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Transnational Terrorism: Learning From Sri Lanka’s Success against Tamil Tigers

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Paper No. 6369                                 Dated 20-Apr-2018

Col. R Hariharan

[Next month, it will be nine years since the LTTE was defeated in Sri Lanka.  Written in 2016, Col hariharan’s paper is still relevant.  It may republished or used with author's permission. The views expressed are author’s own]-Director


The U.S. led global war against Islamic terrorism, launched in the wake of Al Qaeda jihadi terrorist attacks in the U.S. 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 the Al Qaeda, years has emerged as the world’s most dreaded terror organization within a span of three years. The Islamic State (also referred also 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 U.S. as well.  

According to the University of Maryland Global Terrorism Data Base (Table-1 given below) in the year 2014 alone there were as many as 12,571 terrorist attacks carried out in the top ten nations with most attacks resulting in 34,647 fatalities. Most of the attacks were carried out by Islamic terrorist groups affiliated to the Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The Table shows that South Asia has continued to remain the hot bed of Islamic terrorist activity with Pakistan, Afghanistan and India occupying the second, third and sixth position respectively with 2146, 1820 and 859 terrorist attacks among the top ten nations contained in the list.

TAB LE-1 Countries with most attacks


# Attacks

# Fatalities
































In the context of global war on terror, Sri Lanka government’s decisive victory over the internationally networked Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the 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 success in completely wiping out the Tamil Tigers can provide valuable lessons for nations fighting Jihadi terrorism across the globe.[i]

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 population’s feeling of alienation from the mainstream and their 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.[ii] 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 proportion 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 Tamil minority. In the areas under its control the LTTE had organized 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.” [iii] 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.[iv]

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, demoralized 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 at 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.” [v] 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 30l 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 forces 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 in 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 LTTE’s charismatic leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and the his entire leadership team in the final stages of the war in May 2009. The LTTE suffered a crippling loss of over 22,247cadres and auxiliaries in the Eelam War IV alone.[vi] As against this Sri Lanka Security Forces’ lost 23,790 men in the entire Eelam wars spread over nearly 26 years! [vii]

Sri Lanka Tamil Diaspora

Tamil is an ancient Dravidian language; spoken by nearly 74 million people according to an estimate.[viii]  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 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 take control of them over 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 had assessed LTTE's revenue through worldwide legal and illegal businesses at $ 200-300 million a year.[ix]

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, 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.[x] 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 organizations and turning them into their own front organisations for their covert activity. The centres liaised with the local political parties particularly at the local and provincial level to act as LTTE pressure groups. In Canada, Norway, U.K., and even in the U.S., LTTE had 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 had 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 study many individual families and businesses were approached to pay sums of money ranging from £2000 to £100,000.[xi] 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 Department of Census and Statistics figures published in 2012.[xii]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.[xiii] 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.[xiv]

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. 

Indian Influence

India and Sri Lanka enjoy close political, cultural and religious links. Tamils in India with their linguistic, cultural, and family ties have always been sympathetic to the Sri Lanka Tamils struggle. The 1983 pogrom against the Tamils in Sri Lanka came as a rude shock to the people of India. Tamil Nadu received thousands of Tamil refugees including militants who came in the wake of the riots with open arms. A sympathetic government of India helped the militant groups with arms and military training. An India Today article of 31 March 1984 said “Indian intelligence sources estimate that nearly 2,000 armed men, belonging to the various groups of Tamil insurgents were trained.” [xv]  The Colombo weekly Sunday Times in an article has quoted from terrorism analyst Rohan Gunaratne’s book to say 32 camps were set up in India to train 495 LTTE insurgents between 1983 and 1987.[xvi]

At the same time, India also made efforts to reconcile the differences between the Sri Lanka government and the Tamils. Although the efforts failed, they culminated in the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Agreement (ISLA) in July 1987. Under the agreement, Sri Lanka agreed to devolve limited autonomy to a united northeast province, considered as the traditional Tamil homeland. India agreed to help end Tamil militancy and disarm the militants. Though the Agreement did not meet all the demands of Tamils, it provided a good opportunity for both sides to create a climate of confidence to resolve the issue peacefully.

India dispatched an Indian peace keeping force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka to facilitate enforcing the agreement. All Tamil militant groups, including the LTTE, had initially agreed to conform to the terms of the agreement and handover their arms. However, the LTTE refused to give up its arms because it doubted India’s sincerity in helping Sri Lanka Tamils. It considered the ISLA as a means to keep the LTTE under control. It also doubted Sri Lanka’s intentions in adhering to the agreement to devolve equitable powers to Tamils. Moreover, the agreement did not meet LTTE’s goal of creating independent Tamil Eelam.[xvii] In a bid to disarm the LTTE, Indian troops were locked in battle with them from 1987 to 1990. The LTTE suffered heavy casualties at the hand of Indian troops and took refuge in the jungles of Vanni.

