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Tamil Tiger Links with Islamist Terrorist Groups

by Shanaka Jayasekara, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Israel, March 2, 2008

The links between the Islamist terrorist groups and the LTTE are not driven by ideological compatibility, but by the need to influence factors of pricing and convenience in the informal arms market. In most cases the LTTE has developed links with Islamist groups to organize consolidated purchasing opportunities.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is known to have an active presence in several informal sectors such as credit card cloning, money laundering and human smuggling in Europe and North America. However, the LTTE has emerged as a formidable force and influence within the informal arms market and such has attracted collaborative arrangements with other terrorist groups. The LTTE has developed close relationships with several Islamist groups operating in such networks in a mutually beneficial manner.

Palestinian Groups
In the early years of the Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka several Tamil groups received advanced military training from Palestinian factions in the Middle East. The first known contacts were established around 1978-1980 between London members of the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) and Syed Hameed of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) London branch. The PLO connection provided weapons training opportunities for a limited number of Tamil youth in PLO camps in Lebanon[1]. A member of the early batches that received training in 1978 from the PLO backed Al Fatah group, currently leads a Tamil political party[2]. In the period between 1980-1984, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), headed by George Habash, provided weapons training to several batches of PLOTE members (People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam) in PFLP camps located in Lebanon and Syria[3]. The Palestinian leaders provided much of the initial international exposure and support to the fledgling Tamil groups.

International expert on suicide terrorism Dr. Robert Pape, examining the proliferation of suicide operations, points out that the exposure to Lebanese training and tactics by Tamil groups influenced the adoption of suicide operations in Sri Lanka[4].

By the mid 1980s the Tamil Tigers had eliminated all other groups and emerged as the most ruthless Tamil group in Sri Lanka. It also absorbed the trained combatants of other groups. The Tamil Tigers which until then had received most of its training and weapons from the Indian Intelligence Services (RAW and Third Agency), found the experience and knowledge of Palestinian trained combatants compatible with its ruthless tactical repertoire. On the 5 July 1987 the Tamil Tigers conducted their first suicide operation. In the period between 1990 and 2000 the Tamil Tigers had conducted over 168 suicide operations[5].

Prior to the current conflict in Iraq, the LTTE carried out the largest number of suicide operations by any terrorist group. The LTTE transformed suicide operations which terrorists had considered an esteemed tactical approach used exclusively against high-value targets, to a production-line approach. The formation of a standing suicide army known as the Black Tigers is a reflection of the mass-scale production line approach of making the human bomb a common everyday weapon. The LTTE introduced the concept of "soft target suicide operations" that effectively delivered a low-cost high visibility outcome to boost the image of the group. This radically transformed the tactical nature of all future suicide operations globally. Suicide operations were less about the target, and more about building profile and augmenting the image of the group. The LTTE innovated and improved detonation devices and concealment methods contributing significantly to the advancement in the technology used for suicide operations. With the beginning of the second Intifada in Gaza and the West Bank in September 2000, the use of mass-scale "soft target suicide operations" proliferated as part of the tactical repertoire of terrorist groups in the Middle-East. Thereafter from 2004, the Jama Al Tawhid wal Jihad, headed by Sunni cleric Al Zarqawi, which later affiliated itself with the Al Qaeda and conducted the largest number of soft target suicide operations in Iraq.

Kurdish European Network
The LTTE maintained close relations with the Kurdish Support Group in France in the 1990s. The European network of the LTTE was modeled largely on the diaspora support networks operated by the Kurdish groups[6]. The former head of the LTTE international office, Lawrence Thilagar received a special invitation to speak at the inauguration of the Kurdish Parliament in Exile (KPE) on 12 April 1995 in The Hague, Netherlands. It is reported that the close contact between the LTTE and PKK resulted in the LTTE acquiring 11 surface to air missiles of Greek origin from the PKK[7].

Afghanistan and the Taliban
During the period 1998 -2001 the Taliban regime in Afghanistan operated a major weapons procurement operation based at the Ariana Airline office in Sharjah. Much of the military hardware that the Taliban acquired through the Sharjah network was supplied by the infamous Russian arms dealer Victor Bout also known as the Merchant of Death. Victor Bout and his business associate Sanjivan Ruprah have supplied weapons and training to several West African rebel groups and are accused of involvement in the illicit diamond trade[8]. Victor Bout operated an air cargo service at the Sharjah airport known as Air Cess, which together with Ariana Airlines co-handled most of the military deliveries between Sharjah and Afghanistan[9]. It is estimated that the Sharjah network operated 3 to 4 flights daily between Sharjah and Kandahar transporting weapons and supplies to the Taliban[10]. During this period 17km away in Dubai, the LTTE also operated a cargo company known as Otharad Cargo, headed by Daya the younger sibling of Nithi a Canadian based member of the LTTE's KP Unit. It is suspected that Otharad Cargo acquired several consignments of military hardware as part of consolidated purchase arrangements with the Taliban's Sharjah network. It was also the function of Otharad Cargo to service the operations of the LTTE shipping fleet in the Gulf region. Officials of an Asian security agency believe Kumaran Pathmanadan (KP) head of the LTTE procurement unit (KP unit) traveled from Bangkok through Karachi to Kabul on 19 May 2001 and had meetings with Taliban officials on matters relating to the Sharjah network.

