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Home > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam > Jane's Sentinel on  LTTE success in resisting Sri Lankan forces

Jane's Sentinel on LTTE success in resisting Sri Lankan forces

4 September 2000


The sudden renewed outbreak of violence in the northwestern Jaffna peninsula of Sri Lanka in September 2000 provided the Sri Lankan armed forces with another reminder of the potency of their opposition. Despite the numerical and technological superiority of the army, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) met their offensive with customary ferocity, causing hundreds of casualties and repelling wave after wave of attack. 

Jane's Sentinel examines the factors that underpin the enduring success of the LTTE in resisting, and often defeating, the Sri Lankan forces. 

The LTTE, formed in 1972, is a by-product of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict. The LTTE ideology is Tamil nationalism but it draws heavily on the ideas of Marxism-Leninism. The Tiger symbol is derived from the emblem of the expansionist Indian Tamil Chola dynasty. Its 43-year old charismatic leader and military commander, Velupillai Pirabaharan (whose nom de guerre is Karikalan), is a highly disciplined, dedicated, self-taught, military genius.

The LTTE role has been to break the will of the Sri Lankan state into conceding the northeast to the LTTE. To this end, the LTTE engaged the government politically and militarily.

In 1997 LTTE deployments were: Jaffna (200 cadres, mostly intelligence), Kilinochchi (2,000-strong, mostly in the outskirts of the town), Vavuniya (north of the military defence lines, about 2,000 men), Mullaittivu/Welioya (4,000-strong), Mannar (2,000 men), Trincomalee (1,000-strong) and Ampara/Batticaloa (2,000 men). To engage military intrusions by the Sri Lankan forces into LTTE-controlled areas, the LTTE has highly trained units that are increasingly developing their conventional force structures. These special regiments are known as Imran-Pandyan, Charles Anthony, Kittu, Commando, Malathi and Sothiya. These numbers will have changed as a result of Operation `Victory Assured' although at present no completely reliable figures are available.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) provide a formidable threat to both Sri Lankan and Indian security. Although the LTTE's domestic infrastructure for raising funds and generating recruits has dwindled in scope, international support engendered by spectacular military strikes and the creation of over half a million displaced persons has helped the LTTE to recover tactically and strategically.

The LTTE maintains a very high level of readiness through effective training, state-of-the-art equipment and, for a guerrilla force, unparalleled battle control technology. Within the space of a few hours the LTTE has the ability to concentrate a force of 5,000 cadres to strike a military facility anywhere in northeastern Sri Lanka or to launch long-range deep-penetration operations, ranging from suicide/commando style attacks to bombings in the capital. Despite tight security, the LTTE has been successful both in overrunning highly fortified camps and infiltrating Colombo and carrying out bomb attacks and assassinations.

Although the LTTE has lost India as an operational base, it has expanded its extra-regional operational capability by procuring several ocean-going vessels. Worldwide operations in support of the insurgency - propaganda, fund-raising, procurement of military hardware and transportation - is destabilising the international arena.

The LTTE is a role model and a trend-setter for existing and emerging terrorist groups in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. The international security and intelligence community generally assesses the LTTE as the world's most ruthless terrorist organisation. It is the only organisation to have assassinated two heads of government and to have developed a daring guerrilla navy capable of checkmating a powerful conventional navy commanded by British and US-trained naval officers.

It is likely that the LTTE threat to Sri Lankan and Indian security will be maintained. Despite the frequent pronouncements of political and military leaders, the LTTE will remain a formidable force until the government of Sri Lanka either develops force structures sufficient to destroy the LTTE militarily or accepts international offers to mediate a negotiated settlement, paving the way for the entry of the LTTE into the legitimate political arena.

Chain of Command

The LTTE organisation is geographically structured into seven regular commands under special district commanders responsible to Pirabaharan. In the LTTE, all members are fighting cadres and do not receive remuneration. The exceptions, only a handful, play an advisory or supportive role. The cadres of the seven commands belong broadly to political and military wings and are further sub-divided according to the specialist roles they play. In the LTTE are departments for political, military, intelligence, Sea Tigers, women, finance and procurement activity.

Cadres are given responsibility not according to seniority but strictly on performance. Cadres are not promoted to a rank but only responsibilities of command. Cadres are ranked only posthumously by taking into account their service, as well as the circumstances of their death.

Role and Deployment

Politically, the LTTE attempts to control parts of the northeast by providing a reasonably well-managed administration. The Sri Lankan state continues to provide essential items to citizens, even in LTTE-controlled areas, to prevent a humanitarian crisis. Controlling territory helps the LTTE to radicalise the Tamil public into supporting the LTTE by providing finance and recruits. The LTTE legitimises its military action by projecting to the international community the idea that Tamil people are being deliberately discriminated against, as a matter of policy of the Colombo government. The LTTE forces engage the Sri Lankan military deployments in the northeast by labelling them an `army of occupation'.

