Learning From The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were a highly successful terrorist organization who were famous for successfully forming a fully functional military. Their fight for separation from the Sri Lankan government lasted a quarter century, and parallels can be drawn between the Sri Lankan conflict and the current situation in the Middle East (and elsewhere). With civilian casualties reaching staggering numbers and negotiations leading nowhere, Sri Lanka had elected a new government and, with it, a new approach. By leveraging popular support, utilizing external countries to manage the conflict, and employing strategic military measures, the new Sri Lankan government recovered its country. Duplicating similar political actions and military maneuvers as those that proved successful for the Sri Lankan government may usher in peace for the Middle East.

Origins, Structure, and Success of the LTTE

LTTE leaders training at Sirumalai camp in India in 1984. (Wikimedia)

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are an ethnic secessionist terrorist organization stemming from Sri Lanka. Following the Sri Lankan liberation from Britain in 1945, two predominant ethnicities emerged, the Sinhalese and the Tamil, who made up approximately 74% and 18% of the population, respectively.[1] The two ethnic populations lived in relative peace for almost a quarter century following their separation from Britain. However, a slowly growing unequal distribution of power left the Tamils politically and socially isolated. As a result, tensions between the two ethnicities rose, and the Tamil sought separation.[2] To make separation a reality, Velupillai Prabhakaran formed the LTTE in 1976. The organization desired to establish a separate state, called Tamil Eelam. The framework of the organization was both hierarchical and pyramidal, made up of a two-tier structure that included military and political elements. It was hierarchical in the sense that Prabhakaran was the chief, but pyramidal in the sense that there were leaders of sub-groups and multiple centers of powers amongst those groups. The Central Governing Committee, headed by Prabhakaran, oversaw both the political and military dimension while empowering subordinates to achieve intelligence, political, and military success.[3] This distribution of power set the LTTE up for a favorable outcome.

The LTTE were the first terrorist organization to successfully form a fully functioning military. The military consisted of a ground force known as the Tigers, a naval force called the Sea Tigers, and an airborne group, similar to an Air Force, called the Air Tigers. The pyramidal leadership structure of each branch worked in such a way that, when together, all military operations went smoothly. However, if they happened to lose a section of a force in any of the branches, they could still continue the overall mission because of the overlapping powers. The overlapping responsibilities of the LTTE military made it hard to dismantle, and even harder to defeat. The layers that followed the heads of powers for the military pyramidal structure are what the Tigers called Cadre, similar to lower-level military officers. These were specially trained individuals who assisted with suicide attacks, bombings, and guerrilla warfare against the Sinhalese. Cadre filled a vital role within the terrorist group. They kept morale high, conducted successful military operations, and stimulated further popular support. The Tigers did most of the fighting, while the Sea Tigers and the Air Tigers filled a supporting role.

LTTE bike platoon north of Kilinochi, Sri Lanka, in 2004. (Wikimedia)

The Sea Tigers formed in the early 1980s with only a few boats and a few men. Utilizing what equipment and manpower they did possess to their advantage, the Sea Tigers sailed across waterways to reach their external supported provinces in India where they obtained supplies to bring back to the fight in Sri Lanka. Since the Sea Tigers lacked their own harbors and launch sites, they launched boats off tractors and trailers. This tactic made them completely mobile, easily hidden, and enabled an element of surprise.[4] The Sea Tigers outmaneuvered, outweighed, and out-smuggled the Sri Lankan Navy. Training for Air Tiger pilots and assembly of some aircraft began in the late 1980s. Some sources believe the LTTE obtained Czech aircraft in parts through the Sea Tigers, while others believe they had made purchases of Australian-made AirBorne aircraft.[5] Regardless of where they obtained their limited aircraft (a few helicopters, several planes, and two unmanned aircraft systems), the Sri Lankan government struggled to control their airspace. The LTTE also began to use more weaponry in their aircraft, creating another obstacle for the Sinhalese to overcome.

As time went by, the Tigers developed terrorist tactics to complement and supplement the traditional military tactics already being used. The Tigers’ influence on the tactics of terrorism was significant. While the LTTE were not the first to use explosives guerilla warfare, they did pioneer the use of suicide vests and belts, and they perfected the use of suicide bombers.[6] Prior to the development of their tactics, bombs were usually placed in a backpack, box, or vehicle, which were much more identifiable for the Sinhalese. To limit identification, the suicide belts and vests only required a person for transportation.The use of women and children was also a new and successful technique, one that the Sri Lankan government never anticipated. The volunteers who carried out these suicide attacks became known as the “Black Tigers.” Between their first attacks in 1970s and the early 2000s, the LTTE was the world leader in suicide terrorism, carrying out more attacks than either Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad.[7] In fact, between 1980 and 2000, the LTTE carried out 168 suicide attacks causing heavy damage to Sri Lankan civilian, economic, and military targets.[8] Although this did not help the LTTE maintain popular support, they did force the Sinhalese government to pay attention to the festering situation.

