Image courtesy NBC News

“Division and in-fighting will sap and weaken any organisation or ideological current.” This formulation (mine) may seem a common-sense dictum.

Let me challenge this notion with another dictum: “fratricidal militant fission sparks dedication, skill and organisational power.” The recent, explosive expansion in Syria and Iraq of Sunni militants under the banner of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) can be placed alongside the rise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) among Tamil militants in the 1970s-to-90s as potential illustrations of a thesis that undermines common-sense notions. In the LTTE case too one could say that “success breeds legitimacy” as Mendelsohn argues for ISIS in clarifying how that organisation’s military might and its capture of swathes of territory in recent months enabled it to supplant such Al-Qaeda branches as Jabhat al-Nusra (2014a).

ISIS or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham

I have no expertise in Middle-Eastern and Arabic politics so my conjectures here are based on news items and their thin foundations.[i] Though the present struggle between different Islamic forces in Iraq and its borders has been presented as a sectarian struggle involving Sunni forces challenging the authority of a state led by Shia elements, one gathers that ISIS developed out of power struggles among the Sunni peoples and their Al-Qaida branches in specific regions of Syria and Iraq.

Antony Loyd’s account certainly indicates such a process. The ISIS commander is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose real name is Ibrahim al-Badri. He is said to have “cemented his power through a cult of personality and a series of savage internal purges.” This path was consolidated by a parallel process: “the core organisational structure of ISIS” was shaped by another man, Haji Bakr, who had “gained the trust of the notoriously paranoid al-Baghdadi and was given command of ISIS’s all-Iraqi military council” (Loyd 2014).

Haji Bakr (alias Samir Abd Mouhammad al-Khleifawi) has not lived to witness the fruits of his work. He “died in a shoot-out alongside his gun-toting Iraqi wife after their house was surrounded by local Syrian rebels as fighting between ISIS and its erstwhile allies raged.” Significantly, Haji Bakr had previously been a Colonel in Saddam Hussein’s army and been arrested and held by the Americans at Camp Bucca “where four of the six current most senior ISIS figures, including al-Baghdadi, were also incarcerated.” It was, argues Loyd, “in the shadows of the watchtowers of the US prison [that] “the nexus between Saddam’s henchmen and Islamic extremists began.”

They were in prison, presumably, as subjects of US-Iraqi justice. This justice did not extend to execution by extra-judicial or judicial processes. But the bare bones of this story suggest that their experiences and discussions in prison promoted their present path of extremist vengeance.[ii]Speculatively, I suggest that their dedication to the jihadist project was deepened by this experience at the same time that their bonds and trust in one another were consolidated. Camaraderie is not only a vital ingredient in spurring the success of sporting teams. It is an essential force for the killing machines we call “regiments.” This is particularly so where camaraderie and esprit de corps secures discipline … and discipline that is ruthlessly enforced. These capacities seem to have been augmented by intelligent propaganda and the use of social media that has been aided by the labyrinthine world of international diplomacy (Sepahpour-Ulrich 2014).

The fervour forged within the ISIS corps seems to have even brought them into conflict with Al-Qaida elements in their part of the world. Fervour has been matched by brutal ferocity in combating and eliminating those Sunni militants that stood in their path. The present military successes of ISIS, it seems, stem in part from its organisational capacities and the uncompromising severity with which it deals with other militants and opponents in its chosen path. Its conquering success has been such that on 30 June 2014 it announced that it had established a “caliphate” — thus resurrecting an image of time-honoured Islamic Ottoman power in an iconic style that could garner strands of support in many parts of the Islamic world.

Having argued that in-fighting among the radical Sunnis has paradoxically strengthened the capacities of the section, namely, ISIS, that emerged dominant, let me immediately hedge my thesis. The rise of a powerful political force invariably calls for a multi-factorial analysis and can rarely be attributed to one factor. So my surmise that fratricidal conflict among radical Sunni jihadists honed ISIS into a powerful, skillful and ruthless fighting force must be carefully linked to other contextual factors in surveying the picture of its rise over time with due attention to contingencies that may have kicked in from moment to moment. Clearly, the looming presence of Israel, viewed by Islamic peoples as a cancer in the Middle East on the one hand, and, on the other hand, their readings of the American war against Saddam and US policy in general on the other, have provided central contextual influences in this process, Addressing this set of issues calls for analytical work from a regional specialist who can, then, weigh my speculative argument as one aspect of a wider study.

