A strategic failure

Print edition : May 13, 2000

The failure of the Sri Lankan security and intelligence establishment to evolve a strategy to infiltrate the LTTE and disrupt its ideological, training, research and operational infrastructure has led to the unbridled growth of the separatist o rganisation.


AN examination of Black Tiger attacks over the years reveals that the Sri Lankan security forces, especially the Sri Lankan intelligence community, have failed on two counts. They have failed, first, to understand the systems of operation of the Liberati on Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and, second, to build an effective counter-organisation to infiltrate and disrupt the LTTE network in the south. The government's response has been to strengthen security to protect VIPs and checkpoints and not to challeng e and destroy the LTTE intelligence network in the south.

The government hardly has an opportunity to capture a battlefield suicide-attack cadre. However, by employing sound and timely intelligence, off-the-battlefield suicide cadres can be captured during the pre-target phase. A foreign intelligence service ha s advised the Colombo government that instead of subjecting captured suicide-attack cadres to the provisions of the criminal justice and prisons system, it should use them to understand the LTTE's organisation, intentions, modus operandi and so on. The f oreign intelligence service has also advised the government to remotivate captured LTTE intelligence cadres in the south and to employ them to penetrate the LTTE's support network in the capital and thereafter the organisation. By debriefing suicide-atta ck cadres, the causes, the drivers and the triggers of suicide terrorism can be identified. Only by isolating the factors and conditions that fuel suicide terrorism can the government proactively prevent suicide terrorism as a preferred terrorist tactic.

Security check in Jaffna, a file picture. The deployment of the army in areas cleared by the military has had the effect of alienating civilian populations.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

The most effective first line of defence against suicide-attack operations of both the battlefield and off-the-battlefield categories has proved to be infiltration of the enemy organisation. By penetrating an enemy organisation, it is possible to assess the level of enemy penetration of the target government and society. Furthermore, the LTTE has been able to conduct suicide-attack operations against high-quality targets with a high level of success largely owing to its penetration of the civilian and m ilitary sectors of government. Nonetheless, successive Sri Lankan governments have failed to penetrate the LTTE in order to identify the organisation's intentions, plans and assets. Counter-measures developed by the Sri Lankan government against the LTTE have been based not on penetration intelligence but assessments and projections largely based on its attacks and arrests, besides open source literature.

According to a foreign intelligence service, the only way for the Colombo government to uncover the LTTE's intentions and plans and its deep-cover agents is through penetration. In a report, the foreign intelligence service states that the LTTE can be di srupted, weakened and destroyed only by penetrating its leadership and not by conducting large-scale conventional operations. Furthermore, the report claims that "hardening" the target by providing greater security or isolating the capital from the rest of the country cannot neutralise the threat from suicide bombers and their support cells (which provide administrative and logistical support to the bombers). The failure of the Sri Lankan agencies to penetrate the LTTE is attributed to politicisation, a flawed management system, training inadequacies, and lack of supervision.

FIRST, there is no continuity in the Sri Lankan civilian or military intelligence organisations. In the civilian organisation, whenever a new government comes to power the head and a majority of the able staff were changed and non-career intelligence per sonnel appointed. For instance, in mid 1995, the head, 60 per cent of the senior officers, 40 per cent of the middle-level oficers and 20 per cent of the junior officers were replaced on the false charge that they were supporters of the Opposition party. In the military organisation, the staff and the head were given non-intelligence postings. As a result, knowledge gathered over a period of time of the enemy organisation was lost. Until the mainstream parties agree to depoliticise the intelligence orga nisations, the cumulative knowledge about the LTTE, which is critical to disrupt the enemy organisation, will be lost. To infiltrate a group like the LTTE, in its 28th year of existence, there must be continuity of a strong intelligence and security trad ition at least at the operational level.

Second, intelligence appointments were made and promotions given not on the basis of merit and performance, but on the basis of personal and political relationships. The politicisation of the intelligence apparatus enabled intelligence resources to be al located to tasks such as eavesdropping and surveillance in order to checkmate Opposition parties and personal enemies. Besides, there are no incentives, rewards or merit promotions to encourage the self-taught, naturally talented operatives to produce re sults.