The political changes in India and Sri Lanka in 1989-90 ultimately resulted in the withdrawal of the IPKF from Sri Lanka in 1990. The Indian operations drew a lot of global attention to the LTTE as it had managed to survive the onslaught of the Indian army. It was LTTE’s strong political links in Tamil Nadu that influenced the change in Indian government policies that resulted in the pull out of Indian troops from Sri Lanka.

The war with India was a valuable learning experience for the LTTE.  With the Jaffna and Mannar coasts in northern Sri Lanka within an hour’s journey by speedboat, Tamil Nadu offered an attractive sanctuary and supply base for the LTTE even during the war. Moreover, about 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils who had taken refuge in Tamil Nadu enabled the LTTE to operate clandestinely. The LTTE built strong asset base in Tamil Nadu ever since it gained a foothold in 1983. It also established contacts to garner support from politicians and officials of Tamil Nadu. Therefore, it was comparatively easy for the LTTE to merge with the population and operate with some impunity in Tamil Nadu. 

Status of LTTE in 2002

After the Indian Peace Keeping Force (1987-90) mauled the LTTE, it was too weak to face conventional forces resulting in loss of control over Jaffna to the Sri Lanka forces t in the Eelam War II in 1990-91. For example the LTTE’s bid to capture Elephant Pass in 1991 ended disastrously with the loss of 1,100 cadres. Perhaps this made the Sri Lankan forces a little complacent in 1991.  

However, based on its experience, the LTTE re-organized its cadres into military formations under the middle level leadership which had shown strong motivation and battlefield innovation operations. Fire power was augmented with mortars and anti tank weapons. Women’s battalions were raised to beef up the strength. The LTTE naval wing - Sea Tigers – developed innovative techniques to use suicide boats to effectively attack naval craft. Modern technology innovations in communications were introduced to improve operational capability.  

In-house capability for production of grenades and claymore mines was established.  A lot of innovation was introduced in designing and use of improvised explosive devices. This period also saw the firming up of the LTTE’s overseas support network in Canada, Europe and the U.S to support the LTTE’s growth as a modern fighting force with conventional and unconventional operational capability. 

The Sri Lanka army strength was a little over 16,000 even as late as 1985. However, when Tamil militancy increased phenomenally in the nineties military force levels tried to cope with it through additional recruitment. Though the Eelam War III (1995-2002) ended as a stalemate, the Sri Lanka security forces’ performance was far from satisfactory. By then the LTTE’s assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and President Premadasa had earned the dubious reputation as the most feared terrorist group which put its opponents on the defensive. While defending Mullaitivu, army lost 1600 soldiers; similarly it sustained a loss of 204 soldiers when it was forced withdraw from Elephant Pass established as a fortress defence. In the Elephant Pass operation, the LTTE captured three 152 mm guns, two 122 mm guns, 12 x120 mm heavy mortars, and several .50 machine guns, and thousands of automatic rifles. The LTTE also captured several armoured vehicles, tanks, military trucks, bulldozers and high-tech communication systems. The Sea Tigers inflicted heavy losses on Sri Lanka navy, which lost two naval ships due to sabotage operations.  

The Black Tiger suicide attack on Colombo’s Bandaranaike international airport on 24 July 2001 which killed 18 people and destroyed 11 military and civilian aircraft (including two attack helicopters and three jet fighters of air force and three civilian passenger planes), stunned Sri Lankan establishment and caught global attention.[xviii]  This attack, coming in the wake of the crushing defeat of Sri Lankan forces in Elephant Pass, demoralized the Sri Lankan leadership as well as armed forces. 

Peace Process 2002

The LTTE had outgrown its political patrons including India when it reneged on the ISLA and went to war with the IPKF. In the presidential elections held in 1988, Ranasinga Premadasa of the UNP who had always opposed the presence of Indian troops used the rapidly turning public mood against the presence of Indian troops to his advantage. He got elected as president by narrow margin in December 1988. Soon after assuming office, Premadasa demanded India withdraw its troops from the island. In order to speed up the process, Premadasa went to the extent of supplying arms to the LTTE to fight the Indian troops!