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

ISIS today is not an isolated instance where internal fission has generated power and revolutionary strength. The movement for Tamil liberation in Sri Lanka during the 1970s and 1980s was also featured by fratricidal splintering and tussle among the several militant organisations. Their competition with one another sustained extremism as well as a depth of commitment to the creation of a separate Tamil state. Eventually, by the late 1980s, the LTTE led by Velupillai Pirapāharan emerged as the dominant force by ruthlessly decimating or suffocating the other armed militant organisations.

The Sri Lankan Tamil emphasis on self-determination emerged early — in 1949-51 when the Federal Party was formed. Only now is it becoming evident that the demands of the middle class gentlemen who espoused this cause had threads of extremism and a maximalist orientation that did not bode well for political compromise. [iii] However, one must also emphasise the standard thesis: the explosive emergence of Sinhala linguistic nationalism in the 1950s and the massive electoral triumph of this current under the cry of “Sinhala Only” at the General Elections of 1956 frightened and angered many Tamils. These set off set the process which sharpened the Sinhala-Tamil division, a process that has been well-documented.[iv]The Federal Party quickly became the dominant force among the Sri Lankan Tamil people in the north and east as well as in metropolitan Colombo — with such rhetoricians as EMV Naganathan and V. Navaratnam matching the Sinhala extremists (KMP Rajaratne, IMRA Iriyagolle for instance) in volatile speech (Roberts 2014b: 4-5).

As the job opportunities and considerable privileges held by the Tamils were reduced by the processes associated with the “1956 revolution” during the course of the 1960s (Roberts 1988: 43-46; Samaraweera 1974), the new generational cohorts of Tamil political activists flirted with militant and revolutionary thoughts. The youth wing of the Federal Party was one repository of such firebrand thinking; but there were several other mushroom associations that appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s.[v]

Curtailing a complicated story that has yet to find its Namier,[vi]the mid-late 1970s witnessed the presence of several militant underground organisations that were convinced that the ‘unjust hegemony of the Sinhalese’ would never be secured through the parliamentary process and were therefore preparing to challenge the existing order by revolutionary methods of the sort associated with Che Guevera, the JVP and the Naxalites, albeit in search of the liberation goal of statehood secured by Bangladesh in 1971. By then the Federal Party itself had lost faith in the existing order and had morphed into the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). Aware of the radical currents among the SL Tamil youth in the Jaffna Peninsula as well as those abroad, the TULF adopted the Vaddukoddai Resolution on 14 May 1976 whereby it committed itself to the goal of “Thamilīlam” as independent state. This moment marks the transformation of Tamil sectional nationalism into a separatist nationalism seeking statehood.[vii]

At this point in 1976 the new militant organisations and the TULF were potentially opposed to each other; but there was no open split. On the contrary, some of the youthful militants are known to have sustained links and conversations with Amirthalingam and other leaders of the TULF — not surprisingly given the fact that some of them had emerged from the youth wing of the Federal Party as the latter was constituted in the 1960s.[viii] At this stage the sharpest hostility of the militants was directed at Tamil politicians in the government camp and police officers and others seen as threats to their cause. Indeed, a number of these men were assassinated in the period 1975 to 1981. Though the process of disenchantment with their moderate Tamil leaders had been in gestation for some time, one can say that the militants’ total disenchantment with these men occurred after the arson attack on the Public Library in Jaffna town by state functionaries in mid-1981.

At this stage, that is from 1976 to 1981 and thereabouts, there were several militant organisations: with TELO, PLOTE, LTTE and EROS as the most prominent. The Marxist-inspired EROS had its main engines in London — a breeding ground for Third World revolutionary ferment and a locale where Leftist activists from all nationalities as well as Palestinian and Arab militants stimulated each other. There was occasional and fitful cooperation between these different Tamil militants — in Britain, in Tamilnadu and within Sri Lanka. A major split within EROS resulted in the formation of EPRLF under K. Padmanaba in 1980. Rivalry among the groups was latent and occasionally flared into the open, one instance being when Pirapāharan and Uma Maheswaran (now a PLOTE leader[ix]) shot at each other on the streets of Chennai on 19th May 1982.

The horrendous pogrom directed against Tamils living in the Sinhala-majority regions in late July 1983 not only turned Sri Lanka into a pariah state in international eyes, but also generated massive support for violent military resistance among the SL Tamil peoples everywhere. In the north and east of Sri Lanka recruits to the militant organisations multiplied thousandfold and Tamil youth streamed across to India where the Tamilnadu government as well as central government agencies set up military training camps. It seems that each militant group had its own training camps — usually with Indian aid. TELO was perhaps the strongest in 1983/84, perhaps because it was the most favoured by the Indian central government.