Third, owing to lack of professional training the intelligence agencies produce poor quality operatives who are neither sufficiently motivated to conduct sustained operations nor knowledgeable enough about the LTTE to infiltrate it.

Fourth, owing to lack of supervision and higher-level political direction of all grades of the intelligence agencies, the quality of intelligence produced is inadequate to make a dent on the enemy organisation. Furthermore, there is no provision for cont inuous review of the intelligence data secured and its impact on the enemy organisation. A bulk of the intelligence data produced has been of little use to weaken the LTTE, especially its clandestine intelligence collection and offensive military capabil ity.

UNTIL a system is put in place wherein the most able persons are recruited, the best training is provided, appointments are given and promotions are made on the basis of merit and performance, and every member of the organisation is rigorously supervised , the intelligence agencies will not produce men and women with the capability and the capacity to infiltrate and weaken the LTTE. At present, instead of conducting infiltration operations, most operatives generate and provide intelligence data to superi ors or field units without running agents and destroying the enemy organisation. Priority is not assigned to collecting real-time intelligence about the location, movement or associates of core and penultimate LTTE leaders who provide the training, manuf acture the suicide-attack devices, or run the agents that mount reconnaissance. The intelligence organisation has been marred by political interference that has impeded continuity; lack of professional training; and absence of supervision and political d irection.

The bottom line is that a terrorist group can never seek to destroy high-quality human and infrastructure targets without infiltrating a target government or the target society. Any terrorist group seeking to infiltrate a government presents a great oppo rtunity for government intelligence services to re-infiltrate the enemy. If the intelligences services are professional enough, they can re-infiltrate any terrorist organisation and can disrupt and finally destroy it. The LTTE intelligence services have become brazen and bold in government-controlled territory because government intelligence services have not challenged them by employing the same tactics and methods of operation. The key to fighting a group like the LTTE, especially its suicide-attack o rganisation, is to make the intelligence services professional and to improve its agent-handling capacity and capability. The threat of suicide terrorism can be controlled by a security system that is managed by highly dedicated and committed professiona ls. They should be held accountable for the successes and failures of the security system. As any security system becomes vulnerable to penetration with time, it must be reviewed periodically and the loopholes tightened.

EXPLOITING the weaknesses of the Sri Lankan intelligence apparatus and the loopholes in the security system, the LTTE has developed a multilayered cellular organisation in the south, especially in Colombo and its suburbs. Owing to two factors, the LTTE b uilt an organisation as well as an extensive network in Colombo from August 1994 onwards. First, during the dialogue with the LTTE from August 1994 and peace talks from January 1995. the LTTE engaged in high-level infiltration of the south, especially Co lombo. Second, as a result of the revamping and politicisation of the national security apparatus in mid 1995, the Sri Lankan intelligence and investigative services were emasculated. This weakened the intelligence-gathering, analysis, projection and ant i-terrorist operations. The consequences were devastating. The LTTE destroyed four infrastructure targets: the oil storage tanks in 1995, the Central Bank in 1996, the World Trade Centre in 1997, and the Temple of the Tooth Relic in 1998. After that last bombing, the government came under pressure and split up the principal national intelligence agency into two entities - the Directorate of Internal Intelligence and the Directorate of Foreign Intelligence.

The politicisation of the security forces, especially the police, has affected the security system. With the politicisation of top-level appointments, there is little or no reward for the innovative, committed and determined police officer. With no incen tive to perform, most police officers prefer not to risk their lives and instead opt for routine administrative work. To disrupt the LTTE network in Colombo by swooping on LTTE cells in the south, the government needed sound and timely intelligence. But it has not encouraged continuity of such high-risk operations either by promoting or rewarding the few Tamil-speaking Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim police officers responsible for either breaking the LTTE cells or recovering their weapons. One such officer, Chief Inspector Nilabdeen, the head of the anti-terrorist unit in Mount Lavinia, a suburban police station, was the target of a suicide bomb attack by the LTTE - a sure sign that he was doing a good job. Even so, he was not considered for a promotion.

