This was the third LTTE attack on Sri Lankan naval personnel since Mr. Mahinda Rajpakse assumed office as the Sri Lankan President after his election victory in November last and indicated a reversal of the commitments of his predecessors to seek a solution to the ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority based on a federal model. The announcement of a hard political line, which emanated from his rejection of the LTTE's concept of a so-called Tamil homeland, was followed by the launching by the Sri Lankan Army and Navy of cordon and search operations -- initially in the Northern and Eastern provinces -- and subsequently in Colombo to detect and neutralise possible LTTE sleeper cells in the areas controlled by the government and thereby pre-empt any LTTE plans for conventional acts of war or deniable acts of terrorism to retaliate against his going back on the past commitments of the government.
Allegations and perceptions of excesses by the security forces during the course of the pre-emptive search operations -- including an alleged rape of a Tamil girl by Naval personnel and the alleged killing of five Tamil youth through hand-held weapons in the Eastern Province -- have led to a calibrated escalation of deniable covert actions by the LTTE against targets associated with the Sri Lankan government, particularly the Armed Forces, since the beginning of December.
In the first attack on naval personnel on December 22, 2005, the LTTE destroyed a Sri Lankan naval dinghy and took three sailors hostage in an incident off the Pallimunai coast in the north-western district of Mannar. According to a government press release, two naval dinghies were on a routine patrol in the Pallimunai lagoon when ten LTTE craft surrounded them and opened fire. One of the naval craft was immobilised and three of its sailors were captured. The government described the LTTE's action as a "deliberate hostile act" in violation of Article 1.3 of the ceasefire agreement, which had given the Sri Lankan Navy the right to patrol the coastline. Hostage taking was also a violation of the ceasefire agreement, it said. Tamil sources perceived the incident as a reprisal attack by the LTTE to avenge the abduction, rape and murder of a Tamil girl allegedly by Sri Lankan naval personnel in Pungudithivu.
The next day, at least 13 navy sailors were killed and three others seriously wounded in a powerful landmine attack on their convoy by suspected LTTE operatives in the Mannar Island. In keeping with its past practice, the LTTE has not claimed responsibility for any of these incidents. The first two incidents were projected by LTTE elements as spontaneous acts of anger by sections of the Tamil population with which it had nothing to do.
The Tamil Net, the web site associated with the LTTE, reported the latest incident as follows: â€œA Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) Dvora fast attack craft has been reported missing off the coast of Trincomalee, naval sources said. A big explosion was heard off the coast of Foul Point around 2.30 a.m. Saturday, police in the eastern port town said. A statement issued by the Sri Lanka Army said two survivors of the crew have been found and thirteen are still missing and the Dvora has sunk without any trace. Liberation Tigers' media spokesperson Daya Master, speaking to Tamil Net from Kilinochchi, said that LTTE has no involvement in the explosion."
On the basis of the evidence available so far, the series of incidents directed against the SL Army and the Navy by the LTTE since the beginning of December seem to be of a tactical reprisal nature and need not necessarily be precursors of the resumption of the conventional war, which was brought to an end by the ceasefire agreement of 2002. It would not be in the interest of either the government or the LTTE to formally abrogate the cease-fire agreement and resume the conventional war. Both continue to count on the support of the international community for strengthening their respective case against each other and any formal abrogation of the cease-fire, whatever be the provocation from either, could prove counter-productive.
With large parts of the Tamil-inhabited areas yet to recover fully from the effects of the devastation caused by the tsunami of December, 2004, any further deterioration of the living conditions consequent upon a formal resumption of the fighting could cost them public support----domestic as well as international. The LTTE's tactics would, most probably, remain confined to calibrated deniable covert actions, which would keep up the pressure on the government, maintain the morale and motivation of its cadres and keep any attrition of international support at manageable and retrievable levels.
The latest action by the Sea Tigers off Trincomalee, which is of a spectacular nature, speaks of the continuing high morale, motivation and reflexes of the suicide volunteers of the LTTE, but it does not necessarily provide a satisfactory answer to the question as to what damage was suffered by the LTTE's naval wing due to the tsunami. Sri Lankan government sources, including former President Chandrika Kumaratunge, had been talking of severe damages suffered by the naval wing of the LTTE. Mrs. Chandrika had even hazarded a claim that the LTTE had suffered such significant losses that a resumption of the insurgency was unlikely. It was this over-confident assessment, which apparently emanated from the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, that seemed to have influenced the hardline of Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse.
Soosai, the head of the LTTE's naval wing, had denied the stories disseminated by the government after the tsunami. While admitting some losses in personnel, he had denied any major loss in equipment. Extracts from an assessment made by me immediately after the tsunami are attached.
The latest strike by the LTTE Navy definitely shows that any damage suffered by it was not irreparable and that the government's over-confidence was misplaced.
The successful maritime terrorism strike by the LTTE brings to mind Al Qaeda's attack on the US Naval ship USS Cole off Aden in October, 2000, and the subsequent attack on the French oil tanker Limburg in the same area in October, 2002. The Al Qaeda attacks were copy-cat versions of the LTTE's tactics and not vice versa.
