Sri Lanka’s Information War

By Brian Calvert
World Politics Review
December 10, 2008

Part I

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — In the silent, low-res imagery of the closed-circuit video footage that rapidly spread across YouTube, the young Tamil woman appears unafraid, even poised. Wrapped in a crisp sari, hair in a tight bun, she waits across the desk from the political secretary of a Sri Lankan minister. But something, almost imperceptible in the footage, goes wrong. So as a dozen people go about their business behind her, the woman rises from her chair, tugs at her bra and explodes, her torso vaporized in a C4 blast that kills her and the secretary, instantly raising the Sri Lankan death toll by two.

The November 2007 attack video was not posted by the apparent attackers, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, but by the Sri Lankan government’s Ministry of Defense, whose 25-year war with the insurgents has been marked by many losses on the information front. The launch of a viral video on YouTube, however, demonstrated a more sophisticated effort to control what is called the “information environment,” an effort to “publicize insurgent violence and use of terror to discredit the insurgency,” a tenet of the U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

The information war, fought through images and language, is over narrative. The Tamil Tigers want to be seen as liberators; the government wants to paint them as terrorists. In this struggle, over the past few years, the government has gained the upper hand.

Ground zero for the government’s information campaign is the Media Center for National Security, a complex of offices and conference rooms on the western edge of Colombo. In an hourlong interview with World Politics Review earlier this year, Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman, explained why the government posted the sari-bomber video.

“We wanted to show the world that it’s another terrorist organization,” Nanayakkara said of the LTTE. (Government officials rarely use the term “Tamil Tigers,” a more colloquial, evocative moniker for the insurgents.) “They are the people who have produced these suicide bombers, and after them all the other countries where the terrorism is taking place started suicide bombing, especially the human bombs, right?”

Nanayakkara, a tall man with the severe expression of a combat commander, is one of few outlets for official information. The communication strategy was formulated in 2006, when the Media Center was established, “mainly to disseminate accurate defense-related news within short as possible time, to both local and international media, and then at the same time to counter the LTTE propaganda.”

Journalists complain that information coming out of the Media Center is impossible to verify and often contradicts equally hard-to-confirm LTTE statements, making facts hard to discern from propaganda. (The sari-bomber video clocked 600,000 hits and came with a message from the Ministry of Defense, Public Security, Law and Order. “This Tamil woman had been ordered to kill another Tamil man by blasting herself to death to bring liberation to her race,” it read in part. “Who has fooled whom?”)

The government is battling an image of the Tigers as underdogs, led by a leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, whose message has not changed in 25 years: The Tamil people face eradication by the Sinhalese majority. There is no salvation for them but through armed struggle for Eelam. The Tamil Tigers are that struggle.

Prabhakaran has taken the conflict deep into the information environment, accessing the imaginations of supporters through satellite links and radio signals, on Web sites and in chat rooms. Each attack and every stunt builds on his message, encouraging the diaspora to send money, spurring weapons sales and keeping the Tigers armed and viable.

“To the LTTE the information war has three key objectives,” Shanaka Jayasekara, a terrorism researcher at Australia’s Macquarie University, wrote in an e-mail: “[to] maintain diaspora interest in the cause [by] reporting back on the efficient use of funds; . . . political recognition for the cause; . . . [and to] maintain [a] permissive environment for fundraising in host countries (reinforcing a clear distinction between Islamic terrorism and domestic theater terrorism).”

The sari-bomber video had to compete with hundreds of others posted by the Tamil Tigers or their supporters, each one highlighting a battlefield success or stunt, and many filmed by dedicated combat camera crews.

One of the more spectacular of those successes came in the early morning of Oct. 22, 2007, when a squad of Tiger saboteurs and a camera crew infiltrated the Sri Lankan air base of Anuradhapura, just north of the capital, adjacent to Bandaranaike International Airport. The team blew up a high-tech surveillance plane, two attack helicopters, an unmanned aerial vehicle, a jet and three trainer planes. Two light planes of the nascent Tiger air wing joined in the attack, dropping two bombs before returning unharmed to their hidden jungle hangers. Thirteen government soldiers were killed, including four when a separate helicopter crashed. Twenty-one guerrillas died before order was restored, some seven hours later.