In contrast, empirical evidence demonstrates that police officers who were given special promotions and appointments were largely party loyalists, relatives and personal friends of politicians or senior bureaucrats. As a consequence, police officers have begun to follow political directives instead of standing up for what is right and opposing what is wrong. Police officers who stood up to politically or personally motivated bureaucrats and politicians were punished with transfers. The transfer of Lione l Gunatillake, the head of the Crime Detective Bureau (CDB) who was responsible for disrupting a series of suicide-attack cells in Colombo and an LTTE attempt to ram an explosives-laden vehicle into the CDB headquarters, is illustrative. On the basis of material evidence and interrogation reports, Gunatillake insisted on telling the truth that former National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali was killed by the LTTE and not by a political opponent. At the request of the Secretary, Ministry of Defen ce, the Police Department transferred Gunatillake from the CDB and posted him as Director, Police Welfare. Following this, there was a marked increase in the number of LTTE attacks in the capital.

The lesson is that no security system should be taken for granted. When a security system is revamped, it should be improved by analysing its weaknesses and potential threats.

AS of early 2000, the sustained attacks by the LTTE in the north and the south appear to have sent a powerful signal to the Sri Lankan government. The government has realised the need to infuse professionalism in its national security organisation, espec ially its security and intelligence apparatus. Some concepts are fundamental to establishing government control over areas that are under threat. Although the role of the military is vital, the Sri Lankan conflict has proved that the armed forces have a limited role in guerilla and terrorist attacks that are driven by ethnic conflicts. An army that is trained to kill cannot perform community policing. The police force, on the other hand, is trained to win the hearts and minds of the people. As part of f ar-reaching countermeasures, more Tamils should be inducted in the police department and officers belonging to other linguistic groups should be given incentives to learn Tamil.

The deployment of the army in areas of the north cleared by the military has failed to win public support and prevent infiltration. Similarly, assigning the security of the capital to the military, especially the army, has affected national security. Ins tead it would have been more productive to deploy the military units against the LTTE and deploy the police in Colombo. The security of areas cleared by the military should be the responsibility of the police and the intelligence services. The strengthen ing of security in Colombo with army units is only a sign that the government is reacting to the threat.

The introduction by the Ministry of Defence of a pass system has made it difficult for Sri Lankan Tamils in the northeast to travel to the south. When this system was operational in the north, it failed to prevent suicide bombers from infiltrating Colomb o. As of early 2000, the government introduced a more stringent system in the east, but that too has failed to prevent the infiltration of suicide bombers from the east into Colombo. Such short-sighted countermeasures are likely to enhance public support for the LTTE. The cardinal rule in counter-terrorism is that the government's actions should aim to win over the public in the areas under terrorist control rather than create a partition between them and the rest of the country. With time, the LTTE is bound to study and develop measures to evade the stringent pass system; the ordinary Tamil civilian, however, is bound to become the real victim. The resources and the time devoted to developing and enforcing the pass system could have been used more pro ductively to enforce countermeasures that would have contributed to the attrition of the LTTE and its influence over the Tamil public.

Over the period of a decade, the LTTE has built up a high-level suicide-attack capability. The failure to detect, deter and destroy both its source and its long-range capability has cost the nation critical infrastructure facilities and some of its top l eaders. The centre of gravity of the threat is steadily shifting from the northeast to the capital, affecting the nation's central political, administrative and economic systems. The absence of an appropriate counter-strategy and a counter-organisation t o disrupt the LTTE's ideological, training, research and operational infrastructure has led to its unbridled growth. Suicide attacks, guerilla warfare and terrorism are likely to evolve even further and be integrated with deadly weapon systems, making f uture attacks more severe, lethal and unpredictable. Suicide bombers are not a finite resource, and therefore as long as the LTTE persists, suicide attacks will remain the single most formidable threat to the Sri Lankan state.

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

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