In a year-end analysis of maritime terrorism on December 27, 2005, Captain Pelkofski of the Joint Operations Directorate at U.S. Fleet Forces Command, who had previously commanded USS Deyo, wrote inter alia as follows: " With only rare dramatic bursts, the maritime environment has remained relatively calm in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), but a sustained, destructive storm churns over the horizon. Despite the inherent challenges, Al Qaeda can attack, has attacked, and will again attack maritime targets. Indications point to an acceleration of the pace of maritime terrorism, heralding a coming campaign. The propensity of Al Qaeda for patient and intricate preparation augurs a future sustained maritime terrorism campaign, rather than a continued irregular pattern of attacks."
Referring to the LTTE, he said: "Although fighting a national war of liberation, the long established and formidably skilled, organized, and equipped maritime arm of the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Elam (LTTE) presents Al Qaeda with a source to plagiarize for maritime terrorism knowledge. Prior to a 2002 ceasefire, the maritime branch of the LTTE, the Sea Tigers, employed 3,000 personnel and between 100-200 vessels in a concerted campaign against commercial shipping and the Sri Lankan navy. Moreover, the LTTE perpetuated its expertise in a maritime school and academy, formally packaging and publishing a body of knowledge applicable to maritime terrorism. "
The LTTE's success in clandestinely procuring in Europe and transporting to the areas under its control in the Northern Province one or two microlite aircraft came to notice last year. Its success in doing so despite the supposedly heightened post-9/11 vigilance of the intelligence and security agencies of the world showed what other terrorist organisations can do if they are equally determined and resourceful.
Its latest successful act of maritime terrorism would be an equal source of inspiration to Al Qaeda and other organisations associated with it in the International Islamic Front(IIF). The rapidity with which the LTTE was able to plan and mount an operation within days of the incident involving the death of five Tamil youth allegedly at the hands of the SL military speaks highly of its state of preparedness and its ability to collect intelligence regarding the movements of the SL Navy.
In his analysis mentioned above, Captain Pelkofski has drawn attention to the difficulties faced by Navies of State actors, trained to think and operate in a conventional manner, in anticipating and countering naval threats from non-State actors trained to think and operate unconventionally. The infrastructure of the navies of State actors is ill-fitted to counter that of the non-state actors, whose strength lies in the smallness of their vessels, their ability to merge with the surroundings and their capability for stealth action. For maritime counter-terrorism, small is strength.
The LTTE's maritime terrorist strike has come at a time when there has been a revival of speculation about possible maritime links between it and Al Qaeda. This speculation has been triggered off by an article carried by the Asia Times online journal on December 22, 2005, written by Syed Saleem Shahzad, its correspondent in Pakistan. In that article, he has stated as follows on the basis of information from "intelligence sources":
"Al Qaeda concluded that its attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 was a failure, even though 17 American sailors were killed. As a result, Al Qaeda sent a team to the LTTE to gain expertise in maritime combat operations. The LTTE, as part of its longstanding battle against the Sri Lankan
government, has developed a relatively sophisticated maritime wing. The interaction was brief and inconclusive, and Al Qaeda subsequently rejected the idea of maritime combat, deciding instead to fight the United States on land. Nevertheless, the links established between the two groups were to prove useful in another way. Pakistani intelligence sources say that Al Qaeda now works with the LTTE to get weapons, including automatic arms and ground-to-air missiles. The weapons are paid for in cash, as well as in drugs originating from Afghanistan, according to the sources. The drugs primarily are sent to Scandinavian countries and Thailand, the latter being a traditional base from which the LTTE has smuggled weapons......The smuggling channels are the same that the Tamil Tigers have adopted for years [with international arms cartels]. The latest weapons originate through arm dealers, as well as those stolen from arms depots and shipped from South America and Lebanon. They are transferred from ship to ship and sometimes offloaded at small ports, and from there, using various channels, they reach the final destination."
There is so far no corroboration of this information. In the 1990s, the LTTE had contacts with the Harkat-ul-Ansar (subsequently re-named Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and then Jamiat-ul-Ansar), which is a founding member of the IIF. The arms and ammunition in an LTTE ship with Kittu on board, which was sunk by the Indian Navy in 1993, had been given to the LTTE by the HUM, then known as the HUA, with the knowledge and approval of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The ISI had facilitated their loading into the LTTE ship at the Karachi port. In 1995, the LTTE had transported a shipload of arms and ammunition supplied by the HUA to the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in southern Philippines. In return for its assistance, the HUA had gifted to the LTTE some anti-aircraft weapons and ammunition and shoulder-fired missiles.
Since then, there have been no confirmed reports of any contacts between the LTTE and any of the jihdi terrorist organisations operating from the Pakistan/Afghanistan region. Since 9/11, the LTTE, which was declared by the US State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organisatiion in October, 1997, has been careful not to attract the adverse notice of the US by hobnobbing with Al Qaeda or any other jihadi terrorist organisation.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.