At that time in the South, the government was facing a serious threat from the rapidly growing extremist activities of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a Marxist insurgent group which was staging a strong revival. Apparently, Premadasa felt a negotiated settlement with the LTTE would enable him to focus on destroying the JVP rebels and put out feelers to the LTTE. The LTTE already weakened by Indian troops found it expedient to reciprocate the President’s desire for peace talks to find a “Sri Lankan solution.” However, talks failed as the President Premadasa refused to accept the LTTE demand for the abolition of 6th Amendment to the Sri Lanka constitution which forbade the advocacy of a separate state within Sri Lanka, although he agreed to the abolition of the Northeastern provincial council and ordering of fresh elections there as demanded by the Tamil Tigers.[xix] However, both sides seemed to have failed to create a climate of trust during the talks and this only increased their mutual suspicion of each other’s end goals.[xx]  

The failure of SriLanka-LTTE 1989-90 talks was not surprising. As events that followed showed both sides had no intention of a peaceful settlement as they were importing arms in large quantities even as they talked peace. Moreover, even when the LTTE agreed to talk, rarely it went beyond the preliminaries. Usually they floundered upon the LTTE’s insistence on two issues: refusal to accept any political solution other than the autonomy of Tamil Eelam; and to be the sole representative of Tamils at the talks to the exclusion of other Tamil politicians and militant groups.[xxi] 

The government also had its own problem of political indecisiveness. Whenever the government fought the LTTE, its goal was limited to use the armed forces to whittle down the strength of the Tamil Tigers to bring them to negotiating table.  Sri Lanka army had to get adjusted to swings between war and peace which created confusion and cramped strategic planning for operations.  It also resulted in lack of coordination of actions between the leadership, executive and military which resulted in failure to mutually reinforce each other’s strength. Apparently, successive Sri Lankan governments also failed to read the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s overwhelming ambition was to use his military prowess to create the independent Tamil Eelam state. He had shown little faith in settling issues through political discourse because of his deep distrust of intellectuals and politicians. However, the LTTE found peace pauses between wars as useful periods to recoup losses, strengthen its armed forces and consolidate its hold on the territory under its control. 

The daring attack on Bandaranaike international airport which crippled the air force and the state owned airlines in July 2001 was a moment of truth for President Chandrika Kumaratunga as it highlighted the helplessness of elected governments against terrorist attacks. The global perceptions of terrorism underwent a drastic change two months later when al Qaeda terrorists hijacked civilian aircraft and attacked the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon to inflict huge causalities on 11 September 2001. The US vowed to destroy al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden and launched the global war on terror.

 The international mood sympathetic to the US collective action against all acts of extremism against the state became the watchword. After suffering huge losses in the Eelam War III Ms Kumaratunga invited Norway’s offer to mediate and evolve peace process with the Tamil Tigers. Anton Balasingham, LTTE’s international representative and close confidante of Prabhakaran also realised that the world environment after the 9/11 attacks was turning against insurgency and terrorism. The international community was tightening a whole range of protocols to check trafficking in arms and men, shipping and container traffic across the globe that would make it difficult for terrorists to transport arms and men across the world. Considering these developments Balasingham prevailed upon Prabhakaran to accept the Norwegian mediated peace process.[xxii] The Peace Process 2002 was different from earlier international efforts at peace in Sri Lanka as it enjoyed wide support 

particularly from the US and the European Union. For the first time the LTTE agreed to evolve a solution within a federal framework; on the other hand Sri Lanka government agreed to accept the LTTE as the sole representative of Tamil minority. This created the illusion that both the negotiating parties were on par in status, though the government had legitimacy as it was elected by the people, while the LTTE was an insurgent group with marked fascist tendencies. 

Both sides agreed to sign a ceasefire agreement as a prelude to the Norwegian-led peace process which had wide international support. Four co-chairs – the European Union, Japan, Norway and the U.S –presided over the peace process, while India kept itself in the loop without direct involvement. [xxiii]A ceasefire between the two sides came in force in 2002. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) was established with 20 officers from Norway and 10 officers from Iceland.[xxiv]

However, though the two sides had six rounds of talks between 2002 and 2003, the peace process could make only halting progress in the first three years. However, after the 2001 elections when President Chandrika Kumaratunga of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP) who were political opponents came to power, frictions developed between them. As a result Sri Lanka government was virtually paralysed in the face of LTTE’s large scale violations of ceasefire. The government could neither take decisive action against the LTTE’s ceasefire violations nor respond with a credible alternative to the LTTE’s interim self governing authority (ISGA) proposal.[xxv]  

It became untenable for the Sri Lanka government to continue with the peace process after the LTTE assassinated Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in Colombo on 12 August 2005. The international community supported Norway’s repeated efforts to resuscitate the process. However, the LTTE stood firm on its demand for parity with the government in all respects and demanded the acceptance of the ISGA it had proposed. The LTTE refused to own up responsibility for attacks that continued against SLSF officers and intelligence operatives. The government could not act decisively on these issues which affected the morale of the armed forces as the ceasefire agreement prevented them from retaliating to LTTE’s suicide bombings and attacks. [xxvi]

The peace process also lost its credibility among the public who aspired for end of cycle of violence and lasting peace. The SLMM also came in for widespread criticism as it could not put a stop to the LTTE’s gross ceasefire violations.  As a result the public lost their faith not only in the peace process but also in the Wickremesinghe government which was elected on its promise to bring peace.