By twisting their arms the Indian government assembled these group leaders, the TULF and a Sri Lankan delegation at talks overseen by India at the ‘neutral’ venue Thimpu in July 1985. No political compromise or modus vivendi was worked out. The militant Tamil groups returned to their guerrilla warfare in the north and east, while the TULF leaders returned to their havens in Colombo and Madras (since they were persona non grata in the Jaffna Peninsula and the north).

Though facing a common enemy, namely the government of Sri Lanka and its armed forces, the incipient competition among the militant organisations soon broke open. In April-May 1986 the LTTE forces raided the TELO camps within the Jaffna Peninsula and gunned down about 400 cadres including the leader Sri Sabāratnam.[x]

Though EROS maintained a presence within the Peninsula after this landmark moment, the other militant organisations were forced to leave the Tamil resistance in the north in LTTE hands and shifted their cells to Tamilnadu or elsewhere in Sri Lanka.[xi] The EROS cadre were eventually absorbed by the LTTE or drifted into the wilderness. When the Central Committee of EPRLF assembled at their HQ in Chennai on the 19th June 1990 a Tiger commando group raided the house and shot every one of them, 14 all told inclusive of K. Padmanabha, the leader.[xii]

In short, the LTTE had now in 1990/91 secured near-total control of the resistance struggle, one that was already in its hands from the late 1980s by virtue of (1) the admiration which its personnel had secured among the Tamil people for their embodiment of uyirayutham (dedication of life for cause[xiii]) in the kuppi (cyanide capsule) carried by them at all times;[xiv](2) the fact that a significant segment of the personnel who directed the LTTE was drawn from the Karaiyar caste community[xv] and that a core element, including Pirapāharan, came from the smuggling haven of Velvettithurai (VVT in short); (3) Pirapāharan’s strategic vision in seeing the importance of sea power[xvi]in circumstances were the Karaiyar seafaring experience enabled the LTTE to bring this vision into fruition; (4) the success they revealed in stymying the might of the IPKF between October 1987 and late 1989; (5) the emphasis which Pirapāharan and his directorate attached to propaganda, up-to-date communication equipment and “scenario planning,”[xvii]and (6) their assassination of a whole array of moderate Tamil politicians (SATP n. d.).

Pirapāharan is said to have been an avid student of military treatises, either in Tamil translation or via intermediary conversations. These included Clausewitz and Sun Tzu and the works on Che Guevera. Two of the surviving cadre in the early years of clandestine LTTE preparations also affirm that Pirapāharan admired Adolph Hitler and even had a Tamil version of Mein Kampf in his stock of books (Ragavan 2009b & Iyer 2012b).

Nazi ideology was not the attraction. Rather I surmise that he was drawn to Hitler’s charismatic domination of the German dispensation and that he (wrongly) attributed the success of the German Army (Wehrmacht) in World War Two to Hitler. In particular he seems to have been attracted by the discipline, rapid movement and blitzkrieg strikes of the German military machine. When organising the rudimentary training for the small band of recruits within the incipient LTTE in the Vanni jungles during the early 1970s he argued that “the discipline and firmness” displayed by Hitler’s army was the model to follow and insisted that he, as commander, should receive a salute informed by that of the Nazis.[xviii] This was one sign of his conviction that an unified command was critical for the Tamil cause — a lesson he also derived from his reading of the history of the kingdoms of southern India in medieval times (Roberts 2014b: 19-20).

A standard policy in infantry warfare is for an army’s snipers to target officers on the enemy side of any battlefront. Pirapāharan went a step higher: he targeted the generals and presidents ranged against the Tamil cause. The LTTE consistently killed leading personalities in all the parties deemed to be obstacles in the path of Tamililam under the flag of the LTTE.[xix]This line of ruthless politics was so frequent and so successful that one can say that it was not merely a tactic, but a course developed to the level of strategy.

