In an article for the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in March 2008, Shanaka Jayasekara analyzed the LTTE links with Islamic militant groups in South Asia and beyond. Jayasekara stated that as the LTTE benefited from its worldwide “influence within the informal arms market [it has such] attracted collaborative arrangements with other terrorist groups.” The Taliban and some Al Qaeda affiliates would have enjoyed limited but real contacts with Velupillai Prabhakaran’s organization. Although there hasn’t been any new development regarding the LTTE’s arms supply network, it is fortunate that Dawn chose to publish an article about these connections in September, as terrorism experts call attention to the fact that the LTTE’s network still are to be dismantled.
Experts have been pointing out the fact that the LTTE pioneered the most effective armament supply system ever for a non-state actor. The Tamil organization had contacts in almost every country bordering the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the LTTE began to diversify its sources of supply - the Air Tigers component flew with Czech-manufactured ZLIN-143. It is then not surprising that Prabhakaran’s worldwide network was an object of interest for other terrorist groups, especially with regard to its nature and ideology.
Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the highest-ranking Tiger alive and head of the arms procurement wing of the LTTE – currently held by the Sri Lankan government at an undisclosed location – is said to have established contacts with the Taliban as early as May 2001. According to Jayasekara, Pathmanathan would have bought weapons from the Taliban “Sharjah network,” named after the third largest emirate of the UAE, where Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout operated three to four flights a day to Kandahar. The affiliation between a secular-nationalist group fighting for a homeland in a Singhalese-ruled country and the hard-line Islamic movement of the Taliban is nothing if not unusual, but when it comes to business, ideology does not matter. Hence the LTTE was operating a company flying a flag of convenience – Otharad Cargo – only 17kilometers from Sharjah, in the larger emirate of DubaÏ.
The implication of the LTTE’s entry into the “Afpak” region was debated during a recent meeting between Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani and Sri Lankan President Rajapakse, with the latter one indicating that he believed Sri Lankan elements could have favoured terrorism in Pakistan, most especially the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team on 3 March 2009. The assumption could be true, for Jayasekara argues that the LTTE installed a front company in Karachi that procured weapons to other Pakistani groups, and managed to maintain a safe house in Peshawar. In 2007, the Sri Lankan navy destroyed a shipment of weapons from this company before it could reach the island.
A lot of this information was made available thanks to the arrest of the LTTE’s procurement agent Prathapan Thavarajah by a joint Indonesian-US operation in early 2009, whose laptop seemed to have delivered many secrets about the organization’s implants in the region. But the fact the LTTE had settled in Pakistan’s safe haven was known prior to this date. In 2002, the Harakat al-Mujahideen received logistic assistance from the LTTE’s fleet in its effort to trade weapons with the Philippine based Abu Sayyaf Group. The jihadi connection was not an ideological one but the lucrative opportunity for both the Tamil group and the various Islamic factions to trade overcame the fact that none of the partners shared the same motive, or the same belief.
The LTTE ultimately faced jihadi presence all over Asia, up to the East African shores where the group operated transport companies. Trading with groups affiliated to Al Qaeda thus became a commercial necessity for the Tigers, though they never engaged in direct talks with Bin Laden’s network. Truth is the LTTE did not wait for the gravity centre of jihadi groups to move towards the Horn of Africa to exapnd contacts. Jayasekara affirms that the Tigers operated from ports in Eritrea, a major hub in worldwide arms smuggling. Prabhakaran would have even communicated by fax with President Afewerki on this matter. In fact, in its mid-December 2006 report, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee considered the Eritrean government to have directly supplied the LTTE.
In August 2009, a Sri Lanka journal reported the army found 12 fighter planes in an Eritrean Airport. Though the news cannot be confirmed, it would indicate thatt the Eritrean government feels the tide is changing, and that it would be better to postpone if not forget about any further support for the weakened LTTE. The same journal reported that government officials are trying to establish an embassy in Eritrea in order to prevent any new appearance of a Tiger network in this part of Africa. Even so, the LTTE’s networks are far from dismantled, and though Pathmanathan’s capture is clearly an accomplishment for the government, Sri Lanka can hardly manage to do the job by itself. How much President Rajapakse is willing to listen to his regional partners is another story.