Intelligence Innovation Outside The Anglosphere: Deconstructing The Sri Lankan Counterterrorism Model For Obliterating ISIS


As the entire world is coming forward to combat Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), I would like to share my opinion here on how to fight ISIS and eventually obliterate them just like the Sri Lankan military defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) just seven years ago. ISIS, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, continues to commit atrocities against humanity in Iraq, Syria, and now Libya. Unless this fast spreading violence and hatred are stopped, the carnage will most likely expand throughout the Middle East and Asia.

In reading Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) of the ongoing counterterrorism operations in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, I have noticed a pattern in the Islamic State terrorists’ “modus operandi”, that of an analogical spider. Spiders have eight legs and two body parts, including the head region (cephalothorax) and the abdomen. Most spiders have toxic venom, which they use to kill their prey. So, if the international community wants to get rid of ISIS, hypothetically speaking, they must get rid of ISIS’ cephalothorax, rather than fight with its eight legs. What I try to pinpoint here is that, while ISIS’s headquarters (cephalothorax) are in Syria, their means of survival (abdomen) depend on how much area they control in Iraq. Thus, before this ISIS “spider” transforms into a “multi-headed” and “multi-pronged” spider, the international community must target their headquarters in Syria.

Of course, ISIS will replace their cephalothorax; but, it is important that counterterrorism efforts maintain target on any/all future headquarters. All we need is precise and timely, tactical and actionable military intelligence collection. Although international intelligence agencies have feet of clay, particularly in dealing with an enemy of many different faces, I feel that they deserve a more involved role than just being the eyes and ears of any one nation. Recommendations for an appropriate tradecraft to achieve collective intelligence are the need of the day. Although there is no truth to search for, no absolute truth, since everything is subjective, the valuable role that intelligence agencies play in producing deterrence is paramount. Achieving a state of global terrorist deterrence is what I consider the essential argument.

Countering Terrorism: The Sri Lankan Model

Sri Lanka, a small South Asian island nation located in the Indian Ocean, has been politically and economically destabilized as a result of an ethnic conflict that has lasted over three decades. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the “Tamil Tigers”, a secessionist-cum-terrorist organization, fought against the Sri Lankan government to establish a separate homeland for Tamils in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. This organization was a trendsetter for other terrorist groups around the world. Many organizations, including al-Qaeda, Taliban and now ISIS have used LTTE’s tactics as a template for terrorism. In May 2009, the Sri Lankan security forces militarily obliterated LTTE.

Prior to this obliteration, Sri Lankan political and military analysts, as well as laymen alike, had been closely monitoring the military operation in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka where the battle to liberate the rest of the Vanni region was fast approaching. They knew that it was a “do or die” situation for the LTTE. During the last five weeks of the battle, the LTTE claimed they had pinned down and killed approximately 1000 Sri Lankan troops by infiltrating offensively into the army’s defense lines.

The LTTE desperately attempted, in vain, to infiltrate the military’s forward defenses, but ultimately left more than 100 of their own cadres killed and just as many injured. The LTTE was preparing for a large-scale offensive attack toward the existing military defenses at Palamathalan and North of Puthkkudiyirippu, engaging over 200 cadres including suicide bombers and Sea Tigers. Following the initial thrust, the LTTE planned to send waves of around 200 cadres as reinforcements. According to the Sri Lankan security forces, this was the first time during recent battles that the LTTE had engaged many of its ‘high profiles’ to the battlefront. Security sources say that top LTTE commanders, such as Banu, Soosai, Swarnam, Theepan, Pottu Amman, Lawrence, Ratnam Master, Sasikumar Master, Thinesh Master and few other high profilers, were directly involved in masterminding the pre-emptive assaults. 

The timely detection and precise ground intelligence received from the Directorate of Military Intelligence was proven valuable, as LTTE’s offensive waves were received with intense military counter-attacks. The Sri Lankan security forces could finally claim that the Mullaittivu battle was reaching its final phase. Over 150 cadres were killed during the initial thrust while the rest were hunted down by the 2nd Commando Regiment, 12th Gajaba Regiment, 12th Gemunu Watch, and 8th Gemunu Watch troops during the last 48 hours of the final battle.

As claimed repeatedly by defense experts, the fighting power of the LTTE was enormously weakened by the scarcity of military supplies and manpower. This contributed to the defeat of the LTTE. The last LTTE offensive attempt was initiated from the control of a 65-kilometer radius, reminding troops that the LTTE was still capable of planning, preparing and executing surprise raids on any advancing military. It was against this backdrop that security forces were forced to rethink strategy and implement unconventional warfare tactics, that is, to lead by military intelligence.

