearsing in a safe zone; organising a safe-house; transporting the bomber and weapons to the target location; and ensuring that the bomber gains access to a protected target.

NO state can develop effective counter-measures without understanding the nature of the threat, especially its immediate, mid- and long-term implications. The LTTE has employed suicide-attack operations both tactically and strategically. Although their t actical importance is apparent, the use of a suicide bomber as a strategic weapon has not been adequately analysed by the security and intelligence community. As a result, the strategic implications of the suicide-attack threat have not been adequately u nderstood either by the Sri Lankan political and military leaderships or the public. As such, no counter-measures to deter suicide terrorism in the short term or to mitigate its effects in the long term have been conceptualised, developed or implemented.

The most obvious and immediate threat stems from the mere presence of suicide bombers who could strike almost at will. Its consequence is that almost all Sri Lankan politicians refrain from publicly criticising the LTTE. Some leaders have even made pro-L TTE pronouncements thinking that it would enable them to survive longer. Similarly, military leaders seek to maintain a low profile operationally and within their services refrain from mobilising support to destroy the LTTE. Even political and military l eaders, protected round the clock, refrain from calling V. Prabakaran a "terrorist" or the LTTE a "terrorist organisation". The suicide bomb syndrome, a fear psychosis that a bomber could strike anywhere, anytime and against any target, irrespective of t he level of protection, had affected both the target government as well as the target society (Frontline, February 18, 2000). The suicide-attack threat softened the stand of the toughest of leaders; compromised the position even of hardline organi sations; and debilitated the public will that had all along and firmly argued that the LTTE must be fought to the end. While eroding the nation's political fabric, the suicide-attack threat sapped the courage of the political and military elite. In turn, it degraded the moral strength of the public to unite, rally, stand up and fight against an enemy organisation seeking to destroy the Sri Lankan state.

BY dividing the target groups into different categories, the long-range implications of the threat can be understood clearly. The off-the-battlefield suicide bomber has destroyed or aimed to destroy human or infrastructure targets. While the human target s can be categorised into political and military ones, the infrastructure targets can be categorised into those of utility value and those with symbolic value.

National political figures and figures among the military leadership form the principal human targets. They include symbolic or able political leaders in government or the Opposition (for example, Ranjan Wijeratna, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayak e, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Anurudda Ratwatte, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Lucky Algama, Ranil Wickremasinghe); Tamil political leaders who provided an alternative to the LTTE (for example, Neelan Tiruchelvam); military chiefs, potential military chiefs, able fun ctional and area commanders (for example, Clancy Fernando, Oliver Ranasinghe, Sri Lal Weerasuriya, Lionel Balagalle, Janaka Perera, Ananda Hamangoda, Lucky Wijeratna, Sarath Fonseka); and functionaries, mostly services personnel, who are effective in ant i-terrorist operations or public relations skills (Nilabdeen is an example).

National infrastructure targets include those of symbolic value (the Central Bank, the World Trade Centre, the Sacred Temple of the Tooth, Parliament, the Presidential Secretariat, the Ministry of Defence and the Board of Investment) and those of utility value (for example, the headquarters of the Joint Operations Command, airports, oil storage complexes).

In order to deprive the nation of a strong leadership, the LTTE aims to eliminate national leaders, including those from the political Opposition. When it came to the parliamentary Opposition, the decision was driven by the potential threat to the LTTE i n the event of select Opposition leaders assuming office. The decision-making process of the LTTE in such cases was based on the assumption that if such a target came to power, it would require more preparation and resources to access that target owing t o a higher level of protection. As most political targets came into contact with the public during the run-up to an election, election-eve presented the most opportune moment for an assassination.

The Sri Lankan case demonstrated that a potential target could become a priority target under certain circumstances. First, when a target had either become or was likely to become the centre of resistance against the LTTE; second, when a target had forge d relations with India especially with the potential to shift the LTTE-Colombo government balance of power in favour of the government; or third, when the destruction of the target was likely to erode the public will and demoralise the security forces. T he LTTE has not yet targeted leaders in the economic sector, but it is a likely and an obvious target in the years ahead.

The military, political, economic or cultural infrastructure targets which the LTTE aimed to destroy were either of symbolic value or were critical to the functioning of the state. Any infrastructure target can become salient depending on its symbolic or utilitarian value during a certain period. A week before the World Trade Centre was to be inaugurated by the President, the LTTE attacked the infrastructure target. Likewise, a week before Sri Lanka's 50th anniversary of Independence was to be celebrate d at the precincts of the Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic, the LTTE struck there. As fuel was critical to support logistics, the oil storage complex in Kolonnawa, Colombo, was attacked on the eve of the government's operation to recapture the Jaffna pen insula. The LTTE employed off-the-battlefield suicide bombers with the aim of weakening the national political leadership to break the will of the public, the quality of the military leadership at all levels, and the national economic infrastructure in o rder to make the war against the LTTE unsustainable.

In contrast, the LTTE employed battlefield suicide bombers to destroy military and paramilitary targets. They were either strategic targets or logistics targets.

Among the strategic targets are army camps (for example, Nelliadi, Mankulam, Silvathurai); navy camps (Nagathevanthurai); air force camps (China Bay, Ratmalana, Palaly) and Special Task Force camps (Puthukudiyirippu). The logistics targets include air ve hicles at airports (Palaly, Ratmalana); sea-borne craft in seaports (mostly when anchored) or when mobile (Trincomalee, Karainagar, Kankesanthurai or the northeastern waters, and once in the Colombo port).

