The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has fought a secessionist campaign against the Sri Lankan government for over thirty years. It began in 1975 in response to perceived government indifference to the concerns of the Tamil minority. The group’s purpose, according to founder Velupillai Prabhakaran, is the establishment of an independent state in the island’s northern area, and over the years it has done much to attain that goal. As of late 2007, it controls a significant portion of northern Sri Lanka, to the point of establishing a comprehensive administrative structure to run basic services.
The LTTE retains a central organizing structure, with Prabhakaran as its head and a number of subdivisions controlled by senior leadership. Though it emphasizes speed over size, and conducts a number of activities synonymous with terrorism, it follows many of the definitions of a more formal military. Its soldiers number nearly 10,000, it maintains amphibious units which can attack from the sea and remains one of the few terrorist organizations in the world with its own air force. A political wing of the organization controls courts, banks, and on-air broadcasting (the Voice of the Tigers), with overtures of becoming a recognized political party.
Despite that, the LTTE strategy continues to embrace terrorist tactics. From the northern countryside and urban area like the city of Colobo, it launches attacks against government officials, civil institutions, temples and mosques, and commuter services like buses and trains. Its activites have resulted in a number of civilian deaths-with some incidents producing hundreds of casualties- which it refers to as unfortunate collateral damage. Its infamous suicide squad, the Black Tigers, conducts bombings and political assassinations with an effectiveness that few other organizations can rival. All LTTE members carry cyanide capsules with them, prepared to die rather than be taken alive.
The do not limit themselves to targets in Sri Lanka, either. India, Pakistan, and other mainland nations suffered attacks from the Tigers, most notably in the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The Indian government works closely with the Sri Lankan government in an attempt to root out the Tigers, and Indian courts have standing warrants for Prabhakaran’s arrest. The LTTE declared a ceasefire following the 9/11 attacks on the United States, but with the 2005 election of Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapksa-whose platform included a tougher stance on Tamil rebels-a new wave of violence began, which continues on.
The group funds its operations through appeals to foreign governments and Tamil minorities living in India and elsewhere. It has also funneled funds for legitimate causes into its organization, most notably with money raised to help victims of the 2004 Asian Tsunami. More traditional criminal activities include arms smuggling, credit card fraud, extortion, and drug trafficking. Many LTTE members practice piracy as well, seizing ships in the Indian Ocean and kidnapping or killing their passengers and crew. Though it remains a largely secular organization, it has participated in ethnic cleansing of Muslim and Sinhalese minorities within its jurisdiction. With control over significant parts of the countryside and a ruthlessly efficient organizational structure, it looks to cause quite a bit of trouble for the Sri Lankan authorities for some time to come.