Nationalist feelings were running high against the LTTE and the presidential aspirant Mahinda Rajapaksa of SLFP found it expedient to whip up nationalist sentiments to turn the public disenchantment with the ceasefire agreement and the peace process in the run up to the 2005 presidential election.  The Southern Sinhala masses welcomed Rajapaksa’s call to end the ceasefire and to use the army to eliminate the LTTE. They voted him to power with a slender margin over his UNP rival Ranil Wickremesinghe. In a way, the LTTE aided Rajapaksa’s election as Prabhakaran passed a mindless order asking Tamils to boycott the elections in the areas under its control. The LTTE dictum deprived Tamil votes that would have gone to his rival Ranil Wickremasinghe and helped Rajapaksa’s victory.[xxvii]

Eelam War IV and the defeat of LTTE

Mahinda Rajapaksa did not end the ceasefire agreement immediately on coming to power; but he promoted an aggressive, explicitly nationalist strategy for ending the conflict. It set off a new cycle of violence and retaliation – including attacks on security forces, extra-judicial killings, suicide bombings and military action. This left the peace talks with no takers. A LTTE suicide attack on the army commander Lt General Sarath Fonseka 25 April 2006 provided an ideal opportunity for Rajapaksa to hit at the LTTE in strength. Sri Lanka air force carried out heavy air strikes on the LTTE headquarters. This heralded the unofficial beginning of Eelam War IV. 

However, in real terms the Eelam War started only in July 2006, when the army was asked to rid of the LTTE which had closed the sluice gates of a weir at Mavil Aru in eastern province, cutting off water supply to downstream Sinhala villages under government control. Though the SLMM claimed success in the negotiations with the LTTE to open the sluice gates, the government ignored it as it considered basic services non negotiable. After the army evicted the LTTE from Mavil Aru weir in “Operation Watershed,” it systematically proceeded to clear the entire LTTE deployed in the province. The army established total control over the eastern province when it captured the LTTE stronghold of Thoppigala on 11 July 2007. 

Though the army took nearly a year (from 21 July 2006 to 11 July 2007) to wrest control of the eastern province from the LTTE, its success gave a big boost to its morale. After the army’s made a dent in the public image of ‘invincibility’ of the LTT, President Rajapaksa’s national popularity soared.  For the first time after Eelam War III, military initiative swung in favour of the army. The victory in the east also helped the President to sell the idea of a “military solution” - launching a full scale war to defeat the LTTE - to the public who were not confident of its success. On the political front, the government called the war in the East a “war for liberation of Tamils”and the President promised to restore full powers to Tamils promised under the 13th amendment of the constitution to the newly “liberated” eastern province. 

The President seemed to have decided to launch the operation in the north keeping three core aspects in mind: no peace talks till the LTTE’s military power is crushed, international community (particularly India) to be kept at bay till victory is achieved and allow no local or external pressure to affect the war plans. All his political and diplomatic actions during the entire period of war were conducted within these three parameters. This enabled him to stick to his goal of destroying the LTTE and take internal and external actions required to thwart any internal or external pressure interfering with military operations.

The President’s plans were put into action by his executive team consisting of his brothers Basil Rajapakse and Gotabaya Rajapakse, who were inducted as the Presidential Advisor and the Defence Secretary respectively, and Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, the Army Commander. While Basil Rajapakse provided the political interface to facilitate operational requirements, Gotabaya Rajapakse provided the government interface for the military operations. Thus almost all government initiatives during the period of war were coordinated to facilitate the military operations. As the defence ministry also controlled law and order and public security, paramilitary forces, civil defence forces and the police were seamlessly coordinated with operational requirements of the army.

President Rajapaksa seemed to have given a free hand for the Army Commander in planning and conduct of operations in coordination with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was a veteran with shared experience in earlier episodes of war. As a result there was good coordination between the army and the ministry of defence particularly in processing the demand for raising new units and importing additional military equipment on a real time basis.  Inevitably, concentration of such power in the hands of a few persons led to misuse of the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and human rights violations resulting in absence of rule of law and curtailing of fundamental freedom of the citizen and the media. This caused concern both during and after the war among the international community, civil rights groups and international NGOs working on human rights issues. After the war these issues snowballed into a major problem for Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council which sought its accountability to for alleged war crimes and human rights violations committed during the war.  