News of the attack flashed around the world, with same-day videos springing up on YouTube, glorifying the “commandos” for their sacrifice and augmenting earlier footage of Air Tiger cadres flashing peace signs to accompanying techno music. The whole show was as much an image coup as a tactical success.

The LTTE took “a lot of propaganda mileage” from the attack, as even Nanayakkara admitted, but not before he corrected my use of language. “First thing,” he said, “they are not commandos; they are terrorists.”

Part II

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — No one understands the importance of Sri Lanka’s information war quite like N. Vithyatharan, an editor whose two Tamil-language newspapers — one in the northern peninsula of Jaffna, the other in Colombo — are “continuously targeted by pro-government forces.” Vithyatharan is a small man with a listing walk that suggests heavy burdens.

During a visit to his Colombo office, he related how in May 2006, on the night before international press freedom day, five masked gunmen shot up the Jaffna compound of the newspaper there, the Uthayan.

Some of the editorial staff fled, jumping a wall to escape, while a handful of others hid in a bathroom. The gunmen expended 200 rounds into the offices before they left; when World Politics Review met with Vithyatharan earlier this year, he still had two editors living in the complex, afraid to leave for fear of being targeted by paramilitaries.

The government’s message to the outside world — that it is fighting a terrorist group in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — was “getting more and more support from the Western world,” he said. “Without knowing the real situation, the international world is supporting the government.”

To be sure, the government has been widely criticized for its campaign against the Tamil Tigers, including allegations of torture, extrajudicial killings and attacks on civilians. But it has also been successful in the past two years — with help from the violent methods of the Tamil Tigers themselves, such as their frequent use of suicide bombings — in convincing foreign governments to act against the insurgents and their support networks abroad.

The Tamil Tigers have been proscribed as a terrorist group in 28 different countries, with the most disruptions to its international network coming in the last 24 months, according to Shanaka Jayasekara, a terrorism researcher at Australia’s Macquarie University. The successful lobbying efforts have resulted in the arrests of key leaders and the freezing of major funding operations, greatly improving the government’s chances of victory.

As part of the information war, government officials take every opportunity possible to equate the Tamil Tigers with other terrorist groups. In a speech to attendees of the Bali Democracy Forum on Dec. 10, for example, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama compared the maritime tactics of the Mumbai attackers with those of the Tamil Tigers.

“The live television coverage of the dramatic scenes that unfolded in the siege of Mumbai in last month’s multiple terror strikes literally brought home, quite vividly, the cold-blooded horror and the shocking reality of terrorism,” he said, before noting “these savage attacks are reminiscent of the terror tactics employed by the LTTE against innocent civilians and vital infrastructure in Sri Lanka.”

In a speech to the Sri Lankan Parliament in August 2007, Bogollagama credited “an unprecedented level of action” taken by “individual countries, as well as by international bodies such as the U.N.” as evidence that “despite its problems, Sri Lanka’s standing in the world has not diminished and that Sri Lankan diplomacy has proved to enlighten the international community of the grave threat the country faces in dealing with the scourge of terrorism.”

The efforts helped the Sri Lankan government disrupt one of the more sophisticated funding networks among insurgent groups, spanning 44 countries and yielding perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars per year. And in 2007 alone, arrests of Tamil Tiger supporters were made in the United States, Britain, France, Australia, Canada, India, and Indonesia.

The lobbying also led to the closure of a European satellite TV channel in Paris, a “key component in the LTTE information war,” Jayasekara said. “They have attempted to resume transmission using front companies in Switzerland, Italy and Israel, but all attempts have failed and the lack of a fully controlled satellite channel is having an impact on LTTE propaganda dissemination.”

But the Tamil Tigers, too, have been undertaking their own lobbying, as evidenced by charges brought in 2006 by the FBI against six alleged Tamil Tiger supporters who offered a bribe of $1 million to undercover agents posing as State Department officials to have the Tamil Tigers removed from a list of terrorist organizations.

That same indictment charged a man named Suresh Sriskandarajah, nicknamed “Waterloo,” with trying to buy military and dual-use equipment and smuggle it to the Tamil Tigers in the northern jungles of the Vanni, via students acting as mules.

