Shadow War Comes to Colombo

Tamil Guardian staff writers look at the career of Lt. Col. Nizam Muthaliff, a pivotal figure in the Army's counter-insurgency campaign.

POSTHUMOUSLY promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Nizam Muthaliff, who was shot dead in Colombo on Tuesday, is described as a key member of the Sri Lankan military intelligence's (MI) covert operations against the Liberation Tigers.

Rising through the MI ranks, Lt. Col. Muthaliff was first a central figure in the atrocity-punctuated paramilitary aspects of the counter-insurgency campaign against the LTTE in the early nineties and then had a critical role in the deep penetration attacks on LTTE commanders and officials, press reports said Wednesday.

The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) Wednesday acknowledged Lt. Col. Muthaliff as commander of the 1st Battalion, Sri Lanka Army Military Intelligence Corps and hailed his service.  Three hundred SLA soldiers escorted his casket to Dehiwela Muslim burial grounds where his funeral was held with full military honours.

"His selfless dedication for defence of his motherland until last moment of his life would no doubt go in the history [sic] as a true Son of the Soil who safeguarded territorial integrity of the country," an SLA statement said.

Born in Trincomalee, Muthaliff began his military career as an officer in the infantry in 1986.  He served four years in the Gemunu Watch regiment before being assigned to the intelligence unit "due to special skills shown by him in that field," the Daily Mirror reported.

According to Sri Lankan press reports, Muthaliff was promoted to Lieutenant in 1989, to Captain in June 1992 and to Major in June 1995.  He was posthumously promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

During his career, Muthaliff received special training in intelligence gathering and special operations at military academies and training centres in several countries, including the United States, Pakistan, and Malaysia, the Daily Mirror said.

Much of Muthaliff's early intelligence career was in organising and supervising Tamil paramilitary groups' activities in Sri Lanka's counter-insurgency campaign against the LTTE.

Condemning the human rights abuses that punctuated the Army's paramilitary-led campaign, Amnesty International protested that "such operations have often lead to human rights violations, including illegal arrest, prolonged detention and torture, "disappearances" and extrajudicial executions."

Muthaliff was a central figure in the campaign.  He was posted in Vavuniya in the early nineties, during a phase of the conflict which came to be dubbed 'Eelam War 2.'  The SLA garrison town became a hub for the activities of the paramilitary groups PLOTE, EPRLF and TELO.

Hundreds of people disappeared after being taken into custody by the paramilitaries, who, according to Amnesty International, operated dozens of camps in the town and its environs.

In particular, Muthaliff's Counter-Subversive Unit (CSU) was implicated in the disappearances of large numbers of detainees in Cheddikulam.  The SLA told Amnesty that the paramilitary groups were helping the military in "identifying LTTE infiltrators" and "keeping the security forces informed" and that they did not come under its control.

But many people were handed over to the paramilitaries after being arrested by Sri Lankan security forces personnel.  In a related development, the practice of midnight abduction and murder or disappearance by the 'white van' death squads spread rapidly, despite repeated protests by local and international human rights groups calling for official supervision and control of the paramilitaries' activities.

Muthaliff gained notoriety in the "information extraction" process administered by the paramilitaries.  He worked closely with the PLOTE's military commander, Manickathasan, under whom that group became infamous for its brutality (Manickathasan was killed, along with several others, in 1999 in a explosion which destroyed the PLOTE headquarters in Vavuniya - the incongruously named 'Lucky House').

Muthaliff was also closely associated with another feared paramilitary leader, PLOTE Mohan, who was shot dead at a safe house in Colombo last year. 

Subsequently, Muthaliff became an important member part of a new MI strategy: the targeted killings of LTTE leaders and supporters.

As such, he played a key role in deep penetration attacks for which a dedicated unit - the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) - was raised.  Specially trained commandos of the regular Army were joined with Tamil paramilitary pathfinders and informants to stage ambushes and attacks in LTTE-controlled areas.

LRRP units are credited with important successes in the SLA Operations Jayasikurui, Vanni Wickrema, Ranagosa and Watershed.  Under Muthaliff's leadership, the LRRP killed one of the LTTE's top officers, Colonel Shankar (on September 6, 2001) and a senior Sea Tiger commander, Lt. Col. Kangai Amaran (on June 29, 2001).

On May 16, 2001, the LTTE's Political Wing leader, Mr. S. P. Tamilselvan narrowly escaped a claymore mine attack on his convoy whilst on his way to a meeting with Norwegian Special Envoy Erik Solheim.

Amongst other senior officials to narrowly escape being killed were Mr. S. Karikalan, the LTTE's then political wing leader for Batticaloa and later, Colonel Karuna, the LTTE's top commander for Batticaloa-Amparai, whose defection to the SLA in 2004 following his failed rebellion against the LTTE ironically resulted in Muthaliff ending up working with him against his former comrades.

The SLA's deep penetration teams conducted numerous operations into LTTE-controlled territory.  A number of civilians who stumbled upon LRRP units were also murdered. 

Muthaliff was publicly resentful of the February 2002 ceasefire agreement which the United National Front (UNF) government signed with the LTTE, reporters in Vavuniya say.

Moving around the town, the Army officer was openly contemptuous of the peace process and would openly threaten Tamils involved in organising the Pongu Thamil demonstrations or pro-LTTE political activities.

"How many days will this ceasefire last?" he once reportedly asked protest organisers.

"Wait and see. We have a special building for you in the Joseph camp," he threatened, referring to the SLA's expansive base which has been listed in investigations by the office of the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture.

Some analysts link Muthaliff's hostility to the UNF government, doubtless reflecting sentiments within the wider deep penetration operations community, to the exposure of the LRRP's headquarters in Millennium City, Athurugiriya in January 2002.

That raid was subsequent to police investigations into allegations in late 2001 that hardline elements of the Sri Lanka military were planning to assassinate the pro-peace UNF's leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, during his election campaign.

The exposure of the Athurugiriya safe house, from which weapons, claymore mines and LTTE uniforms were recovered by Police officers, triggered a political furore which endured, particularly after a number of the Tamil informants and pathfinders linked to the LRRP were subsequently killed by suspected LTTE attackers.

Muthaliff was deputy commander of the LRRP, which is led by Captain Shahul Hameed Nilan, Tamil correspondents said.

In the wake of the abduction and murder on April 28, 2004 of political columnist and military analyst Dharmeratnam Sivaram, correspondents in Colombo claimed that elements of the deep penetration group had been recently reformed into cells including cadres of the Karuna Group, led by the LTTE commander who defected to the SLA in April 2004.

Four unidentified men who loitered across from the Colombo police station bundled Sivaram into a 4x4 vehicle at 10.30pm.  His body was dumped later that night near Sri Lanka's parliament.

Amid persistent speculation that MI and the Karuna Group were involved in Sivaram's killing, there are also claims Muthaliff played key role a week earlier in the capture of a senior LTTE intelligence officer, Newton, who press reports say went missing on the same day that one of Muthaliff's colleagues, a top police intelligence officer, T. Jeyaratnam, also disappeared.

Political analysts see Muthaliff's killing as the latest incident in the ongoing shadow war between Army-backed paramilitaries and the LTTE, a cycle of violence which escalated after April 2004, when loyalists of the renegade LTTE commander Karuna bolstered the ranks of the paramilitary units.

However, the successful counterattacks blamed in the same period on the LTTE suggests that the influx of new members has also enabled the LTTE's infiltration of the Sri Lankan military's paramilitary network, they say.

Tamil Guardian


Posted June 2, 2005