An LTTE Sea Tiger fast attack fiberglass boat passing a Sri Lankan freighter sunken by the Sea Tigers just north of the village of Mullaitivu, North-eastern Sri Lanka. (Isak Berntsen/Wikimedia)

Sri Lanka’s Success and What Others Can Learn from Them

On May 18 , 2009, after twenty-five years of riots, terrorism, and war, the LTTE ultimately admitted defeat. It took various strategies to finally achieve peace. The Sri Lankan government gained popular support, advanced their military strategies and operations, gathered intelligence by capturing enemy forces, attacked the LTTE’s strongest points, the cadre, and exploited their support network, the last a critical vulnerability.[9] Many governments are fighting similar battles today but have not been able to counter their enemies as the Sri Lankan government was able to. Therefore, the Sri Lankan Civil War might be used as an effective reference, not just for how to successfully defeat an organization like the LTTE, but also for the kind of tactics to expect from a terrorist organization like the LTTE.

For instance, the Tigers’ innovations, like the belt or vest, have been duplicated by al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Additionally, terrorist organizations have also mimicked the LTTE exceptional strategies in the political arena, setting up parallel hierarchies and shadow governments to provide structures to replace the state. However, what continues to distinguish the LTTE from other terrorist organizations is their military. A military force is an indicator of a wider support network (e.g., India to the LTTE), and that the organization has enough strategic capacity to field and employ one. If current terrorist groups continue to get closer to establishing these capabilities, then it will make their organization that much harder to overcome. Even though the LTTE was eventually destroyed by the Sri Lankan Government, terrorist organizations continue to exploit the tactics, techniques, and structures the LTTE used. Before a government can tackle terrorist operations they must first recognize the problem. Once they understand the situation, they can use different strategies, including those the Sri Lankan government used, to help calm the tensions or eliminate them completely.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of the Fatah movement and have adopted tactics pioneered by the LTTE, as have other groups in the Middle East and elsewhere. (Israel Behind the News)

The factors that give rise to insurgencies are varied from case to case. However, history suggests the emergence of an insurgency turned terrorist organization is often due to political, religious, or social reasons.[10] In fact, though one single definition has not been adopted for terrorism, according to the FBI’s definition, terrorism is the unlawful use of force against people to intimidate the government or civilian population for political, religious, or social objectives.[11] The reasons insurgencies turn to terrorism can be seen as a traditionalist desire to return to rooted values in ancestral ties, often for religious purposes. For example, terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Al Qaida believe political rule should be based on the Koran and Sunnah-Hadith, the traditional sayings of Muhammad. There are also egalitarian insurgencies that seek to make everyone equal. Examples of this type of insurgency can be seen in groups such as the Viet Cong in South Korea, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the Front for the Liberation of Nepal.

Yet, in the Sri Lankan civil war, socio-economic disparity between the Tamil and Sinhalese people gave rise to high tensions and unfair treatment between the two. The government in particular was responsible for this, since the established laws purposefully kept the Tamil people down, and when riots began, the government did not revoke the laws. When they could no longer pretend the situation was not deteriorating, the Sri Lankan government decided to try and bring the LTTE to the negotiating table using military means. Although, the LTTE entered negotiations five times in twenty two years, no consensus was established. Each cease-fire was always broken, usually by the LTTE. Had the Sri Lankan government taken the Tamils needs into account, the civil war may have taken far less time to end. Tackling the Tamils exoteric and esoteric appeals—concrete grievances, such as food for the hungry and shoes for the shoeless, and overarching goals such as political rights and freedoms, respectively—might have proven significant.

If the government or opposing force cannot stop the organization at the root of the cause, nor conform to the exoteric and esoteric appeals of the people, they must convince the population that what they are doing is for the best. Unfortunately, gaining popular support is easier said than done. Bard E. O’Neill, author of Insurgency and Terrorism from Revolution to Apocalypse, believes there are several ways of gaining popular support other than just meeting the exoteric and esoteric goals of the people, each subject to exploitation by the government or anti-terrorist forces. The first is charismatic attraction in a leader the people regard as a hero. This is someone who builds trust through a forceful personality and/or inspiring oratorical skills. The next is the government gaining popular support through demonstration of potency. O’Neill states that an insurgent group may use provocation of government repression for gaining popular support. This is where insurgents carry out attacks to provoke arbitrary and indiscriminate government reprisals against the people. This same approach can be used to the government’s advantage by not allowing the terrorism to take place through nonproliferation tactics or to not respond to attacks in an action-reaction spiral theory. Therefore, the government would gain popular support by not overreacting to the terrorists honeypots. Finally, the last two methods in gaining popular support are terrorism and coercion. Although these are more insurgent strategies, a government can use this approach, but it may not be the best solution. The concern is that terrorism and coercion can do the exact opposite of gaining popular support. It can provoke others who were on the fence to turn against the cause.