Exploiting the fissures within the LTTE

By analyzing OSINT, intelligence agencies can extract fantastic amounts of strategic intelligence, however, tactical intelligence depends on human intelligence (HUMINT) which refers to any information that can be gathered from human sources. Other categories of intelligence include signals intelligence (SIGINT) which is obtained by intercepting and decrypting communications information and transmissions; and imagery intelligence (IMINT) which is obtained by studying photographs taken from air or space. It is no secret that the Sri Lankan security forces have been trying to strengthen their HUMINT gathering capacity for some time now. They have been openly recruiting former LTTE cadres and other Tamil militants who were working with security forces as “paramilitary” groups. In addition, the Sri Lankan Army’s Deep Penetration Unit (DPU) and/or Special Force Regiment (SF) also plays a vital role in the forces’ HUMINT gathering efforts.

In fact, The Taming of the Tigers by Beehner, Collins, Ferenzi and Jackson (2017) from Modern War Institute at West Point discusses how the Directorate of Military Intelligence of Sri Lanka engineered a defection within the LTTE:

The SLA [Sri Lankan Army] also sought to divide the opposition between the Tamil Tigers headquartered in the North in Kilinochchi and the opposition headquartered in the Northeast in and around Trincomalee. A variety of parochial grievances had been festering between the two camps and their leadership, which the SLA was able to exploit, thanks largely to its increased infiltration of intelligence on the Tiger network. In effect, the SLA was able to “peel”  off  a  powerful  faction,  led  by  a  prominent  Tamil,  Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, whose nom de guerre was Karuna Amman, and effectively bring an end to the war in the East. Largely through the use of human intelligence,  the  SLA  exploited  this  rift  that  was  developing between  the  two  LTTE  rivals.  It was widely  believed  in  Colombo  that  VP [Veluppillai Prabhakaran],  like many  of his insurgent counterparts across the globe and in history, would not accept a popular or powerful second-in-command. By maintaining such tight control with no real inner circle or groomed successor, VP left a power vacuum after  his  death  in  2009. In  exchange  for  an  amnesty  and  a  future  government  post,  Karuna formed  a faction that effectively served as a paramilitary group that worked on behalf of the Sri Lankan authorities and supplied the SLA with valuable intelligence, which in turn allowed for more precise targeting of Tiger camps scattered about the Vanni as well as coordinates of senior cadres. The peeling off of the Karuna faction not only split the opposition but also effectively split the northern Tamil regions in half and denied VP a pool of fighters—some one-quarter of Tamil Tigers were from the East—as well as valuable terrain and access to the sea.

The splitting of an insurgency, as demonstrated by the SLA, requires the following conditions: The  state  must  have  solid intelligence. This is  generally  acquired  via  human  intelligence rather than   through technological   intelligence,   surveillance,   and   reconnaissance   (ISR)—the   SLAF possessed drones for ISR-gathering purposes but sources told us the most valuable intelligence was  provided  by  informants—and  is  improved  when  a  state  can  fight  in  smaller  units, can  win over locals, or can infiltrate the ranks of the rebel opposition. The Sri Lankan military maintained a vast network of informants within the LTTE. There has to be an existing fissure within the ruling opposition elite to exploit. This should be more likely  to  exist  in  insurgencies  that  are  what Paul  Staniland  defines  as “parochial” groups, given that these groups have fragmented leaderships and weaker links to locals. The side that eventually splits must be brought into the political fold and provided amnesty or else there will be credible commitment issues present. Defectors can provide useful actionable intelligence, which can precipitate the end of the war (p.19)

The Sri Lankan security forces were planning to exploit their latest HUMINT during the final military operation in order to fully liberate the Vanni terrain and wipe out LTTE completely, as the security forces had done in the eastern province. The Directorate of Military Intelligence was attempting to engineer another break-away faction, just like Karuna Amman’s defection in 2004. As a matter of fact, Karuna Amman was providing HUMINT to the directorate, and at the same time, convincing a few LTTE senior cadres to break-away from the LTTE and surrender to the security forces. It can, therefore, be seen that the security forces’ HUMINT played a vital role. The military’s signal intelligence infiltrated and analyzed the LTTE’s communications and transmissions systems for the purpose of convincing these cadres to surrender. All in all, the fusion of the military’s SIGINT and the contribution of Karuna Amman’s HUMINT was an effective strategy.

Given the status quo in Sri Lanka, it was very easy to conduct projects of psychological warfare, since security forces were moving in quickly and most of the non-hardcore LTTE cadres and leaders were in low morale within the organization. As a result of human nature, LTTE cadres prioritized their survival during those days. Nonetheless, security forces were not successful in the defection of LTTE top leaders like Banu, Soosai, Swarnam, Theepan, Pottu Amman, Lawrence, or Nadesan. This is because these men were married to female LTTE cadres and bore children together. Consequently, security forces sought young, but clever, LTTE cadres for the job. It was indeed a good strategy, proven by the fact that Karuna Amman was made a minister following his defection, and, by the fact that former LTTE child soldier Pillaiyan was appointed a chief minister of the eastern province.


