One of the factors behind the efficiency of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was the movement’s early emphasis on the collection, analysis, and exploitation of intelligence, to the point where its dedicated apparatus proved to be in many ways comparable to that of many state services.
The LTTE formally activated its intelligence arm, called the National Intelligence Service (Thesiya Pulanaivu Pitivu), in 1986 by infusing another pre-existed intelligence cell called BETA-2. The new service included a tiny core of activists who had received training on Indian soil in previous years by instructors from the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). In the context of Cold War proxies’ political and military alliances, New Delhi supported the Sri Lankan Tamil independence movement to put pressure on Colombo. Pottu Amman (aka Shanmugalingam Shivashankar), an early activist and notorious close associate of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the movement’s leader, was placed at the head of the new entity, which he led until May 2009. RAW was not alone looking at the cradle of the embryonic National Intelligence Service, as a small number of Tamil activists underwent training in Israel in the 1980s by Mossad agents. Finally, a few years later, Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) provided expertise and training manuals to Sri Lankan insurgents.
Barely trained by its first cadres, the young Tamil service was able to take advantage of a short-lived alliance of the LTTE with the Sri Lankan government in 1989, both of which had joined forces to secure the withdrawal of the Indian Peacekeeping Force from Sri Lankan territory. The foundations of a network of informants, cells, and caches in the capital and the country’s main cities were thus laid during this time. This clandestine infrastructure would prove decisive in the following decades, not only in terms of intelligence gathering but also in allowing the movement to strike targets in the heart of the capital Colombo almost at will. The survival of these networks usually made up of cells comprising four to six field agents (Velikkala Muhavarhal), supervised in turn by principal agents (Pirathhana Muhavarkal) acting most often via intermediaries (Idainilaiyaalarkal) rested on strict silos, the members of the same cell not usually knowing each other. The National Intelligence Service also expanded its tentacles into the Tamil diaspora. Early on, the LTTE’s intelligence imitated the Israeli Mossad’s own Sayanim system, the use of non-stipend but activatable sympathizers to provide one-off assistance when needed, which were designated Kalam and Pulam in the case of Tamils residing in Sri Lanka or the diaspora, respectively.
The National Intelligence Service was structured into five central departments. As early as 1993, the intelligence Collection Department was headed by Kapil Amman, responsible for HUMINT (intelligence collected by human sources, such as informants or agents). This department was also in charge of intelligence networks and the recruitment and operation of agents. The same department was divided into five entities: including internal security and the other in counterintelligence activities. The Research and Publications Department under Mathavan Master was tasked with analyzing data obtained by HUMINT. It complemented using its own databases, libraries, and documentary resources and responsible for intelligence production, including daily situation reports, weekly summaries, and detailed monthly reports. Another department under the National Intelligence Service was dedicated to training and the deployment of technologies related to the service’s activities. Besides, the Administration and Records section was in charge of administrative and logistics functions. All in all, the National Intelligence Service had up to 1,500 Kalam and Pulam personnel altogether.
Yet, the Special Operations Division of the National Intelligence Service, also known as the Ellalan Padai, made it infamous. This division conducted “Black Ops” such as targeted assassinations, sabotage, and terrorist attacks, while it also engaged in PSY-OPS (psychological warfare projects and propaganda). The Ellalan Padai included a highly secretive unit of Black Tigers or suicide squad. The first major assassination committed by the LTTE code-named Operation Wedding was to use this modus operandi precisely.
