Counter Terrorism: The Sri Lankan Way

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Until May 2009, Sri Lanka was one of the worst-affected countries by terrorism. The island nation struggled against the scourge for more than three decades. Formed in 1975,the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) wrought havoc across Sri Lanka before it was finally smashed in a three-pronged attack in 2009. The nationalist-separatist movement was striving for the creation of an independent homeland ‘Elam’ for the Tamils of northern Sri Lanka. During the thirty year terror campaign of LTTE,  70,000 people lost their lives in 2,953 terrorist incidents (Global Terrorism Database, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism).

The LTTE was formed to the backdrop of ethnic violence with roots in the Sinhala-Tamil language riots of 1958, more than 300 people, mostly minority Tamils, lost their lives in the riots. The deep rooted hatred between the two communities paved the way for the emergence of several Tamil terror groups in Sri Lanka by the mid-1970s. The Velupillai Prabhakaren-led LTTE managed to wipe out all other Tamil violent groups, claiming to be the sole representative for the rights of the Tamil community.

Though initially the LTTE restricted itself to acts of terrorism, it gradually managed to carve out large swaths of territories in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, with capital of the de facto state at Kilinochi. At its peak the LTTE had a force of 25,000 men and women, with about $300 million annual revenues. The LTTE had its own training facilities, a small navy comprising of few customized gun boats and an air force with two light Cessna aircrafts, which were occasionally used for manually dropping bombs in aid of ground troops.The LTTE Special Forces called Black Tigers reported directly to Prabhakaran and were the primary force behind its suicide attacks. By early 1980s and 1990s the LTTE was sending waves of suicide bombers to hit military and civilian targets in the Sri Lankan cities. The Black Tigers were successful in assassinating Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, after he sent Indian Peace keeping Force to aid the Sri Lankan government. The Black Tigers also assassinated Sri Lankan President Ranasingha Premadasa in 1993. The LTTE conducted 168 suicide bombings in Sri Lanka.

The LTTE could be compared with the Shia Lebanese terror group Hezbollah which still controls the Beka valley in Southern Lebanon; and Marxist Colombian Armed Revolutionary Front for Colombia (FARC).

The LTTE, despite having a clear nationalist-separatist outlook, was Marxist-Leninist by virtue of its ideology. Tamil diaspora in Western Europe funnelled in millions of dollars every year to bankroll the LTTE. Norway remained a key player in mediating talks several times between the LTTE and Sri Lankan government, though unsuccessfully. On most of the occasions the LTTE only agreed to talk when it was on a back foot and a military operation by the Sri Lankan armed forces was underway. The talks allowed LTTE to regroup and gather the lost momentum.

After coming into power in 2009 the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa initiated an uncompromising military campaign against the LTTE, and made theSri Lankan counter terrorism and counter insurgency policies  multi-layered. The Sri Lankans prioritized their policies by focusing on the training of their forces,  realizing that the fight against the LTTE in the dense forests and hilly terrains of the north was not going to be conventional. Prevention of Terrorist Act ordinance was also promulgated by the Sri Lankan parliament to strengthen the existing body of laws. The efficacy of Law enforcement agencies’ also improved to investigate the cases of terrorism. President Rajapaksa also realized that the LTTE revolves around the personality cult of Prabhakren who was considered a demi-God within LTTE and destroying LTTE without Prabhakaren would be a futile effort.

The sense of inevitability of LTTE success was countered by encouraging defections of high profile LTTE members. The defection of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, an LTTE veteran fighter and right hand man of Prabhakaren, was a turning point in the war against the LTTE, which provided  trove of information about the LTTE’s military weaknesses to Sri Lankan authorities paving the way for a final and decisive military campaign against the LTTE, launched in January 2009. During the military campaign the Sri Lankan government was accused of some controversial high handed tactics such as forced disappearances, running black sites, torture and assassination of LTTE leaders surrendered to the military. The Sri Lankan coup de grace was the announcement of amnesty for those who unconditionally surrendered to the authorities

Lessons for Pakistan

There are quite a few tips for Pakistani security policy makers to learn from the Sri Lankan experience. Pakistan may learn from Sri Lankan armed forces about their asymmetric tactics of countering terrorists with a special focus on guerrilla warfare. Many of the terrorist attacks (mainly suicide attacks) conducted by different factions of TTP  during campaigns by Pakistan military in Swat, Mingora, Khyber, Mohmand and Bajuar could have been avoided. The Pakistan Army is primarily trained to combat arch-rival India on its western border but conditions and terrain of the eastern border are considerably different from those  western border, where the campaigns have been conducted against the Pakistani Taliban groups. Therefore, because of similar terrains, the Sri Lankan counter terrorism experience as well as counter insurgency expertise may be of benefit to Pakistan.

Moreover the training aspect of Sri Lanka’s 30 year experience of learning the hard way could prove invaluable for Pakistani forces fighting the terrorists in the north. During their 30-year long experience of dealing with the Tamil rebellion, the Sri Lankan state went from pillar to post to learn to deal with the LTTE. The Sri Lankan forces learned by the practice of trial and error, they also learned number of counter terrorism practices from Israeli and American experts. Pakistanis may have been well acquainted and savvy with running campaigns such as one in Afghanistan (1979-89) in collusion with the Americans and Saudis but they have little experience of managing crisis when things go wrong. Therefore the Sri Lankan experience is instructive.

For close quarter combat, the Sri Lankan experience may again be utilized by formulating similar strategies in accordance with the prevailing ground conditions. The Sri Lankan law enforcement forces in tandem with Sri Lankan Defense Forces faced the LTTE in Sri Lankan cities and many of the counter terrorism operations were conducted in cities, thus many pitched close quarter battles (CQB) were fought in urban areas. The CQB experience of Sri Lanka may also help develop the skills of Pakistani law enforcement forces.

Another lesson that can be learned form the Lankan  experience is to negotiate with  terrorists, on what grounds and under what terms? Pakistani policy makers may consider reviewing the Sri Lankan history of negotiations with the LTTE on a number of occasions during the war.  Pakistani military and successive civilian governments have  attempted several peace deals with TTP, TNSM and other jihadi groups but it  failed to yield any positive results.

Overall, Sri Lanka, despite having limited resources had been able to successfully destroy one of the fiercest terrorist groups in the world, the LTTE. Pakistan, with longstanding friendly ties with the Sri Lankan government, can avail the opportunity to secure valuable information, on its counter- terrorism strategies.

By Dr. Farhan Zahid 

Dr.  Farhan Zahid is a senior officer of the Police Service of Pakistan and senior CRSS research fellow. He earned his Ph.D.  in Terrorism  Studies  from  University  of  Brussels, Belgium.  Dr. Zahid has authored more than 50 research papers and articles , published in various national and international journals and magazines. He  writes  on  counter-terrorism,  al-Qaeda,  Pakistani  al- Qaeda-linked  groups,  Islamist  violent  non-state  actors  in  Pakistan, jihadi  ideologies  and the  Afghan Taliban. He has also authored three books Roots  of  Islamic  Violent  Activism  in  South  Asia”,  published  by Narratives  (2014), “The Al-Qaeda Network in Pakistan”, Published by Narratives (2015) and  co-authored ”, From Jihad to Al-Qaeda to Islamic State” with Imtiaz Gul and Abbas Ahmad), published by Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad 2015) .

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