As strategy it was underpinned by remarkable long term planning guided by and aligned with contextual developments in the enemy camp. The right-wing UNP Presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake was eliminated on 24th October 1994 several weeks prior to the general elections in the south so that Chandrika Kumaratunga and her SLFP party could come to power. Later, Lakshman Kadirgamar, a thorn in the flesh for the LTTE in international affairs, was eliminated on 12th August 2005 during the lead up to the Presidential Elections where the LTTE favoured the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa as President (because a hawkish Sri Lankan government suited their long-term hopes), but did not wish to have a capable man in the Rajapaksa party as either Prime Minister or Foreign Minister.[xx]

The most striking example of long-term planning by Pirapāharan and his confidantes, however, is the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The decision (deemed an error, later in retrospect, by no less a person than Anton Balasingham) was taken in the interests of the LTTE’s ultimate goal. But it was probably laced with motives of vengeance. In this my speculation, it was an act of retribution for the airs of superiority adopted by Rajiv Gandhi in July 1987 during the face to face meeting at Delhi where (the polished, tall, debonair) Gandhi pushed the (rustic, short) LTTE leader into accepting an Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka. That memory was accentuated when the relationship between the LTTE and IPKF soured and they went to war: the Tigers lost 632 fighters during the course of that struggle (Jeyaraj 2006).

Payback was a sweet thought, especially as the prospect of a return to power by Gandhi and his Congress Party at the forthcoming General Elections in India in mid-1991 was considered a likely setback for LTTE goals. The critical point here is that the LTTE began considering such a course of action as early as March 1989, some 14 months before the eventual assassination. They began compiling a document entitled The Satanic Force which was meant to illustrate their victory over the Indian military and to demonize the Indian Peacekeeping Force Gandhi (and thus Gandhi) for its atrocities. By May 1991 this had grown into a two-volume compendium (Kaarthikeyen & Raju 2004: 12324, 73 & 134). The LTTE directorate even sent both Kāsi Anandan and Arjuna Sittampalam on separate and ‘innocent’ missions to meet Rajiv Gandhi in order to sound out his thinking (Kaarthikeyen & Raju 2004: 155, 74-75). Their reports, clearly, did not deter Pirapāharan from adhering to his original determination. In a carefully planned operation[xxi]a Tiger suicide bomber decimated Gandhi (and many others) at an election rally at Sriperumbudur on 22nd May 1991 (Roberts 2010c).

The world may never have deciphered who was behind this job if the LTTE”s standard operational practice of filming some of their military strikes had not gone amiss. Their hired cameraman died in the blast; but his camera did not. The assassins, Dhanu and Sivarāsan, were on film in, so to speak, flagrante delicto. The plot unfolded and led the Indian sleuths, among other paths, to The Satanic Verse compendium as well. Pirapāharan’s vengeance backfired and cast one nail in the coffin-as-process that was eventually to envelop the LTTE: that nail was India’s enmity.

In Review

Such long-term contingency thinking, in my interpretation, sharpened both the tactical and strategic implications of the ruthlessness displayed by the LTTE in eliminating rivals within its own constituency so that it could secure a monopoly of violence. The logistical and fighting capacity to outgun the other militants seems to replicate the successes revealed thus far by ISIS in sidelining or eliminating other Sunni extremists in the regions of Syria and Iraq it now commands. The presence of a major “near enemy” in the form of the Shia population and a Shia government on the one hand and, on the other hand, the looming image of a “far enemy” in the figure of USA as the ‘captain’ of the infidel West[xxii] provides a context and major incentives for the vigour of the ISIS men and women. The critical significance of these factors in motivating ISIS in its drive to create its own state does not erase the speculation that a history of fratricidal in-fighting among Sunni extremists honed the organisational ability and murderous capacity that has enabled ISIS to gain command of the radical Sunni forces.

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[i] For instance Chulov 2014, Loyd 2014; Mendelsohn 2014a; and the recent Wikipedia account http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_State_in_Iraq_and_the_Levant.

[ii] This happened among elements of the Janatha Vimukti Peramna in Sri Lanka. They were imprisoned in 1971 after their first insurgency seeking to seize power by force failed. When a new government released them in 1977 they re-established themselves and when contextual circumstances gave them the opportunity in 1987 launched an underground revolutionary insurgency that was far more threatening to state power in the southern and western reaches of Sri Lanka.

[iii] The recent recovery of the Resolution and the speech delivered by SJV Chelvanayakam (see ITAK 201$) at the inaugural meeting of the “Federal Freedom Party” reveals that (a) these spokesman were demanding equivalence with the Sinhalese majority and (B) presenting maximalist claims in territorial terms (c) by maximizing their demographic proportions through an unilateral adoption of the Muslim Moors as “Tamil-speaker.” In other words this particular set of Tamil political activists — a minority voice among the SL Tamils then — did not require Sinhalese extremism of the sort seen in the mid-1950s to press Tamil claims in ways that boded ill for compromise.

[iv] See Wriggins 1960; Arasaratnam !967 & 1979; Kearney !967 & 1972; Phadnis 1976; Wilson 1994 & 2000 and L. Sabaratnam 2001.