In early 1991, Rajiv Gandhi, the former Indian prime minister who initiated New Delhi’s direct intervention in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990, appeared to be on the verge of gaining primacy, with electoral polls predicting the victory of the Congress Party. Velupillai Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman then decided to assassinate the Indian leader, lest he initiates a new armed intervention in Sri Lanka if he was elected again. A small autonomous team of nine operatives commanded by Sivarasan (aka Chandrasekarampillai Packiyachandran) was dispatched from Jaffna to Tamil Nadu, where it was to operate independently of the LTTE’s pre-existing clandestine networks. The group included two suicide bombers recruited from the women’s branch of the movement; Dhanu, tasked with blowing herself up near the target, and Subha, who had to replace the former if necessary. For the operation, the Tiger artificers had developed an explosive belt model of unprecedented sophistication, including a dual activation mechanism; a first button used to arm the charge and a second one to detonate. The load itself consisted of 500 grams of RDX, in addition to ten thousand 0.2mm balls, weighing 500 grams. Therefore, the belt was both reliable, lethal, and small in size, while the use of a woman as a vector further reduced the risk of detection.
On May 7th, 1991, the group conducted a rehearsal at an election rally held by another political figure and then Prime Minister V. P. Singh to dry run the chosen modus operandi. Dhanu successfully managed to find herself near the target without raising suspicions by pretending to offer the Prime Minister a garland of flowers before kneeling at her feet—the moment she had to activate the load. The actual attack took place on May 21st, 1991, at a similar meeting, this time in favor of Rajiv Gandhi. The operation took place according to the expected scenario. In addition to the former prime minister and the suicide bomber, the explosion killed 16 others, including another group member who had come too close to photographing the attack to document it with the movement’s leaders. The error proved crucial as the Indian police found the camera and the film it contained, speeding up the investigation that followed the attack. In the following weeks, the group was not only neutralized, but the case furthers through the LTTE’s networks in Tamil Nadu, with the Indian state, has remained one of its main rear bases (NOTE 1). If the National Intelligence Service proved efficacious, the Tigers had mostly created an implacable enemy that would play a key role off stage in their annihilation nearly two decades later.
In the meantime, suicide bombings would remain a specialty of the Ellalan Padai, many high-ranking officials, politicians, and opponents of the movement falling under the Black Tigers’ blows, starting with the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa. This particular operation illustrates how the association between professionalism and fanaticism can generate devastating effects. The National Intelligence Service had prepared the attack by infiltrating Babu (aka Kumarakulasingham Veerakumar), a young man close to the presidential entourage, who had a cover as the manager of a modest grocery store located near the Presidential Palace. After more than a year, Babu had befriended guards and relatives of the president, making it not so difficult to get close enough to his target when he took action during the Mayday parade on May 1st, 1993. Many suicide attacks were even more deadly as VBIED (NOTE 2) sometimes targeted military (NOTE 3) or civilian targets (NOTE 4).
In July 1991, the LTTE, which had established its first semi-regular unit by the name of Charles Anthony Padai Ani (NOTE 5), launched a massive attack on the Elephant Pass army camp. Far from achieving the expected triumph, the operation resulted in a battle of attrition, as the Tigers tried to overcome the garrison’s desperate resistance while halting the advance of the reinforcements dispatched by the Sri Lankans. They eventually had to retreat after one-fifth of the 3,000 combatants involved – then roughly half the movement’s total strength – lost their lives. This stinging defeat prompted an in-depth feedback process (NOTE 6), one of the major findings was glaring lack of tactical intelligence. Getting a complete understanding of the enemy device before an attack later became a quasi-obsession of the Tigers, who would spend months mapping an enemy position before launching their assault. Thinesh Master and Sasikumar Master, two military advisors close to Velupillai Prabhakaran, set up a small unit specializing in long-range reconnaissance missions, the Viseda Vevu Pitivu (special reconnaissance unit) shortly after the battle to carry out tasks similar to those of the 13th French RDP or American SEALs. The movement then set up a training course to introduce the combatants concerned with this mission (NOTE 7).