Sri Lanka forces made significant efforts to rectify past mistakes when they went into Eelam War IV. Despite this, the euphoria of victory in the initial phases in the east probably clouded army’s ability when it made an abortive attack the LTTE forward lines cutting off the Jaffna peninsula in October 2006.

 The army suffered 129 killed and 515 wounded in the LTTE counter offensive. Similarly on April 23, 2008 in another military offensive against the LTTE defence line in Muhamalai failed, resulting in the loss of 165 soldiers. After these failures, Lt General Sarath Fonseka, the Army Commander, tackled three weaknesses that had affected the operations: inadequate force levels, better coordination with naval and air forces and of operations on multiple fronts, and flexibility in battlefield strategy to overcome bottlenecks. At the same time he exploited the inherent weakness of the LTTE: inability to fight on multiple axes, limitations of reserves, and inadequate artillery support. His strategy for northern offensive envisaged to keep the LTTE troops pinned down in the frontline in the areas under their control while the army launched offensives along two broad axes: along the west coast of northern province to cut off A32 road running from south to north which would block supply boats from India’s southern coast reaching the LTTE and along the eastern coast from south to north to cut off supplies reaching from the eastern sea front. 

As the Sri Lankan operations successfully progressed, LTTE supply chain which had worked in the past was ripped. Naval and air operations coordinated to maximise support to ground operations ensured the military success. Air operations using helicopter gunships and fighters to destroy the LTTE support infrastructure and prevent free movement of cadres crippled the LTTE from reinforcing its strong points. 

The army employed Special Forces units effectively to penetrate front line and soften up LTTE defences prior to main offensive. Similarly, long range reconnaissance patrols struck in depth to take on opportunity targets. Special Boat Squadrons patrolled lagoons and offensively carried out special missions against targets in the coastal areas.

The army expanded the strength phenomenally to meet the requirements of war in the North. In the year 2008 alone the army recruited 40,000 persons to raise 47 infantry battalions, 13 brigades, 4 task force contingents, and two divisions. By the time the army went in for final phase of operation in February-March 2009, it had 13 divisions, three task forces, and one armoured brigade. It deployed nine divisions, three task forces and an armoured brigade between Jaffna and Wanni in the Northern Province and while three divisions were deployed in the east.

On the other hand, the LTTE fought only a defensive battle based on points established strong at communication centres in layers of defences to block all the major axes of advance. Inevitably, it had long gaps between strong points which were undermanned due to inadequate force levels. To overcome this limitation, the LTTE used locals to construct strong bunds between strong points to delay the advancing forces. The LTTE during 2007 and the first six months of 2008 managed to successfully carryout a series of bomb blasts and unconventional operations mainly in the vicinity of Colombo and Anuradhapura. In the six months of 2008, the LTTE carried out as many as nine blasts in which killing 76 civilians and injuring 454. After this the LTTE could not effectively break heightened security measures. Increased security checks and public awareness led to averting at least a dozen blasts. This exposed the failure of the LTTE unable to use its strength in unconventional warfare as a force multiplier against the main offensive.  

In the preparatory stage of the main offensive, the army destroyed as many as 250 bunkers in LTTE defences particularly along the salient joining the Jaffna peninsula with the rest of the Northern Province. The army launched the main offensive in strength only the second quarter of 2008, after building up adequate strength. The offensive to clear LTTE strongholds along the western coast started in July 2008, was completed by October 2008 and threatened the LTTE administrative capital Kilinochchi. 

However, the offensive on the eastern half had a more difficult time as LTTE’s Charles Anthony Brigadeinflicted heavy casualty between October and December when the troops were caught in the monsoon rains. But the army offensive astride main A9 road linking Jaffna with the rest of Sri Lanka dividing the province into two halves managed to drive a wedge between Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass. 

By first week of January 2009, the LTTE lost Kilinochchi as well as Elephant Pass, the key stronghold linking Jaffna peninsula.  However, the LTTE pulled back its troops and civilians westwards along the coast to fight smaller operations. During the month, the international community notably the US tried to intervene, suggesting a ceasefire which was firmly rejected by Sri Lanka. The US even offered to send Marines to extract the LTTE leadership from the operational area, which irritated the Sri Lankan leadership as it was nearing it was nearing total victory over the LTTE. The LTTE’s back was broken when it lost Pudukkudiyiruppu west of Mullaitivu after stiff battle. The army finally captured Mullaittivu area, the last LTTE bastion in January, 2009.

