Friday, 10 August 2012

Behind Enemy Lines

War on terror revisited: Part 3

By Shamindra Ferdinando 
Special Forces veteran Lieut. Colonel J.A.L Jayasinghe was killed in what a colleague described as a suicide mission on the Vanni east front on Nov 26, 2008 in Oddusudan area. At the time of the death, Jayasinghe was attached to the 3rd Special Forces Regiment, which specialized in action deep inside the LTTE-held area. He was twice honoured with Weera Wickrama Vibushana (WWV).
Amidst a furore over the UNP’ allegation that the army was conspiring to assassinate Wickremesinghe, operatives blew up a truck killing five LTTE cadres on Dec 11, 2001. Then again, they destroyed an LTTE bunker, at the entrance to a base used by Karuna in the Kokkadicholai area on Dec 21, 2001.

Although the army had conducted a successful small group operation in the Batticaloa District targeting a key LTTE operative identified as David way back in 1992, there was no attempt on the part the military to develop the capability further. But, some officers had been keen to promote small group operations to weaken the LTTE and beat it at its own game.

A veteran in clandestine operations had this to tell The Island of the deep penetrations ops: "Three personnel took part in the unprecedented raid targeting David. They returned after achieving the given task. Such operations caused chaos in enemy territory which gave us the psychological advantage over them. We knew of the importance as well as the need to strike within the enemy-controlled area, though a special strategy on clandestine operations was adopted only in 2001, almost a decade after the hit on David."

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the soft-spoken official explained the circumstances under which the army had resorted to operations by deep penetration units soon after one-time Director of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) Lionel Balagalle had been appointed Commander of the Army.

Balagalle couldn’t resist the temptation to explore the possibility of infiltrating areas outside government control to launch attacks. "It was a tremendous task. Those who volunteered to join the operation realised the risks they were taking. They were among the best and they courageously adopted the new doctrine, which enabled us to carry out target killings. It was nothing but a high risk operation, though it produced results. They had to curtail their movements, particularly in the Eastern Province, where we used Batticaloa as the centre of our operations."

Then Brigadier Kapila Hendarawithana executed the operation in his capacity as Director of DMI.

The LTTE realised the danger. Within months after the launch of the first DMI raid in the Batticaloa District, the LTTE pushed for the suspension of the DMI operation. The February 23, 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) arranged by the Norwegians, included a clause, which specifically dealt with DMI action. The CFA called for the suspension of operations behind LTTE lines. While the LTTE had been successful in its negotiations with the Norwegians and the GoSL, the DMI suffered a debilitating setback when the UNP ordered a police raid on a safe-house used by some of those involved in clandestine operations.

The first and the second installments of this series published on June 4 and June 6 dealt with the circumstances under which the UNP unleashed the police on the safe-house on January 2, 2002, even before the signing of the CFA.

The full extent of the damage caused by irresponsible action on the part of politicians as well as those in the army and police, who callously undermined national security due to politics, professional jealousies as well as enmity caused by disciplinary action, has not yet been fully assessed even after one decade.

The DMI operations involved both regular personnel, particularly Muslim officers, those who had switched their allegiance to the army and informants. The January 2 raid led to the arrest of Captain Nilam, Sgt. Udulagama, Staff Sergeant Jayamanne, Corporal Herath, Lance Corporal Hilmy and a suspected LTTE operative, identified as Niyaz. Others involved in the action had been living in the East and were called into join operations depending on the requirement. On the instructions of Lt. Gen. Balagalle, those tasked with carrying out attacks on selected targets had an opportunity to train under Special Forces instructors from Maduru Oya. They underwent training at the Panaluwa Test Firing Range, where firing special weapons was a key element in the training schedule.

In a bid to ensure secrecy, those operatives mostly operated on their own, had their own arsenal, which included a range of weapons, including claymore mines. In fact, those involved in the operation functioned on need-to-know basis. Even senior DMI officials as well as army top brass, except a few, weren’t aware of what was going on. Even the then powerful Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, wasn’t aware of the Millennium City safe-house, though he knew of the ongoing action behind enemy lines.

"Those entering LTTE-held territory wore LTTE uniforms to avoid detection in case of coming across terrorists or civilians. We had about 100 uniforms, though the number of those conducting hits in LTTE-held area was very much lower than the number of uniforms we had," another official said. "The operation was a new experience. It was to be a sustained assassination campaign, something we had never tried before. Had the politicians allowed it to continue, it could have had a devastating impact on the morale of the LTTE’s fighting cadre. The UNP never realised the dynamics of the DMI action."

Shortly after the exposure of the DMI operation, Lt. Gen. Balagalle sought a meeting with the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe to explain the secret operation against the LTTE. The army chief was accompanied by officials, including Hendarawithana, while one-time Attorney General Tilak Marapone, National List MP holding the defence portfolio and Minister Milinda Moragoda, too, were present. "Except for Minister Moragoda, the others obviously didn’t realise what we were doing. They acted as if we were conspiring to do away with the political leadership so as to undermine the Norwegian initiative," a person, who was present at the crisis meeting, told The Island. "We quickly realised we were up against a government, which simply wanted to negotiate a deal with the LTTE at any cost. The LTTE and the Norwegians exploited the situation to the hilt."