As a terrorist organization that possessed an army, navy, and rudimentary air force, the LTTE set a threatening example for other terrorist groups; and therefore, they were not only a threat to the domestic stability of Sri Lanka but also to the security of the regional and global systems. This explains the support from the international community for the Sri Lankan government during its war against terrorism. This support contributed to the eventual annihilation of LTTE.

By and large, the Sri Lankan security forces were successful in engineering a defection within the LTTE, as they battled to destroy LTTE leadership. In other words, security forces were attempting to engineer defection against the “cephalothorax” of the spider, instead of fighting with its eight legs in futility. The defection of LTTE’s top commander, Karuna Amman, along with two-thirds of the organization’s manpower created a desperate split within the LTTE, weakening the organization. The Sri Lankan military intelligence exploited this situation and enlisted Karuna Amman and his cadres in the Sri Lankan army as a paramilitary group, making their fight against terrorism easier. Moreover, the killing of LTTE’s supreme leader Veluppillai Prabhakaran reinforces the argument and importance of the spider analogy. This also reinforces the argument that military intelligence deserves a primary and active role in counterterrorism efforts. 

The importance of intelligence as capital in counterterrorism is further illustrated by the response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack in the United States, since the international community came together to share intelligence on terrorist organizations in order to dismantle their operations throughout the world. This essentially crippled the LTTE’s maritime logistics support to which their survival depended on. The LTTE’s threat to global security was obliterated at the hands of the international collaboration of intelligence agencies. Since the modus operandi and tradecraft of al-Qaeda, Taliban, and the recent ISIS is the replica of the LTTE in Sri Lanka, I believe that the international community is capable of combatting ISIS by utilizing the same model that Sri Lankan military used against the LTTE.


Does this latest military defeat of a terrorist organization make us ponder the improbable? Can we learn anything from the Sri Lankan experience to deal with ISIS? Can we apply a similar counterinsurgency or counterterrorism model that the Sri Lankan military used against LTTE?

Featured image: Sri Lanka Army Special Forces Regiment

Annotated Bibliography

Balasingham, A. (2001). The Will to Freedom: An Inside View of Tamil Resistance. Mitcham, England: Fairfax.

This book is an insider’s look at the armed conflict by the LTTE, which portrays them as freedom fighters. As a historical account, The Will to Freedom clearly examines important events, episodes, and the turning points of the 30-year-long conflict. This book will be an important source for this essay because it sheds light on the unknown characteristics of the LTTE leaders, cadres and their mindset, motivation, strengths, and weaknesses.

Balasuriya, M. (2011) The Rise and Fall of the LTTE. Colombo Sri Lanka: Asian Network on Conflict Research.

As an Inspector General of Sri Lankan Police, Balasuriya examines three main areas in his book. First, he addresses the crucial element for defeating the LTTE – political leadership and well-trained armed forces, police, and intelligence services. Second, he looks into the government of Sri Lanka’s realistic approach to war and peace. Third, he explores the LTTE’s genesis, growth, decline, infighting, and defeat by Sri Lankan security forces and the international collaborators, particularly the United States, India, and China. As such, this book will be a valuable account for this paper because it focuses on the LTTE’s history and reasons for its defeat.

Beehner, L., Collins, L., Ferenzi, S., Jackson, M. (2017, April). The Taming of the Tigers. Homeland Security Digital Library.

This journal is an important contribution to this paper because it is a firsthand post-war study conducted by a few American Military Cadets from the Modern War Institute at West Point.

Chandraprema, C.A. (2012) Gōta’s War: The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Ranjan Wijeratne Foundation

This book presents a clear picture of the importance of political and military leadership for wiping out terrorism in Sri Lanka. The author gives credit to the Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, as well as the Secretary of Defense, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, for political and military victories respectively. The book will be an important account for this paper because it points outs how Gota (Gotabaya Rajapaksa) planned, prepared and executed the war against the LTTE successfully in the midst of many obstacles.

De Silva, K.M. (2012) Sri Lanka and the Defeat of the LTTE. New Delhi, India: Penguin

In his book, the veteran Sri Lankan historian De Silva outlines the history of ethnic tension in Sri Lanka since its independence in 1948. Then he examines the origin, development, and demise of the LTTE, the triumphant Sri Lankan government and the security forces. Finally, De Silva talks about the necessity of post-war reconciliation, rehabilitation, and rebuilding of the country as well. As such, contents of De Silva’s book will support this paper’s arguments regarding the causes of the LTTE defeat.