However, by April 2009 the operations were slowed down to allow over 200,000 civilians who were with the last of the LTTE forces to get out of the war zone. By then the remnants of the LTTE forces including its top leadership along with civilians were confined to a narrow strip in the eastern coastal front. The security forces stepped up the use of artillery including multi barrel rocket fire and air power causing heavy casualties among  civilians trapped in the war zone. Sri Lanka was prevailed upon to declare no war safety zone to enable civilians to get out from the LTTE controlled areas which were shrinking every day. However the LTTE would not allow them; the UN critically commented upon the cynical strategy which had little concern for avoidable deaths of civilians. [xxviii] Despite this, 196,000 people fled the conflict zone according to a report of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to escape death and privation while at least 50,000 people were trapped there.[xxix]

The Air Force (SLAF) carried out 1,345 missions (2582 sorties of jets and helicopter gunships) in the Eelam War IV from June 2006 onwards till January 2009. Three fighter squadrons undertook 1,116 missions while helicopter gunships were used 229 times. The extensive use of air support for land and sea operations was a key factor in preventing the LTTE from launching counter attacks. Usually, the fighters flying in close support softened up the targets before an offensive. Based on intelligence, the air force managed successfully eliminate some of the leaders of the LTTE like the political wing leader SP Thamilchelvan killed in an air raid.

However, the successful suicide attack by 21Black Tiger commandos on Anuradhapura air base on October 27, 2007 in which 10 troops were killed while 19 aircraft were put out of action, exposed the weakness in the security of the air force installations. The air force also failed to effectively counter the eight sneak raids carried out by the Air Tiger light aircraft. These low flying light aircraft cleverly dodged the security forces and managed to raid even the Katunayake air base near Colombo. Though the LTTE aircraft bombing sorties did not cause much damage, their psychological impact on the public was immense. The air force could not destroy them in the air, though they flew a number of sorties against them. However, after air defence was well coordinated by the newly created Air Defence Command two LTTE planes were prevented from carrying out a suicide attack on Katunayake air base and the Air Headquarters in Colombo on February 20, 2009.

The navy gave a good account of itself in Eelam War IV, though during 2006-07 it suffered considerable loss. It improved its tactics to take on the Black Tiger suicide boats and command boats before the attack could materalise. The LTTE’s naval operations also exposed the limitations of suicide attacks. They deprived the service of experienced Sea Tigers as the operation progressed and resulting in making suicide strike a self defeating proposition. The navy countered the Sea Tiger ‘wolf packs’ using FACs armed with 30 mm cannons in tandem. Their surface search radars and long range electro optic systems located Sea Tiger boats well in advance so that they were well prepared for the LTTE boats.

Future of Tamil separatist insurgency 

From the remnants of the overseas net work, the LTTE militants who want to keep the LTTE and the cause of independent Tamil Eelam alive are now organised into two groups which operate covertly. According to Sri Lanka army, P Sivaparan alias Nediyawan based in Norway leads a covert group that has established its cells in various Western countries. Former LTTE intelligence operative Vinayagam, based in Paris, leads the Headquarter Group. He is aided by the LTTE’s underworld members and criminal elements. 

He is involved in activities like smuggling of people to Canada and takeover of LTTE investments abroad. The local intelligence organsiations as well as Sri Lanka government had been monitoring their activities as it strongly suspected them of being involved in reviving LTTE in the island nation. However, except for few instances of former LTTE cadres making feeble attempts, there are no signs of the revival of the LTTE in the island.[xxx] 

However, many Sri Lanka Tamil Diaspora organizations actively involved in keeping the spirit of Tamil identity and nationalism alive; most of them are in favour of supporting Tamil political moves in the island to fulfil the long pending demands of Tamil minority.  However, sections of Eelam sympathizers and LTTE acolytes have organized themselves to keep the quest for Tamil Eelam alive. Almost all Diaspora organsiations have been vociferously asking for the prosecution of Sri Lanka leaders and army men allegedly involved in war crimes during the Eelam war. They have been demanding an international investigation to into these allegations under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council where the issue is progressing.  Among the myriads of Diaspora organizations, the most influential ones are the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), the British Tamil Forum (BTF) and the Tamil Youth Organisation (TYO). 