Customs officials and checkpoint guards were to be bamboozled with chocolates and cigarettes, along with the oldest weapon in any information war: “If they ask about anything,” ‘Waterloo’ Suresh advised the students in an e-mail, “make up some BS.”

Part III

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — In a career spent fighting the Tamil Tigers, Gen. Gerry de Silva (ret.), a former commander of the Sri Lankan army, learned a thing or two about information warfare. In campaigns in the north of the island, time and again he found himself confronting disinformation among the Tamil population.

“It’s a disinformation program even to their own people, to their own cadre,” he told World Politics Review in an interview at his family’s home in the Cinnamon Gardens neighborhood of Colombo. The message was simple, urgent: “My god, the army is coming, don’t wait, for God’s sake go.”

“And you find the people, refugees, just carrying the clothes and the few little pots and pans that they had, evacuating their homes,” de Silva said. “I mean this is their propaganda. To say, ‘My God, these people are hell bent on genocide, wiping the Tamil race out, so for God’s sake escape,’ and our problem of winning the hearts and minds of the people in those areas, in the rural areas, was a tough job.”

The Sri Lankan army tried to “take a page out of their book,” he said. “We had a program on television, on radio, you know, and also the psy-ops part of it, where we dropped leaflets to the people, informing them about the operation. Also trying to tell them, ‘Look, we’re hear to liberate you.'”

That was a long time ago. De Silva commanded a campaign on the Jaffna peninsula in 1987 and retired as the commander of the army in 1996. These days, the information war has included hijacked satellite links, the broadcast of pro-Tamil Tiger television programs and, increasingly, the Internet.

Support for both sides of the conflict has even found its way onto Facebook, where hundreds of groups pit the lion iconography of the Sri Lankan flag against the tiger emblem of the LTTE.

Facebook groups “are serving as a major propaganda tool to further terrorist propaganda, and for glorification of terrorism, as can be seen by some FB/MySpace groups,” Navod Ediriweera, a Facebook user who administers a group dedicated to the memory of victims of a Tamil Tiger bombing, said in an e-mail. “Particulary in FB where people use ‘FB Events’ to coordinate their protests, etc.”

Users tend to be between 13 and 24 years old, he said, “but will continue to expand as social networking sites get more popularity with the older generation.”

For pro-Tamil Facebook user Pragas Nanthakumar, networking sites “have provided us with the opportunity to show the cyber community the large number of people that are in favour of a separate homeland for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.”

“It has also contributed to brand recognition, in that more people are now seeing the freedom struggle as being a just cause and are ignoring the anti-Tamil propaganda being dashed out by the Sri Lankan government,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It has helped us preserve our Tamil identity, and has helped the world recognize our voice as a separate entity from Sri Lanka.”

Nanthakumar admitted that “both sides aren’t being honest” when they disseminate information from the island. But he pointed to the government’s ban on independent media reports from LTTE-held territory as an exacerbating factor. The ban has caused wire services to add disclaimers to their dispatches, even as the government closes in on LTTE sanctuaries in the north,. In recent weeks, communication lines have been cut to the Tamil Tiger areas, making it hard for the insurgents to get out their own message.

The unverifiable information that inevitability comes out of the conflict area is subsequently spun by supporters one way or the other, spawning dueling narratives that play out in high-tech fora like Facebook but differ little from those prevalent during de Silva’s days of radio shows and leaflet ops. In the ensuing competition between the government’s war-on-terror story and the Tamil Tiger’s freedom-fighter line, the Tamil Tigers often get more attention, de Silva said.

“Some of the Western psyche, the Western countries, they’re always for the underdog,” he said. “So with all the propaganda going around, they have sympathy with the LTTE and not with the Sri Lankan government.”

Not surprisingly, the information war that has emerged from Sri Lanka’s 20-year insurgency teaches us as much about the importance of narrative in counterinsurgency as it does about the conflict itself.

“We need a little data, but can’t get enough of stories,” said BJ Fogg, a Stanford researcher and author of “Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do.”

“Stories are a technology, not a high technology, but a biological technology, for remembering cause-and-effect relationships. Our brains are sponges for stories, and it’s very hard to undo a well-told story.”

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