A section of the media, too, campaigned against the army, particularly the DMI chief Hendarawithana, who played a pivotal role in the intelligence set-up. He remained high on the LTTE hit list for over a decade. The LTTE went to the extent of exploring the possibility of having him assassinated in Colombo, with the help of an army officer, who allegedly conspired with terrorists to kill Lt. Col. T. N. Muthalif in May 2005. The DMI head was portrayed as a threat to the peace process and obstacle to the UNP’s efforts to reach an understanding with the LTTE, regardless of the consequences.

In the run-up to the raid on the DMI safe house, an officer attached to the organisation had aroused suspicions due to his attempt to obtain the address of the safe house. He had casually made inquiries from those who were believed to be involved in the operation. Although not being successful initially, the detractor had finally managed to secure the required information. The UNP terminated the operation, which could have helped the government debilitate the LTTE. The DMI never conducted operations involving ex-LTTE cadres again, though Lt. Gen. Balagalle got the DMI to launch an operation which enabled the Special Forces to carry out some devastating attacks on the enemy.

It would be pertinent to examine the operation launched in July 2001 by the DMI until its conclusion in December. In spite of the failure of the first and second operations in Batticaloa South to eliminate the intended targets, strikes sent shockwaves through the LTTE. The first targeted assassination attempt was directed at an LTTE cadre identified as Jim Kelly on July 18, 2001, followed by a foray on September 12, 2001. The second operation targeted a military wing cadre identified as Jeevan. On September 17, operatives carried out a successful attack on ‘Major’ Mano Master, who was at that time in charge of the communications network in the area.

The LTTE curbed movements of its senior cadres as it struggled to thwart infiltrators causing havoc in areas under its control. Despite a major surveillance operation, undercover operatives successfully ambushed Karikalan’s vehicle on October 18, 2001. The destruction of the vehicle fuelled speculation of Karikalan’s demise, with a section of the media reporting him killed in a special operation. Shortly after the attack on Karikalan’s vehicle, the army intercepted a radio conversation between Karikalan and his wife, a medical doctor by profession, serving in the Northern Province. "She simply begged him to leave Batticaloa and take refuge in the North due the army’s deep penetrations operations.

"We scored a significant success on Prabhakaran’s birthday on Nov 26, 2001. Troops finished off ‘Major’ Swarnaseelan and ‘Captain’ Devadas in the Pulipanjikkal area. It was the last operation before the Dec 5 General Election. In fact, we weren’t too concerned about the political factor," the official said. Unknown to the army, the Norwegians, the LTTE and the government had been engaged in serious negotiations with the Norwegians eyeing a comprehensive agreement. Due to unprecedented success in their strategy, the LTTE pushed for a specific clause, prohibiting forays by Deep Penetration Units.

Amidst a furore over the UNP allegations that the army was conspiring to assassinate Wickremesinghe, operatives blew up an a truck killing five LTTE cadres on Dec 11, 2001. Then again, they destroyed an LTTE bunker, at the entrance to a base used by Karuna in the Kokkadicholai area on Dec 21, 2001.

Some of those officers involved in special operations and ex-LTTE cadres had mutual trust and friendship. One of the ex-LTTE men, holding the rank of a ‘Major’ killed in an LTTE attack at Kalubowila sometime after the exposure of the Millennium City safe house, had played a pivotal role in the DMI operations. Having failed to persuade the ‘Major’ known as Suresh to poison one of the intelligence officers spearheading covert operations in the East, the LTTE sent a hit squad to finish him off. "In spite of being outnumbered, Suresh fought back courageously. When Suresh refused to open the door to admit strangers, whom he swiftly identified as assassins sent from the East, one of the armed men shot at the door lock. Reacting to the threat, Suresh had thrown a hand grenade at the raiders, though one of them swiftly picked it up and flung it away. The hit squad fled the scene after taking the target. During a routine search, we found a diary maintained by Suresh. According to his diary, Suresh’s wife had been in touch with the LTTE for some time. On the instructions of the LTTE, she had asked him to invite the officer, whom the LTTE considered as a major threat, to their Kalubowila home, where she planned to offer him poisoned cake. Suresh had met the intended target and made an attempt to brief him on the LTTE plan. Unfortunately, the officer had reacted angrily when Suresh sought a private meeting to discuss the issue. According to the diary, Suresh had left without revealing his secret."

Suresh wrote in his diary that he didn’t want to carry out the LTTE order as the army looked after him and his family well. Even after his killing, the army continued to after his children for some time, though they were subsequently handed over to their mother.

Despite the setback suffered due to the Millennium City raid, the army gradually redeveloped its capability in conducting operations behind enemy lines, with significant success during General Sarath Fonseka’s tenure as the Commander of the Army. With the expansion of security forces frontlines as troops advanced on several fronts in the Vanni region, those conducting operations behind enemy lines had a wider area to operate.

Perhaps one of the most important targets during the entire war was taken by elite Special Forces. Nothing could have shaken the top LTTE leadership more than Shankar’s killing by a Special Forces patrol. That particular operation stunned the LTTE at an early stage of the conflict, with the army having an entire Special Forces Regiment for such operations at the time the LTTE collapsed on the Vanni east front. The intelligence needed for the hit on Shankar was provided by an informant working for the DMI, who, in fact, accompanied the patrol tasked with the operation, though not being present at the time the target was taken.

Since its inspection, the DMI has steadily grown into a large organisation, which plays a critical role on the ground. With six units deployed in all parts of the country since the conclusion of the conflict, the government seems to be confident in its capacity and capability to neutralise a fresh crisis.