This month marks 20 years since the Indian Peace Keeping Force launched ‘Operation Pawan‘ against the Tigers in response to their mortar and machine gun attacks on IPKF patrols. The only photo-journalist present in the combat zone at the height of the battle for Jaffna was India Today’sShyam Tekwani. Having been taken to Jaffna , by the LTTE, he was witness to actual battle scenes and obtained a unique insight to Tiger tactics, their weapons, morale and mentality. His cover story appeared in the India Today of November 15, 1987 under the title, ‘ Sri Lanka: A Bloodied Accord’ with a picture of an Indian soldier killed by the LTTE in Kokuvil.Now, two decades later with a wealth of experience with the Tigers behind him he draws attention to lessons that all governments fighting the terrorist menace had better learn if they are to effectively meet the challenge.
Presently Assistant Professor, School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, Tekwani’s exclusive reportage of the conflict has been published internationally.
Addressing the recently concluded International Conference on Countering Terrorism in Colombo, he said:
“To understand the significance of the regional security threat posed by the LTTE it is necessary first to examine the relationship between terrorism and new media technologies. The information revolution in Asia offers terrorist groups the same benefits and advantages that it extends to business enterprises in the region.
Increased globalization and rapid absorption of new media technologies into business practices has enabled the ongoing dynamic economic environment in many Asian nations. Just as business corporations in Asia are adapting their tactical and operational strategies to make the best use of new technology and the emerging global economy, extremist groups are doing the same.” Tekwani was speaking on ‘The LTTE’s online network and its implications for Regional Security.’
Tekwani recalled that the IPKF lost the media war against the Tigers having failed to win the confidence of journalists. It clearly proved the theory that terrorists understand the value of the media far better than governments.
He recalled that once when he returned from the battle zone after seven weeks he was amazed to read in the Indian press reports that were almost a total distortion of the real situation. He did not require much intelligence to realize that the LTTE had fed these newspapers with virtually fabricated stories.
“The LTTE branded the IPKF the ‘Indian People Killing Force’ and – sometimes – the ‘Italian-Parsi Killing Force.’ The latter was meant to personally ridicule Sonia (Italian) and Rajiv Gandhi (Parsi).”
Tekwani said that the Western media too had eagerly lapped up everything that the Tigers offered to them, since the former always loves any group that projects itself as the underdog, although the today the world is beginning to see the LTTE as an integral part of the international terrorist network.
“The Tigers are so clever in deceiving the young that when I show my students Tiger websites meant for different audiences the students are impressed and almost express support for the LTTE cause. But afterwards when I explain to them the organization’s background and who the Tigers really are they begin to think differently.”
He observed that one of the main factors affecting the Sri Lankan military’s handling of the LTTE has been dwindling morale, whittled away by the support the LTTE had garnered in its early years from the international community. This was in large part due to its international propaganda campaign, which capitalized on its status as a marginalized minority and used the propaganda to focus on the sufferings of the Tamils rather than the violence of its own actions.
“The LTTE continues to do so with considerable success on the Internet.”
In addition, Tekwani says, the LTTE has also ventured into cyber crime on occasion. He recalled that the Tigers had used the Internet to hack into Sri Lankan Government networks in 1997 – the first recorded use of Internet in the world by any conventional terrorist group. The Tigers are also reported to have used the Internet for criminal profit, as evidenced by the University of Sheffield case, which exposes the more serious issue of the Internet identity theft by terrorists.
According to him, the Tigers were also able to hack into the Sheffield University in England in 1997, and use the university computer system to send their propaganda and to engage in fund raising. And they did it in a covert manner. Having captured legitimate user IDs and passwords of well-respected university academics to disseminate e-mail communications around the world, they used those legitimate e-mail accounts and asked people to send money to a charity in Sri Lanka! While such instances are not yet the norm, they are undeniably the trend of the future. And the LTTE is nothing if not a trend setter in such tactics.
Tekwani regretted that the Sri Lankan Government – which many perceive as having lost the propaganda war with the LTTE even more thoroughly than it has the war on the ground – has no infrastructure legal or technical, to block access to LTTE and pro-LTTE sites within Sri Lanka even though the State has its own press, radio and television.
“This is a loop hole the LTTE has used well. In a related matter the creator of the ‘I Love You’ virus in the Philippines escaped punishment because the government there had no laws in place to prosecute cyber crimes. The situation is depressingly similar across Asia with the exception of perhaps Singapore. Asian nations are getting on to the information highway without any traffic laws in place…”
Tekwani noted that the LTTE was one of the first groups to use the Internet in its campaigns. The LTTE’s use of the Internet and other new media and communication technologies as an integral part of its campaign represents an emerging security issue in the region, according to him.