These specialists, nicknamed Spy Tigers, were responsible for one of the most important successes achieved by the LTTE’s shadow fighters. In 1992, the National Intelligence Service gained access through radio monitoring and a well-placed mole to the detailed program of an inspection tour led by Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa and his close assistants on Kayts Island. A group of Spy Tigers was dispatched to the scene and buried indigenously designed and developed anti-tank mines under the only access road to Araly Point, one of the places included in the Sri Lankan general’s tour. On August 8th, 1992, he was killed along with several other officers, when his Land Rover hit one of the mines laid by Spy Tiger operatives, dealing a massive blow to the Sri Lankan war efforts in the north of the country since Denzil Kobbekaduwa was its linchpin. The Spy Tigers continued to play a key role thereafter. It is worth noting that this unit led the infamous reconnaissance mission before the attack on Anuradhapura Airbase that was code-named Operation Ellalan by Black Tiger commandos on October 22nd, 2007.
In 1992, and again under the leadership of Thinesh Master, the LTTE established a second intelligence body, the Military Intelligence Service (Iranuva Pulanaivu Pitivu). The new branch headed three intelligence gathering departments, dedicated to the Sri Lankan army, navy, air force, and a fourth department performing administrative and logistics tasks. The Military Intelligence Service used a wide range of operating methods to obtain the desired information, from the undercover agents to SIGINT, Spy Tigers (HUMINT), and the exploitation of Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT). These means enabled the service to acquire and maintain an in-depth knowledge of the Sri Lankan armed forces, including the identity of a company, platoon, and section level commanders in specific army units or detailed reconstructions of each navy ships, air force fighter planes, and helicopter gunships. The most influential Sri Lankan security forces officers received special attention and were kept under surveillance to determine their residence, lifestyle, and travel. Thus, the Military Intelligence Service forwarded the file relating to Rear Admiral Clancy Fernando to the National Intelligence Service after the decision to assassinate him was made. The information contained in the latter thus facilitates the task of the killers of the Ellalan Padai. The presence of a second intelligence service gave the LTTE the advantage of cross-checking and verifying both raw data and assessments.
Further, the existence of two intelligence services inevitably provoked rivalries, even though the National Intelligence Service maintained a primus inter pares position. “Military” spies were thus able to be critical of the numerous assassinations and attacks carried out by their “civilian” counterparts, which they perceived as counterproductive since giving the movement a bad press. These frictions did not prevent the two branches from working closely together, to the point of using a common training center.
The Intelligence Training Centre (Pulanaaivu Payitchi Maiyam), also known as “Base 22” was located until 1995 in Kalviyankadu on the Jaffna Peninsula. Like most of the LTTE’s infrastructure, the camp consisted of scattered houses and huts that made it in no way distinguishing it from the surrounding villages. About 30 officers from both departments were trained simultaneously, each compartmentalized in an individual hut, the only place where they were allowed to remove the hood they were wearing permanently. To ensure operational and personal security, the student spies were prohibited from interacting with each other and were designated by a number. The training provided was intensive and was intended to enable them to acquire the necessary tradecraft and skills to operate as a senior agent, using textbooks from Mossad, RAW, and ISI translated into Tamil. Some courses were given by the leaders of the services themselves, such as Thinesh Master and Pottu Amman. At the same time, ideological indoctrination was sometimes provided by members of the LTTE’s political bureau, such as Anthon Balasingham or Velupillai Balakumar. The course also included training in interrogation techniques, which students then practiced with enemy prisoners under the watchful eye of their instructors. Once their training was completed, the spy candidates still had to pass a written exam before graduating.
This intelligence and clandestine operations apparatus gave the movement disproportionate power in some respects, allowing it to maintain a state of siege during the conflict, to systematically eliminate even Tamil politicians and public figures critical of the LTTE, or to play kingmakers among the Sri Lankan politicos, especially in 1994 when a candidate considered to be a hardliner against the movement was assassinated to facilitate the victory of Chandrika Kumaratunga, who advocated holding talks with the organization. Operationally and tactically, intelligence in all its forms was seen as an integral part of the maneuver and was often at the root of the Tigers’ most significant successes, thus becoming a force multiplier to compensate for their numerical inferiority. For a long time, the National Intelligence Service and the Military Intelligence Service activities were facilitated by the relative ability of Sri Lanka’s many intelligence and security services to coordinate effectively.