Information recovered from a Laptop Computer of a LTTE procurement agent now in the custody of a Western country provided detailed information on LTTE activities in Pakistan. The LTTE had registered a front company in Karachi which had procured several consignments of weapons for the LTTE and several other Pakistani groups. A shipment of weapons procured by this front company and en-route to Sri Lankan waters was intercepted by the Sri Lanka Navy and destroyed in September 2007.

Brian Joyce in an article in the Jane's Intelligence in November 2002 on Terrorist Financing in South Asia states that the LTTE shipping fleet provided logistics support to Harakat-al Mujahideen, a Pakistani militant group with Al Qaeda affiliations to transport a consignment of weapons to the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the Philippines[11]. The LTTE used a merchant vessel registered by a front company in Lattakia, Syria until 2002 to service most of the grey/black charters.

Eritrea and Al Qaeda Affiliates
Since the United Nations arms embargo on Eritrea and Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa has evolved into a major hub for the informal arms trade. In opposition to Ethiopian military support to the Transitional Government in Somalia, the Government of Eritrea is accused of providing material support to the Islamist rebels in Somalia led by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU)[12]. The Islamic Courts Union which controls areas in Southern Somalia is a constituent member of the Union of Islam (Al Ittihad al Islamiya) headed by Hassan Dahir Aweys having close affiliations with the Al Qaeda. The Bakaaraha arms market near Irtogte in South Mogadishu is considered the central distribution point for the informal arms trade in the Horn of Africa. A report by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia under Security Council Resolution 1724 (2006) dated 18 July 2007, provides explicit evidence of Eritrean involvement in the transport of weapons to Somalia. The report provides evidence relating to the purchase of cargo aircraft by Eriko Enterprises in Asmara which is believed to be a front company of the Eritrean government to make regular weapons deliveries to Somalia[13]. The same company is also referred to by The London Times in a February 2007 article in which it claims to have evidence that General Tambi, of the Eritrean Defence Forces used Eriko Enterprises to charter several Antonov and Ilyusion transport aircraft from Aerolift Aviation to move large quantities of men and material to Somalia[14]. In addition, the UN report also states that the Eritrean government delivered a consignment of six SA-18 surface-to-air missiles to the Islamic Court Union in Somalia.

Eritrea has emerged as a major transshipment point and sanctuary for key players in the informal arms trade. The LTTE established a presence in Eritrea primarily to operate in the informal arms market. It is believed the LTTE maintains regular interactions with many armed groups including groups affiliated to the Al Qaeda operating in the Eritrean Network. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee report dated 15 December 2006, explicitly stated that the Government of Eritrea provides direct support to the LTTE[15]. The Eritrean connection is extremely important to the LTTE, in fact LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran sent a personally signed fax to President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea on 24 May 2006, communicating directly with a Head of State[16]. President Afewerki, prior to the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993 led the Eritrea People's Liberation Front (EPLF) a rebel movement for the independence of Eritrea.

The UN report also indicates that most of the weapons flights to Somalia originate from the port city of Massawa in Eritrea. The report documents several Aerogem Aviation aircraft operated by Fab Air making regular deliveries to Somalia[17]. The LTTE shipping fleet is known to have a presence in several East African ports. In fact, on 23 May 1997, the LTTE vessel MV Limassol took delivery of a consignment of Motars from Zimbabwe Defence Industries at the Port of Beira in Mozambique [18]. The sea access from Massawa port in Eritrea provides convenient shipping facilities for the LTTE to transport weapons to international waters off the coast of Sri Lanka.

MILF and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines

The LTTE had established a longstanding business relationship with Islamic groups in the Philippines. In 1990s, LTTE procurement agent Dharmakulaseelan was responsible for transferring funds from Canada to the Philippines for the procurement of specialized weapons[19]. Dr. Rohan Gunarantna in an article in the Jane's Intelligence in July 2001 on Islamist Rebels in the Philippines states that the LTTE sent two Combat Tacticians and Explosive Experts to Southern Philippines to train members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)[20]. In April 2007, Police Supt. Rodolfo Mendoza, of the Philippines Police stated that intelligence reports had alerted the Philippine authorities to several Tamil Tiger members visiting Abu Sayyaf camps in Southern Mindanao[21].

LTTE Activity in the Middle East
Unlike in Europe and North America, LTTE front organizations have not actively engaged in publicly mobilizing the Tamil expatriate community in the Middle East. This was mainly due to the less permissive environment and low tolerance regimes in the region. However, over the last two years LTTE members in Qatar have engaged in regular fundraising events. In November 2007, the LTTE cell in Qatar held a public celebration for LTTE Heroes Day in the Ar-Rayyan area in Doha. The LTTE members are also involved in violent intimidation of dissident Tamil supporters in Qatar. It is alleged that LTTE member Sukasan had brutally murdered a member of the Karuna Group in Sanya, Doha in February 2006 [22]. The LTTE has also established an embryonic cell to promote fundraising and shipping activity in Nicosia, Cyprus.

The links between the Islamist terrorist groups and the LTTE are not driven by ideological compatibility, but by the need to influence factors of pricing and convenience in the informal arms market. In most cases the LTTE has developed links with Islamist groups to organize consolidated purchasing opportunities. The LTTE with an annual budget of US$ 200-300 million, supported by an institutionalized procurement network, diaspora based technical expertise and a shipping fleet is a valued partner to other terrorist groups in negotiating procurement deals. The LTTE has the capacity to provide logistical support and facilitate training to partner entities. The LTTE has used its shipping fleet and technical expertise for the delivery of weapons and transfer of competencies most often driven by financial motives and lucrative commercial opportunities.  


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