The TGTE is a political formation projecting the political face of LTTE. It has offices in 12 countries; its secretariat is located in Geneva. It is led by “Prime Minister” Rudrakumaran, LTTE’s attorney based in the US, three “deputy prime ministers” and seven “ministers” with a parliament elected by the Tamil Diaspora supporters and sympathizers of the LTTE. According to its website its objective is to win freedom for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka based on principles of nationhood, homeland and right to self determination. These were the same principles based on which the demand for independent Tamil Eelam became a political issue 1977 and then morphed into insurgency movement led by the LTTE. It has limited influence among the Tamil Diaspora and its activities help to keep the memory of the LTTE and Prabhakaran alive among the Diaspora.[xxxi] 

The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) was established after the end of the Eelam War IV in 2009. Its main objective is to achieve a negotiated political settlement to end the marginalization of Tamils. The organization with its office located in Croydon, UK, is working with Diaspora groups and Tamil leaders in Sri Lanka to evolve a common declaration containing conditions conducive for arriving at a political settlement that addresses the grievances of the Tamil people. It has been with Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on this issue as well as on for the creation of an independent international war crimes accountability mechanism in Sri Lanka as well as help internally displaced persons to resettle in their original places.  It is led by one-time LTTE acolyte Father Emmanuel who hopes to build it into a vocal and powerful Diaspora body enjoying wide support. [xxxii] 

The BTF is the largest Sri Lanka Tamil Diaspora body in the United Kingdom. It aims at highlighting the grievances of Tamils in Sri Lanka to the international community and actively works with parliamentary Tamil lobby groups of the three major parties in parliament. It has been vigorously pursuing the demand for bringing to book Sri Lankan leaders for alleged war crimes and human rights violations committed before and during the Eelam War. During the war, in January 2009 BTF spearheaded the huge protest march in London in support of the demand for Tamil Eelam and a permanent ceasefire in Sri Lanka.[xxxiii] 

The TYO is an international Tamil youth organization with branches in UK, Canada, Australia, France, Norway, New Zealand, Sweden and the US. According to its website it focuses on uniting the Tamil youth across the country and helps promote and understand Tamil language, history, culture and identity. It organizes sports and cultural events for Tamils; in addition to this it has been supportive of the demand for separate Tamil Eelam.[xxxiv]


Sri Lanka has shown how to successfully combat the LTTE, a networked transnational insurgent organization, using the conventional army. The national leadership under President Rajapaksa’s objectives were: to end the ceasefire with the LTTE, abort the peace process, retain military initiative at all times to destroy the LTTE. He evolved holistic strategy, coordinating political actions and diplomatic initiatives to help the armed forces in furthering the war. President Rajapaksa highlighted to India and the US the danger of allowing a terrorist organization like the LTTE to continue to flourish and they to help him out in their own ways.  Though India could not supply arms due to internal political compulsions, it shared vital intelligence on LTTE movements and procurement of arms and supplies abroad and chipped in with some military equipment like radar. The US provided electronic surveillance equipment and maritime intelligence which were effectively used by Sri Lanka to cripple the LTTE’s international logistic chain during the war.  

The Army Commander General Fonseka adopted a realistic strategy that aimed at exploiting the LTTE’s strategic weaknesses to his advantage. Adoption of multiple thrust lines, excellent coordination of the three services with fighting formations operating and providing adequate forces paved the way for success. The military also showed strong motivation at the junior leadership level to carry on with the task despite casualties. However, the extensive use of air force and artillery against the country’s own citizens who have turned into insurgents as well as civilians is a questionable strategy. This had undoubtedly resulted in avoidable civilian casualties during the war. This has come under severe criticism from the international community and the UN Human Rights Council.

The key takeaways from Sri Lanka’s success at the national level are: effective national leadership with clear goals, making available required resources to the armed forces to achieve success, complete coordination and integration of military objectives to achieve national goals, empowering armed forces to plan and adopt innovative methods to achieve operational goals, beefing up infrastructure to effectively use social networks and world wide web to counter LTTE propaganda,  strengthening internal security apparatus to foil extremist threats to public services and personalities and prevent political interference from extraneous sources.

At the international level the takeaways are: taking advantage of existing global mood against terrorism to further operational goals, use of political and civil society channels to muster international community’s help to get LTTE’s front organizations and support networks proscribed or rendered non effective and keeping channels open with friendly countries to gain and share intelligence relevant to the operations.

President Rajapaksa’s post war strategy had shown major weaknesses. He failed to take advantage of military success to resolve the ethnic confrontation once and for all. He did not care to take meaningful action to address the fundamental demands of the Tamils for political autonomy even after five years of war. He chose to ignore international demand for accountability for alleged war crimes and gross human rights violations committed during the war.  Instead, he used the bogey of LTTE revival to garner political mileage to strengthen his support base among Southern Sinhala supporters. In the last two years of his rule, he pandered to the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist organizations causing ethnic friction.  His post war rule was also marred by poor governance, misuse of office, concentration of power within the family, corruption and absence of rule of law. 

This led to Rajapaksa’s defeat in the 2015 presidential elections and his former aide and successor President Maithripala Sirisena has been saddled with all the post war problems. Rajapaksa’s post war failure has brought out the important learning of all: it is not enough to win the war against terrorism, equally important is to reap full benefit of the elimination of terrorism. 




