February 17, 2020
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A Costly Fiasco

For the LTTE cheer-leaders, the bombing of the Sri Lankan airbase epitomised both the innovativeness and indefatigability of the Tiger leadership as well as the blundering buffoonery of the security forces. A Sri Lankan look at the impulses and impli

A Costly Fiasco
A Costly Fiasco
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A low-flying Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-owned aircraft—a Czech-manufactured Zlin–143, single-engine trainer with a maximum flying speed of 267 kph, a wing-span of 6.95m and a length of 8.8m, and requiring a runway of at least 500m for normal takeoff and landing—proceeded south from a jungle hideout in the northern plains of Sri Lanka, dropped three bombs on Sri Lanka's principal Air Force base at Katunayake at approximately 0100 hrs on Monday, March 26, 2006, and returned unharmed to its base an hour later. Two of the bombs exploded, killing three airmen and injuring about 15 others in the engineering section of the Airbase. According to post-attack official reports, the Israel-built Kfirs and the Ukranian Mig-27s (constituting the main fighter squadrons of the Air Force, used intensively and effectively for pounding LTTE military bases and encampments in the northern and eastern parts of the country throughout the past few months) on which the bombing raid is believed to have been targeted, escaped damage.

Needless to stress, any violent confrontation that results in death and injury cannot be trivialised. Yet, in the context of the ferocity that has characterized the undeclared war between the government and the LTTE over the past few months, and as an event that represents the culmination of an almost decade-long effort by the Tigers to acquire capacity for aerial attack, last Monday's bombing of the airbase was a costly fiasco—costly, because it would attract not only retaliatory offensive action but also greater international concern, especially on the possible emulative effects of the modality of attack, and enhanced vigilance both in Sri Lanka and abroad on procurement of military hardware by the Tigers from clandestine arms markets. And, the attack was a fiasco in the sense that it failed to achieve its objective of reducing the government's air-strike capability. Indeed, beginning at dawn on Monday, the Sri Lanka Air Force staged a series of furious attacks on LTTE targets almost as if to broadcast the fact that its fighter squadrons remained intact.

Nevertheless, from propaganda perspectives, the LTTE attack did achieve a fairly high level of success. It evoked extraordinary worldwide media attention. In the hourly BBC news broadcasts, for instance, distorted versions of the attack (including an early claim that the Tigers had bombed the international airport at Katunayake) remained the first item of 'World News' repeated over more than twelve hours, upstaging Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other major trouble-spots of the world—a unique 'record' for the island despite its two decades of major convulsions.

The less subtle purveyors of anti-Sri Lankan propaganda employed innumerable websites to sensationalise the event as a major Tiger triumph, claiming that the attack would have a cataclysmic impact not only the government's war effort, but also on the country's economy and, indeed, the survival prospects of the government. Identifying the attack as the first of its kind by any terrorist organization employing its own resources for an air attack, several media pundits perceived in it the onset of a horrendous new phase of the Sri Lankan conflict. 

Certain Indian commentators, though more sober in their observations, saw in the attack a new threat to the security of their country. Some among them focused on the 500-km flight range which the attack had entailed, and highlighted the 'Air-Tiger' capacity to reach strategic installations and other targets even in south India. B. Raman, a former head of India's Research and Analysis Wing, contributing his own profound expertise on South Asian security concerns to the dissemination of 'news' on this incident, declared that the Sri Lankan security forces were unaware of the LTTE's attempts that had persisted since the late 1990s to develop air-strike capability. 

More generally, for many LTTE admirers within and outside Sri Lanka, with their usual amnesia on episodes of terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world, the bombing of the airbase epitomised both the innovativeness and indefatigability of the Tiger leadership as well as the blundering buffoonery of the security forces. Meanwhile, the LTTE leaders, basking in this propaganda glory, declared that the raid was merely a demonstration of their newly acquired capability for air attacks of which, they said, there is much more in store.

Contrary to Raman's assertion referred to above, the government of Sri Lanka has been aware all along of the attempts being made by the Tigers to develop air strike capacity. Anti-aircraft guns were installed at several strategic spots in Colombo as far back as the late 1990s. Intelligence reports, including those presented to the government of India in 2001 in connection with seeking India's assistance for the installation of the existing radar system at the airbase, refer specifically to the LTTE's possession of several light aircraft (Pilatus PC7, Pilatus PC21 and Zlin 143). 

The construction by the LTTE of a runway at Iranamadu was known both to the government as well as the Scandinavian-manned Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, with the latter declaring it a violation of the ceasefire agreement. In fact, the runway was bombed on several occasions by the Sri Lanka Air Force. More recently, there have been reports of the LTTE using light aircraft on at least two occasions—for strewing flowers on a Tiger graveyard at an annual Mahaveer celebration, and for an intimidatory simulated bombing of a cargo vessel conveying food from Trincomalee to the northern port of Kankesanthurai. The elements of surprise were, of course, there, both in the failure of the radar system at the airbase to detect the attacking aircraft, as well as in the brinkmanship displayed in the 'hit-or-miss' modality of the attack which, had it succeeded, could have had a significant impact.

The genuine impulses of the LTTE's decision to bomb the Katunayake Airbase appear distinct only when they are set against the general trend of losses and setbacks suffered by the LTTE from about mid-2006. In the Eastern Province, beginning with the unsuccessful attempt to disrupt the Mavil Aru irrigation system of the Mahaveli Delta, there were the more extensive losses suffered in the strategically important Sampur, Muttur and Toppur areas south of the Trincomalee Harbour, over most of which the LTTE had established a stranglehold following the ceasefire of December 2001, in blatant violation of the ceasefire terms. By the end of 2006, the Security Forces (SFs) had captured about 18 Tiger bases and encampments located in this area, and had blunted the LTTE capacity to launch missile attacks from such bases on the government military installations around the harbour. Consequent to the eviction of Tiger forces from the areas adjacent to Trincomalee, by late 2006, the coastal lowlands of Batticaloa District had emerged as the most powerful Tiger base in the east, the harassment of the breakaway 'Karuna Faction' since mid-2004 notwithstanding. It is in this area that the government forces have made the most tangible advances in the past three months, effectively clearing the entire coastal stretch from Trincomalee to Batticaloa of Tiger control.