To establish greater control over intelligence, the pre-requisites for establishing an independent state, the LTTE has launched plans to create a `Tamil Only' northern province. To meet that objective, the LTTE has systematically engaged in a programme of ethnic cleansing, driving out non-Tamils from the Northern Province. With the exception of the security forces and the civilians engaged in the administration of Jaffna, there are no Sinhalese and Muslims in the area of the Northern Province, except in Weli Oya. In the area of the Eastern Province, where the LTTE frequently targets civilian villages, the number of Tamils to Muslims to Sinhalese is almost equal.

To weaken the morale of the Sri Lankan state and to neutralise any Tamil political opposition, the LTTE engages in assassinating prominent leaders of all communities and senior military commanders. The LTTE also assassinated many powerful Sinhala political and military leaders, including:

- The minister of state for defence, General Ranjan Wijeratne (suicide car bomber); 
- The former national security minister, Lalith Athulathmudali (assassin); 
- The presidential candidate and minister, Gamini Dissanayake (female suicide bomber); 
- Navy commander Clancy Fernando (motorcycle suicide bomber); 
- Army generals Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Wijaya Wimlaratna and Lakshman Wijeratna (land mines). 
- Minister of Industrial Development C V Gooneratne (suicide bomber)

To prevent dissent, the LTTE maintains a number of prisons and execution programmes. Among the LTTE leaders to be executed was Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah, alias Ajith Mahattaya, long-time deputy leader of the LTTE and a childhood friend of Pirabaharan. In addition to conducting deep penetration and front-line intelligence operations, the LTTE intelligence wing headed by Pottu Amman is also responsible both for internal security and counter-intelligence.

Operational Art and Tactical Doctrine

The LTTE has developed its own distinctive operational art and tactical doctrine, but it is still one largely drawn from past masters - Che Guevara, Giap, Mao and Debray. The LTTE doctrine is flexible enough to exploit the opportunities that arise from time to time.

As a highly innovative force, the LTTE is capable of retaliation against aggression, reprisals and pre-emptive strikes. Regular features of the LTTE doctrine feature the unleashing of widespread terror on soft targets. Concentrating on lightly or unprotected targets is a classic diversionary tactic in warfare, pinning down troops to static sentry/bunker duties and restraining search and destroy operations. The LTTE has bombed Sri Lankan commercial aircraft, trains and buses; gunned down priests, nuns, pilgrims and bystanders in a sacred royal city and shot Muslims while worshipping in mosques; frequently raided non-Tamil border villages and towns, massacring men, women and children; and land mined, ambushed and assaulted military and police patrols and posts.

Battle-hardened LTTE cadres are deployed to strike heavily fortified military targets. The LTTE has vast experience in limited action against Sri Lankan forces and is highly developed in the art of mobile warfare. Over the years, the LTTE, both in terms of unconventional and semi-conventional capability, has grown. It is currently developing its conventional force capability. Mullaittivu/Weli Oya, the command, training, ordinance and the logistical headquarters of the LTTE, has a reserve strike force to support military action in other commands. Unlike the case in conventional forces, the operational commanders of the LTTE always command their cadres from the front and not from the rear. This gives the LTTE commander the distinct advantage of being able to direct the battle. Cadres are given freedom of operation within the mission.

Military operations in theatres other than the northeast are conducted largely by cadres of the intelligence wing or by Black Tiger suicide squads. These cadres depend on helpers, mostly from the minority Tamil community, to play a supportive role: providing basic intelligence, safe houses, transport or acting as couriers. The interdiction of these squads by government counter-intelligence units and by regular troops at check points have made the LTTE multiply the number of independent operational squads dispatched for strikes in Colombo.

The LTTE naval wing, the Sea Tigers, is operational in the seas of the northeast, but the Sea Black Tiger units are capable of operating elsewhere, including in Colombo. The LTTE Sky Tigers built two airstrips that were destroyed by the SLAF. The Sky Tigers are therefore aerially inoperative, but in collaboration with the Black Tigers and the anti-aircraft unit have staged spectacular strikes destroying several aircraft both in the air and on ground.

The LTTE international network operates in at least 40 countries. International propaganda and fund-raising is mostly co-ordinated by LTTE leaders based both in the UK and France, mostly through the following fronts:

World Tamil Movement; 
International Federation of Tamils; 
International Secretariat of the LTTE.

The LTTE procurement, narcotics and shipping networks remain classified, although ships frequently move between Turkey/Ukraine and Myanmar/Thailand via Mullaittivu in northern Sri Lanka. 

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