[i] Sri Lanka had fought the LTTE for over 25 years from 23 July 1983 to 18 May 2009 in four spells of Eelam War – Eelam War I (1983-87), Eelam War II (1990-95), Eelam War III (1995-2002) and Eelam War IV (2006-09). The Indian Peace Keeping Forces fought the LTTE between 1987 and 1990.

[ii] Anton S. Balasingam, “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam: Our Theoretical Guide to the National Question,” 1983.


[iv] LTTE carried out its first ever suicide attack on 5 July 1987 when Black Tiger ‘Miller’ drove an explosive laden truck into a school in Vadamarachchi (in Jaffna peninsula) where Sri Lanka troops were billeted, killing about 40 soldiers. According to a report which quoted Tamil Eelam Heroes Secretariat since their inception in 1987 until 30 June 2007 a total 322 Black Tigers were killed in action. [Iqbal Athas, ‘The terrible truth behind the freezer truck’ ] However, more Black Tigers lost their lives in naval operations, than on land. According to the report out of the total 322 Black Tigers who died in action 81 (63 men and 18 women) died in land operations while 241 Black Sea Tigers including 169 men and 72 women died at sea.  By the end of war in May 2009 an estimated 330 Black Tigers had lost their lives.

[v] Speech made by Secretary Defence Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Ministry of Defence.

[vi] See LLRC 2011: section 3.30.

[vii] Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa’s  interview with Sydney Morning Herald, 22 May 2009.


[ix] "Tigers multimillion dollar empire", July 24, 2007

[x] IANS, Washington, ‘US freezes assets of Tamil charity for supporting LTTE’ 12 February 2009

[xi] Human Rights Watch "Letter to Minister Stockwell Day, Department of Public Safety, Canada" dated Dec 4, 2006.

[xii] Census of Population and Housing of Sri Lanka, 2012"

[xiii] The TULF leader Amirthalingam had referred to this aspect in a conversation with the author in 1988.

[xiv] Nesiah, Devanesan, “Sri Lankan nationalism, ethnic identity and community”, Sri Lanka Peace Without Process, (New Delhi, Samskriti 2006) pp 53-89.

[xv] Shekhar Gupta, Ominous presence in Tamil Nadu, 31 March 1984

[xvi] ["LTTE: the Indian connection". Sunday Times, 19 January 1997  Retrieved  12 May 2016

[xvii] For an analysis of the failure of the agreement see Hariharan R, “The discarded accord and the unwanted war,” The Hindu, 7 August  2007.

[xviii] Jane’s Intelligence Review, “Intelligence failure exposed by Tamil Tiger airport attack” accessed 23 May 2005

[xix] Bradman Weerakone, Sri Lanka-LTTE talks 1989/90, A Report 

[xx] Dharmeratnam Sivaram, What went wrong between the Tigers and Premadasa, 15 January 1993  Accessed 15 May 2016

[xxi] The LTTE considered other militant groups as traitors to the Eelam cause as they had supported the India-Sri Lanka peace accord 1987. 

[xxii]  BBC report “Brain behind the brawn” of 15 December 2006 quotes Balasingham’s memoirs to say he managed to persuade a reluctant leadership to engage in peace talks, arguing his point time and time again that this was the right course of action.

[xxiii] For a brief on the role of India and Norway in the see Narayanaswamy NR, Sri Lanka and the Peace Makers: the Story of Norway and India ]

[xxiv] UN Regional Information Centre report ‘Norway in Sri Lanka- The peace initiative that went out the window’ accessed on 20 April 2016 out-the-window  

[xxv]  According to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission data, during the period from February 22, 2002 to April 30, 2007 the LTTE committed in all 3830 violations of ceasefire as against 351 by the government of Sri Lanka.

[xxvi] Forces on backfoot as Tigers strike at will, 29-6-2003 Sunday Times, Colombo

[xxvii] Prabhakaran's decision to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and his advice to Tamils to boycott the Presidential poll 2005 created long term problems for LTTE. The first decision alienated the Indians and the second one helped Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was against all that LTTE sought in the peace process, to get elected.

[xxviii] R Hariharan, Sri Lanka: War and the humanitarian crisis in Vanni, 27 January 2009 ] 

[xxix] UN 8 May 2009  Urgent international scrutiny needed in Sri Lanka, say UN rights experts". Retrieved 10 May 2009

[xxx] Udeshi Amarasinghe, “Modus Operandi: Tamil Diaspora and LTTE organisation” June 5, 2014.   This account based on Sri Lanka intelligence sources may not be wholly accurate; but it broadly conforms to the emerging separatist support groups abroad.