On 28 March 2007, the largest of the Tiger bases in the east—Kokkadacholai, from which the operations in this part of the country appear to have been directed—was captured by the army, and a large haul of weapons was recovered. Though sporadic acts of terrorism, such as the suicide attack on the Army camp at Chenkaladi north of Batticaloa on March 27, 2007, will no doubt persist, the LTTE's control over territory in the east has been shattered.

In the northern parts of the country, although the military confrontations (Muhamalai in Jaffna peninsula, the island of Kayts, areas adjacent to Mannar, and the forest tracts south of the Madhu shrine have been the main venues of recent clashes) do not indicate distinct trends of losses or gains on either side of the great divide, in comparative terms, the Tiger losses have probably been greater than those of the government's SFs. These 'terrestrial' losses of the LTTE have been paralleled by equally severe 'maritime' losses. A rough impression of their magnitude is conveyed by the fact that, since January 2006, the Sri Lanka Navy has destroyed and/or intercepted 9 transoceanic arms shipments of the LTTE, in addition to many smaller boats engaged in transporting contraband across the Palk Straits which, despite strengthened preventive measures, continues to remain one the more porous international frontiers of South Asia.

The record of terrorist offensives launched by the LTTE on targets elsewhere in Sri Lanka since January 2006 also reflects meagre achievement, the most spectacular 'successes' among them being the mortar attack on an omnibus that killed 64 peasants in one of the most remote rural areas of the North-Central Province on June 15, 2006; and the killing of about 35 soldiers on their way home on leave from battle grounds in the east, on July 31, 2006. In addition, scores of Tamil civilians whom the LTTE had branded as traitors to the 'liberation struggle' have been liquidated. Among the high profile failures that feature in this record are the attempted assassinations of the Army Commander, the High Commissioner for Pakistan, and the Secretary of Defence (all in Colombo); and the sea-borne attacks on the ports at Galle and Colombo.

In the context of these failures and losses, it is credible to speculate that the deteriorating morale within the ranks of the LTTE is likely to have provided one of the main impulses for the March 26 Airbase attack. The Tiger leadership is likely to have reasoned that an innovative attack of stunning impact on the government's SFs could restore the sagging image of their invincibility, and at once attract the dwindling popular support of the Tamils of the 'north-east'. There is, in addition, the likelihood that the recent battle-field setbacks have had an adverse effect on the LTTE's fund-raising efforts outside the country. In this respect, the support of the Tamil Diaspora to the LTTE 'liberation effort' is much like the support of cricket enthusiasts to the 'World Cup efforts' of their cricketing demigods—at their feet in victory, and at their throats in defeat.

It is no secret that the LTTE utilised the lax security ethos of the farcical ceasefire period (December 2001 onwards) for a massive rejuvenation of its fighting capacity. Intelligence sources indicate that between December 2001 and March 2004 (the time of the Karuna revolt), the trained fighting cadres of the LTTE increased from about 7,000 to 16,000. Further, as pointed out recently by the editor of a prestigious national daily, over the brief period of the 'peace talks' (September 2002 to February 2003) crate-loads of consignments were allowed to pass through the country's main ports of entry without the usual customs' checks, and were conveyed in military convoys to the Tiger stronghold in the Vanni—all in the name of 'confidence building' between the government and the LTTE leadership. 

There is moreover a persuasive body of evidence indicating that LTTE sympathisers from outside the country including certain International Non-governmental Organisation (INGO) personnel, operating almost entirely without restriction in the post-Tsunami chaos, helped the LTTE in its rejuvenation efforts, apparently on the basis of a belief that a negotiated settlement of the Sri Lankan conflict could be facilitated only if the LTTE were to achieve parity of military strength vis-à-vis the government of Sri Lanka. The cumulative impact was that, when the escalated level of hostilities commenced in mid-2006, despite the losses incurred by the Tsunami and the Karuna defection, the LTTE was better manned and better equipped than it had been in the heyday of its battle-field victories of the late 1990s.

This does not, however, imply that it has been easy for the LTTE to recover from the losses and setbacks of the more recent past. The addition of the European Union ban to the existing proscriptions of the LTTE, greater vigilance over illegal arms transactions in at least some of the source countries (as reported from the United States and Ukraine in the past three months), the strengthened Indo-Lankan collaboration in coastal surveillance and exchanges of security information, and the substantially increased operational capacity of the Sri Lanka Navy (demonstrated through repeated interceptions of arms shipments), have converged to make it more difficult than ever before for the LTTE to engage in bulk procurement and transfer of arms and ammunition to replenish its arsenal. The replacement of the personnel losses is probably even more problematic. The densely populated coastal lowlands of the east, where there is a large and impoverished Tamil population, are no longer the brim-full reservoir of young conscripts to the Tiger cadres that they once were; and the forest-clad Vanni, which has remained under the LTTE jackboot, has hardly ever been a significant source of fresh recruits. The possibility of attracting youth from the economically depressed 'Indian Tamil' community of the central highlands cannot be ruled out. But for that to happen, the LTTE must hit a winning streak. 


G.H. Peiris is Professor Emeritus of the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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