As the battlefield suicide-attacks were remote and not visible, neither the government nor the public suffered from it. The public had no inkling of the suicide-attack threat to battlefield targets. Colombo, where the elites lived and governed and public opinion was formed and shaped, was remote from the northeast. As such, there was less attention paid and less thinking and resources invested to disrupt battlefield suicide-attack operations. In order to protect the national leadership from the off-the- battlefield suicide bombers, the government reactively allocated considerable resources. But the government did not allocate comparable resources to protect the military assets in the northeast to brave the battlefield suicide bombers. Numerically, more LTTE suicide cadres operating in self-contained units or integrated into its battlefield units have died attacking battlefield targets. The battlefield targets were as vulnerable to LTTE suicide bombers as the off-the-battlefield targets. The government' s battlefield losses have been high as compared to the LTTE's.

Both at the tactical and strategic levels, there were key advantages in using battlefield suicide bombers. The LTTE employed battlefield suicide bombers with the aim of (a) reducing fatalities and casualties of regular cadres, numerically preserving and building the LTTE's fighting strength; (b) destroying Sri Lankan naval logistics capability and strategic targets, thus reducing sea control capability, tactical and strategic mobility, and the strategic depth of the Sri Lankan security forces; and (c) e nhancing the overall operational efficiency of the LTTE's land and sea fighting units, thereby demoralising the Sri Lankan security forces and eroding the public confidence in the security forces.

SRI LANKA has had a finite intellectual resource pool. Unlike the infrastructure targets, which could be restored or constructed, the human losses cannot be replaced, especially within a short period. The quality of the off-the-battlefield targets, espec ially human targets, destroyed by the LTTE has been extraordinarily high. For the terrorist group, suicide bombing has been a highly cost-effective way of eliminating the core and the penultimate leadership of the nation. An examination of off-the-battle field operations reveals that the LTTE exploited the relaxation of security during the 1989-90 and 1994-95 peace processes to infiltrate the south of Sri Lanka, especially the capital. LTTE national intelligence cadres as well as Black Tigers penetrated the hostile area and gained access to their human and infrastructure targets. Such intelligence cadres had two tasks. First, they were to mount surveillance on targets and infiltrate the political, military, police and intelligence establishment. Second, they were to cultivate agents resident in the hostile area and task them to mount similar surveillances. The surveillance data was dispatched to the LTTE intelligence headquarters to plan operations. With this data, models were built and cadres trained to gain stealth and speed. At times, additional data was requested. At times the data was verified through another source or sources. The success of the assassinations in Colombo was dependent on the intelligence network that was operational in Colombo. The network was cellular and coordinated from the LTTE-controlled area. Whenever the police or the army apprehended an LTTE cadre alive, there was the likelihood of the security forces breaking up his or her operational cell. As his or her principal agen t handler lived in the LTTE-controlled area, the principal agent handler was protected.

Parallel to the national intelligence network, the LTTE ran a military intelligence network. This network did not have cadres on the ground in the hostile area but it had agents in the Sri Lankan security forces. The presence of a second intelligence or ganisation gave the LTTE the advantage of cross-checking and verifying both raw data and assessments.

The Black Tigers who infiltrated the hostile areas assassinated VIPs or sabotaged infrastructure on their own or acting on intelligence provided by intelligence cadres and/or agents. The Black Tigers infiltrated the offices or the homes of VIPs, gathered intelligence and transmitted them to LTTE headquarters before targeting the VIPs. Similarly, the Black Tigers who mounted reconnaissance on infrastructure transmitted data to the LTTE headquarters before attacking the target. The Black Tigers who infilt rated or mounted reconnaissance were better than others in operational terms. They performed the roles both of the intelligence cadre and the Black Tiger. The Black Tiger who depended on the intelligence cadre for intelligence on a VIP or on infrastructu re facility was merely a suicide-attack cadre. In the latter case, the intelligence cadre often accompanied the suicide-attack cadre to the target. Every Black Tiger needed a support cell to provide him or her the weaponry, transport to and from the targ et, communication to the headquarters, and so on.

Gradually the LTTE realised the vulnerability of its large operational cells and made them smaller. Unless a number of Black Tigers were needed for a mission, the cell remained small; at times it comprised just a single resourceful intelligence cadre. Th is cadre, designated the controller, looked after the needs of the Black Tiger, in respect of everything from logistics to communication, until the mission was completed. At times the controller escorted the Black Tiger to the target, provided security o r guided him or her to reach the target with the least resistance.

As a consequence of stepped-up counter-terrorist measures, including operations ranging from round-ups to checkpoint monitoring, the original networks established by the LTTE during the peace process have been disrupted or have disintegrated. Since then, in order to maintain an uninterrupted flow of intelligence data, the LTTE has built layers of fresh networks. These networks have been structured or strengthened on the basis of the identified flaws of the previous networks. As such, the contemporary ne tworks (1994-2000) are more difficult to penetrate or disrupt compared to the first generation networks (1990-1994).

Dr. Rohan Gunaratna is the author of Sri Lanka's Ethnic Crisis and National Security.

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