DeVotta, N. (2009) The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Lost Quest for Separatism in Sri Lanka. Asian Survey, 49(6), 1021-1051.

This journal article analyzes the root causes of the Sri Lankan conflict, such as discrimination and oppression of its own minorities by the successive Sri Lankan government. This led to the birth of the LTTE which engaged in terrorism and fascistic rule in the areas they controlled, thereby weakening the Tamil community. DeVotta goes on to explain that the Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s extra-constitutional counterterrorism strategies led to the eventual defeat of the LTTE. As such, this journal article is important because it provides an opinion on the ethnic conflicts in Sri Lanka that contributed to the development and demise of the LTTE.

Gunaratna, R. (2002). Inside al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror. New York, NY: Barkley.

As a leading scholar who wrote more than six books on the LTTE, and who heads a counterterrorism think-tank in Asia-Pacific, Professor Gunaratna now writes about Al-Qaeda comparing the organization’s ideologies, structures, tactics, and operations to other terrorist organizations, especially the trendsetter LTTE. Gunaratna writes this book based on al-Qaeda’s documents and his own interviews with al-Qaeda associates, which led to five years of an extensive research. This book points out the obvious in that al-Qaeda copies all their operational tactics from the LTTE, and therefore, this book’s findings will immensely contribute to this paper.

Gunaratna, R. (1997) International and Regional Security Implications of the Sri Lankan Tamil Insurgency. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Unie Arts.

Basing on surrendered and arrested LTTE cadres’ interviews, the author Gunaratna discusses how LTTE became a threat to regional and global security. This book analyzes the LTTE organization’s structure, strategies, tactics, and profiles. This is one of those books that led Western nations’ to label the LTTE as a terrorist organization rather than a freedom movement. Thus, this book’s contents will be useful for understanding the reasons why Western nations banned and fought against the LTTE.

Hoffman, B. (2009) The first non-state use of a chemical weapon in warfare: The Tamil Tigers’ assault on East Kiran. Small Wars & Insurgencies, 20(3-4), 463-477.

This journal article explores a shocking detailed account of the LTTE as the first non-state actor using chemical weapons in East Kiran, Sri Lanka against the Sri Lankan security forces in June 1990. The article begins with the general background of the LTTE and goes on to state how innovative and lethal they are as a terrorist organization. The article concludes with the outline of the motivations behind a terrorist group to use chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons and suggestions on how governments can prevent this from happening in the future. Therefore, this journal article provides a key understanding into the dangerous dimensions of the LTTE and possible consequences for the global security.

McCants, W. F. (2015). The ISIS apocalypse: the history, strategy, and doomsday vision of the Islamic State. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

The Islamic State is one of the most lethal and successful jihadist groups in modern history, surpassing even al-Qaeda. Thousands of its followers have marched across Syria and Iraq, subjugating millions, enslaving women, beheading captives, and daring anyone to stop them. Thousands more have spread terror beyond the Middle East under the Islamic State’s black flag. Based almost entirely on primary sources in Arabic, including ancient religious texts and secret al-Qaeda and Islamic State letters that few have seen, McCants explores how religious fervor, strategic calculation, and doomsday prophecy shaped the Islamic State’s past and foreshadows its dark future.

Mayilvaganan, M. (2008) Is it Endgame for LTTE? Strategic Analysis, 33(1), 25-39.

This journal article examines the LTTE’s struggle during the “Global War on Terrorism” following the post-9/11 scenario. The author enlists the factors contributing to the defeat of the LTTE, such as internal conflict, international pressure, the predominance of the Sri Lankan military, scarcity of arms and new recruits, which are some of the elements. Mayilvaganan further questions the regional and global implications of the anticipated defeat of the LTTE. Therefore, this journal article validates this paper’s argument about the impact of the 9/11 attacks on the LTTE.

Narayanswamy, M.R. (2003) Inside an Elusive Mind: Prabhakaran. New Delhi, India: Konark.

As one of India’s leading authors on terrorism, Narayanswamy writes about why the LTTE was armed, trained and funded by the Indian government in order to placate India’s geopolitical interests in the late 1980s. This book is an interesting portrait of a man who was the only decision maker and the supreme leader of the world’s most ruthless terrorist organization. Narayanswamy also throws light on the hitherto unknown facts of the Indian intelligence interventions in Sri Lanka that led to the eventual assassination of India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE. Therefore, this book’s contents will be beneficial for this paper because they provide evidence on how state-sponsored terrorism becomes a threat to the regional and global security. 


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