On the edges of large Indian nature preserves, farmers and fishermen often protect themselves from wild tigers by wearing a false face mask on the rear of their heads. Tigers like to attack from behind and this two-faced look evidently confuses them.
When it comes to dealing with terrorism, Ottawa has a two-faced approach of its own that confuses our friends and allies. We are full and active partners with other nations in dealing with Al Qaeda and the Jihadists, yet have a different face when it comes to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE). We tolerate their political fronts, when we should be shutting them down.
Despite the shaky February 2002 ceasefire between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, the Tigers are a group to fear. While they almost never attack Westerners, they are one of the most innovative terrorist groups in the world in terms of technique, and in the size and sophistication of their global political and fundraising apparatus. If other groups ever aped this template, they would be dangerous indeed.
The LTTE is the only terrorist group to kill two national leaders (Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lanka’s President Premadasa); they pioneered the use of suicide belt-bombs; and during the 1990s, used more suicide attackers than all other terrorist groups combined. Their cadres are known for brutality and ruthlessness, but also for the innovative nature of their techniques and weaponry.
Matched to this is a global structure combining heroin trafficking, skilled passport forging and people smuggling, and layers of numbered companies to move money around. The acme of their commercial skills is best reflected in the 1997 hijacking of a shipment of 32,400 mortar bombs for the Sri Lankan Army from a Tanzanian ammunition plant. The vessel charted to carry the shipment disguised its LTTE ownership, and the Sri Lankan Army got their mortar bombs — one Tiger-fired salvo at a time.
However, what really makes the LTTE unique is their use of overseas communities of Sri Lankan Tamils. The use of ‘Diaspora’ populations by insurgents and mobsters is an old story — Canada experienced the Fenians among the Irish displaced after the Potato Famine, and the Anti-Tito Croats among the Post-War refugees in the 1960s. What makes the Tigers different is that they deliberately created a Diaspora first, rather than capitalizing on an existing situation.
Many terrorist groups go through an evolutionary process where they first turn to organized crime to raise money, and then eventually morph into a crime syndicate. The Chinese Triads, for example, began as secret societies against the Manchu Dynasty. The LTTE skipped this process and embraced organized crime from its inception. Their leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, was a ‘Kappan’ — an extortion collector — in the Sri Lankan underworld and came from a smuggling background. In the early 1970s, the LTTE was little more than a street gang, yet by the late 1970s, their heroin traffickers were already popping up in Western Europe and the first trickle of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka were followed by Tiger organizers.
Terrorism often feeds off a cycle of action-reaction, using atrocity to goad authorities into behaving without restraints either. In 1983, the Tiger’s killing of 15 Sri Lankan soldiers in an ambush triggered an anti-Tamil rampage by troops, and a vicious bout of Sinhalese mob violence inside Colombo. Despite their previous decade of activity, the LTTE always claimed that they were only reacting to these events; but the criminal enterprises and political cadres to fund and sustain their war were already in place.
Within a year, the LTTE’s traffickers were carrying 20% of the heroin found in Switzerland while the Poles and Italians had broken up other rings (the discipline of the captured smugglers startled the Italians when some arrested Tamils bit off their own tongues to avoid testifying.). First in Britain in 1983 and then elsewhere in Western Europe, expatriate Tamils were subjected to a ‘War-tax’ system for regular monthly payments to the Tigers. The monthly payments were usually around $30 per household, and were backed by an accounting and enforcement system.
Inside Sri Lanka, the events of 1983 resulted in the massive internal displacement of 500,000 Tamils (followed by other internal refugees as the LTTE engaged in ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Tamil dominated areas). Other than as combatants — and the Tigers quickly got a reputation for recruiting children — these internal refugees could offer little to the LTTE. If they could be sent overseas, they might provide much more to the movement’s coffers.
The 1985 Regina vs Singh Supreme Court decision marked Canada’s new vulnerability to mass arrivals of refugee claimants and the first boatload of short Dravidian-looking ‘Sikhs’ washed up off Nova Scotia shortly thereafter. Some of them had left Sri Lanka via India, been routed through the USSR and East Germany (no mean trick in the Cold War) and landed in West Germany before being smuggled by ship to the Canadian coast. The subsequent fire in a Hamburg police station’s records room that held the details of the first part of their journey was surely a coincidence…
Canada’s Tamil population grew rapidly, and some Tamil leaders say there are 200-250,000 of their compatriots here. However, our 2001 Census only identified 92,100 people who spoke Tamil as their mother tongue. Part of the discrepancy might be due to the Tiger’s enthusiastic work in counterfeiting passports and travel documents, and in people smuggling. Forgery skills have also been useful for bank fraud, phony credit cards, and much else. Some Tamils who sought to leave LTTE controlled areas in Sri Lanka had to pay an ‘exit tax’ and usually used a Tiger-approved smuggler to facilitate their travel to Canada — altogether netting the group something like $10-40,000 per family head.
A Tamil landing in Canada soon found that cultural and community life here was also controlled by Front organizations for the LTTE — such as the World Tamil Movement and the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils; both listed by the US State Department as terrorist fronts since 1995. Worse, these and other LTTE support organizations receive funding from various levels of Canadian governments for immigrant settlement services, Tamil language media, cultural activities, a housing co-op and so on. It was impossible for a Tamil in Canada to avoid bumping into the Tigers’ agents at every turn.
Terrorist groups hate hearing other opinions from people they claim to represent. Tamils who were under the illusion that life in Canada came with free speech soon learned otherwise — arson, beatings and shooting incidents attest to that. Non-Tamil critics of the LTTE (such as this writer and the National Post) have been subjected to more pedestrian forms of harassment.
Uncritical incumbent politicians, however, are enthusiastically embraced by the LTTE’s Canadian fronts. This warmth has been extended from City Councillors all the way up to Federal Cabinet ministers; and it is paying dividends.
The LTTE and their fronts are recognized as terrorists by the UN Security Council, by the US, and by a number of Western European nations. The Canadian government (despite many warnings from its employees) believes that treating the Tigers as terrorists would somehow damage the peace process in Sri Lanka. This brilliant strategy has paid off with the IRA — now into their tenth year of fruitless ‘peace talks’ in Ulster.
The ceasefire in Sri Lanka is wearing thin, especially in the aftermath of the December Tsunami. The LTTE has used the opportunity to stockpile arms, recruit more children, and squirrel away supplies. Before the Tigers re-ignite the war, Ottawa should drop the second face and look the Tigers in the eye for once. Let’s list the LTTE as a terrorist group, and apply our Anti-Terror laws. Instead of funding the Tigers’ front groups, let’s shut them down. A battered and weary Sri Lanka and tens of thousands of ordinary Canadian Tamils would be extremely thankful.
John Thompson is Editorial Director of the Mackenzie Institute which studies political instability and terrorism. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org