Internally displaced persons in Sri Lanka (Reuters)

Internally displaced persons in Sri Lanka (Reuters)

The Sinhalese used several of these tactics. They attempted to demonstrate their potency through military action, but then turned to government terrorism, coercion, and action-reaction spiral tactics to get the result they wanted. This did not help them gain the popular support, and the Sinhalese people began to question if their government was handling the matter correctly. Finally, after realizing that these tactics were not the answer, the Sri Lankan Government (in 2006) began to meet the exoteric appeals of the people, particularly the lower classes.8 Although a financial burden to the country, almost immediately people moved toward the side of the government and thousands of soldiers volunteered to fight for peace. The government’s original response is an example of what others should avoid in attempt to not lose popular support of their people and risk no external support of other countries. The reform of their tactics and addressing the needs of the people shows others just how important popular support can be during a fight like this and how it can significantly benefit the outcome to one’s favor.

After gaining support of the people, the Sri Lankan government turned towards the diplomatic arena. They worked others who recognized the threat and banned the LTTE from 32 countries. This helped eliminate the external funding and material support from countries like India, France, and Italy, that had played a part in giving the Tigers such a strong hold. Leveraging the political arena and winning popular support led to over 6,000 LTTE cadre leaving the fight. This seriously damaged the support base of the LTTE and gave the Sri Lankan government information on the group, allowing them to locate terrorist cells and granting them the opportunity for decapitation strikes.8 Relations created in the political arena between Sri Lanka and the U.S. also led to strategic placement of a U.S. Coast Guard to interdict their maritime supplies. The government procured smaller boats that allowed them to track and detain Sea Tigers. The combination of disrupting communication and resupply lines, lack of Cadre, decapitation strikes, and precision attacks on the Tigers left the LTTE with no choice but to admit defeat.


The LTTE arose to fight for the rights they believed they deserved, much like the terrorist groups of today. The Sri Lankan government failed to contain the threat, partially due to the new tactics and exceptional capabilities of the LTTE. In addition, there was little to no change made over the first twenty-two years of the Sri Lankan Civil War. It took generational shift to adjust the strategy and, in late 2005, a new government was elected which targeted the LTTE’s principal weaknesses while negating their strengths. This generation shift taught the government a valuable lesson. They adapted to the threat in critical ways, changing strategies and making use of external resources, and that new adaption has much to teach others. The Sri Lankan Civil war should be used as a learning experience for similar government conflicts. This conflict and solution can be set as an example showing others what to do and what not to do, while also providing them with the understanding of what strategies and tactics the terrorist organization may use against them.

Paige Ziegler is a student of Homeland Security at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and future officer in the Unites States Army. Her area of focus includes terrorism studies and military science. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Female fighter in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Monique Stauder)


[1] Bruce Vaughn, “Sri Lanka: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service, June 16, 2011, at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL31707.pdf

[2] Preeti Bhattacharji, “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (aka Tamil Tigers) (Sri Lanka, separatist),” May 20, 2009 at http://www.cfr.org/separatist-terrorism/liberation-tigers-tamil-eelam-aka-tamil-tigers-sri-lanka-separatists/p9242#p3

[3] South Asia Terrorism Portal, “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE),” 2016, at http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/shrilanka/terroristoutfits/Ltte.htm#

[4] LT Malaka Chandradasa, “Learning from our Enemies; Sri Lankan Naval Special Warfare Against the Sea Tigers,” 2012, at https://globalecco.org/learning-from-our-enemies-sri-lankan-naval-special-warfare-against-the-sea-tigers

[5] Eelam View, “Air Tigers of the LTTE Full Documentary With Video,” September, 30, 2012, at http://www.eelamview.com/2012/09/30/air-tigers-of-ltte-full-documentary-with-video/

[6] “Sri Lanka (LTTE) Historical Background,” IISS Armed Conflict Database, Institute for Strategic Studies, 2003, Retrieved 2009-02-09.

[7] Robert Pape, “Tamil Tigers: Suicide Bombing Innovators,” May 21, 2009, at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104391493

[8] “Sri Lanka (LTTE) Historical Background,” IISS Armed Conflict Database, Institute for Strategic Studies, 2003, Retrieved 2009-02-09.

[9] Peter Layton, “How Sri Lanka Won the War,” April 9, 2015, at http://thediplomat.com/2015/04/how-sri-lanka-won-the-war/

[10] Bard E. O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism from Revolution to Apocalypse 2nd Edition Revised, 2005, Potomac Books Inc., Washington D.C.

[11] National Institute of Justice, “Terrorism,” Office of Justice Programs, January, 3, 2017, at https://www.nij.gov/topics/crime/terrorism/Pages/welcome.aspx