The shadow war, however, was far from always turning to the LTTE’s advantage. After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, India’s RAW initiated a covert operation to destabilize the movement, seeking to take control of it through an alliance with its number two, Mathaya (aka of Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah). While Mathaya was gradually trying to build an autonomous power base at the heart of the LTTE, the RAW infiltrated its own agents in insurgent-controlled territories intending to gather as much intelligence as possible on the one hand and prepare for the assassination of Velupillai Prabhakaran on the other. Mathaya was then to succeed him, resulting in a takeover of the LTTE by New Delhi. The Indians, however, made a mistake in leaving an LTTE activist imprisoned in Tamil Nadu and sent to infiltrate the LTTE by RAW to northern Sri Lanka via Colombo, which drew suspicion from the National Intelligence Service`s counterintelligence unit. The movement’s SIGINT teams later intercepted a radio message from Mathaya to RAW. He gave them information about the MV Ahat, a cargo ship chartered by the Tigers, intercepted in the following days by the Indian navy.
Mathaya’s subsequent arrest on March 31st, 1993, marked the beginning of a year-long witch hunt in which hundreds of Tiger cadres were interrogated, including prominent commanders such as Balraj and Theepan. After the investigations were completed, the Tigers’ counterintelligence concluded that nearly 600 militants had been involved in the conspiracy, and 257 of them were executed.
Another, even more, a devastating blow struck the movement a decade later. One of its causes lay in the fierce rivalry between Pottu Amman and Karuna Amman (aka Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan). The latter was one of the most important hierarchs of the movement since commanding Batticaloa and Ampara districts. This area, relatively isolated from the LTTE strongholds in the north of the country, served as a second front and was managed in a quasi-autonomous manner, to the point where the forces of the movement-based there had the reputation of having become over time an “LTTE within the LTTE.” Fearing for his life, Karuna Amman defected from the majority of its executives in 2004. While the LTTE quickly crushed the secessionists by sending troops to the east, the defection of Karuna Amman and his close associates provided Sri Lankan services with in-depth knowledge of the operations and organization of the Tigers, and the renegades were to play a major role in their destruction between 2006 and 2009. Clearly, the National Intelligence Service had proved to be disastrous this time because it had failed to pre-empt a deadly threat.
Against this backdrop, the LTTE intelligence apparatus offers a particularly striking example of the risk inherent in disseminating know-how specific to clandestine activities. Simultaneously, this dissemination is impossible to counter in the face of a sufficiently structured and the determined organization since much of the necessary knowledge is widely available in open sources. However, it must be noted that in the case of the Tigers, the transfer of know-how by foreign intelligence agencies has considerably accelerated the process of increasing the competence of the movement’s spies. Most importantly, the Tiger intelligence wing acted as a catalyst in the rise of the LTTE being a learning organization. A few years after the demise of the LTTE, a similar occurrence had to be repeated when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was able to quickly set up an effective intelligence service, the Emni, thanks to the presence within it of veterans of the security organs of the former Iraqi Baathist regime.
Featured image: The LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran inspecting the LTTE RPG Force in August 2004 (@Eelam Archives)
NOTE 1: Resulting in a wave of the suicide of Tigers who swallowed their cyanide capsule to avoid capture.
NOTE 2: Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices
NOTE 3: For example, the attack on the Joint Operations Command (JOC) of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces in Colombo on 21 June 1991
NOTE 4: Attack on the World Trade Center in Colombo on October 15, 1997
NOTE 5: Literally “force unit” or the equivalent of a large regiment, but whose companies were used autonomously
NOTE 6: That would lead among other things to the creation of the Sea Tigers
NOTE 7: The LTTE used British terminology, defining them as Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols: LRRP
This article was originally published in French by the Défense et Sécurité Internationale (DSI) magazine in its November-December 2020 Issue.