[v] For instance, the Eelath Thamil Ilagnar Eyakkam, the Ceylon Tamil Youth movement, the Thesiya Ilankai Manna, the Thamil Manavar Peravia and the Tamil Liberation Organisation (Roberts 2014b: 9). Also see Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1994.

[vi] Sir Lewis Namier (1888-1960) is a renowned historian in Enaland associated in particular with his detailed empirical study of electoral and patronage politics in h the late 18th century in his The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (London, 1929).

[vii] This contention has been clarified earlier in Roberts 1978 and 1979a & 1979b.

[viii] See Roberts 2014b: 5, 12; Sabaratnam 2003 and Narayan Swamy 1994: 26, 30, 62-64.

[ix] Maheswaran (a Vellalar) had been a major figure in the LTTE in the mid-1970s, but left after a split.

[x] Sri Sabāratnam was from the Kaikular caste and became leader after the previous leaders, Kuttimani and Thangavelu (both Karaiyar in origin) had been murdered in the Welikade prison massacre of July 1983.

[xi] EPRLF, PLOTE and to a lesser extent the other groups remained strong in the Eastern Province and there were intermittent fights and killings in the area involving the LTTE as well.

[xii] See Bala Skandan 2006 and Subramanian 1997.

[xiii] In innovative style this commitment was also described as an act of “that-kodai,” or “self-gift” (Chandrakanthan 2000: 164) and directed acts of defensive suicide, fasts-unto-death in protest and, eventually, military/naval strikes and assassination jobs (see Roberts 2005. 2006 and 2014b).

[xiv] See my articles on the “sacrificial devotion” demonstrated by the LTTE (Roberts 2005a, 2006a and 2006b).

[xv] The Karaiyar were “traditionally associated” with fishing and were therefore outside an agrarian order dominated by the Vellalar caste who not only constituted over half the population, but also controlled most of the land and wells. Some mid-20th century anthropological studies have indicated that the Karaiyar made up about 10 per cent of the population in the Jaffna Peninsula as against 50 per cent Vellalar, 9% Koviyar and 9 per cent each for Pallar and Nalavar (two of the depressed castes (Roberts 2005a: 70), but this computation should not be seen as definitive.

[xvi] “Geographically the security of Tamil Eelam is interlinked with that of its seas” said Pirapāharan on one occasion (quoted in Tekwani 2009: 10).

[xvii] See Roberts 2006a: 80-84 and Taraki 2004.

[xviii]Iyer 2012a and 2012b. This influence did not extend to Nazi racism and/or anti-Semitism. However, the dictatorial leanings that Pirapāharan revealed from these early days and the initial circumstances of an underground military struggle clearly resulted in the LTTE becoming fascist in its ruthlessness and its use of the Tamil peoples (Narayan Swamy 2003 and …. +++

[xix] See SATP n. d. for a lengthy and imposing list.

[xx] Mahinda Rajapaksa received 50.29 per cent of the votes cast and defeated Ranil Wickremasinghe of the right-wing UNP (48.43 %) by a narrow margin. As noted in Wikipedia, “Wickremasinghe’s hopes for victory were effectively dashed when the LTTE ordered Tamil voters, most of whom would likely have voted for him, to boycott the polls.”

[xxi] A remarkable investigative operation guided by DR Kaarthikeyen worked out the whole process in impressive detail (Kaarthikeyan & Raju 2004). .

[xxii] I believe the concepts “near enemy” an d “far enemy” are inspired by the writings of the Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb (1906-66). He is best known of his use of the concept of “jahilliyah” (understood as a state of ignorance in the Quran) in ways that essentialised the term to refer to the ills of modernity” (see Euben 199: chap 3.)

  • Fitzpatrick

    Talking of personality cults, I think the author’s fixation with the LTTE and Prabakaran has made him blind to the new personality cult that has emerged in our land. Namely the cult of Rajapakse’s.

  • Justice & Fairplay

    The author is domiciled in the safety of Australia, and therefore can claim no expert knowledge of the ground situation in SL. If he is what he propounds to be, he need to feel the current pulse and find out whether or not many more demons of great undesirability have sprung up after Prabhakaran.

    What the country needs from the likes of Michael Roberts is not abstract theorizing but a call for the firm and steady application of the law equal to all. If there is a collective calling for such simple things from all sides – Roberts included – the country will be a far better place for all to live, so that even Roberts could contemplate a permanent return.

  • Atula Herath

    True color of Prabhakaran is know only to us Sri Lankans who experienced his demon qualities. Better to get ISIS also stopped 100% like LTTE soon