By Gotabaya Rajapaksa –
I thank the Malaysian Institute of Defence and Security for organising the Putrajaya Forum, which affords an invaluable opportunity for those involved in Defence and Security from many countries to discuss topics of mutual importance. This session, which examines the Influence of Non State Actors and their Impact on Global Security, essentially sums up much of the content discussed at this Forum over the last two days. Strengthening Security and Regional Stability in today’s context requires us to pay considerable attention to the emerging threats posed by non-state actors.
As a country that suffered three decades of ruthless terrorism, there is a great deal that can be learnt from the Sri Lankan experience with non-state actors. Described by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation as “among the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world”, the LTTE was no ordinary terrorist group. Among its more than one hundred thousands victims were a serving President of Sri Lanka, a former Prime Minister of India, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Defence Minister and many other politicians and state officials including most moderate Tamil leaders, as well as tens of thousands of civilians. They attacked some of Sri Lanka’s most sacred places of religious worship, and many of the country’s most important economic targets including the Central Bank and the International Airport. At its height, the LTTE had more than 30,000 battle-hardened cadres and a large number of auxiliary forces; large stockpiles of modern armaments, ammunition and equipment; a sophisticated naval wing and a fast developing air wing. It effectively controlled large extents of the country’s territory and a considerable proportion of its coastline. It was a non-state actor of great power and reach, and it posed an extreme threat to Sri Lanka until its defeat in May 2009 through a military operation launched by the Government.
A key part of the LTTE’s modus operandi was to mobilise support for itself by heightening ethnic and communal feeling in expatriate Tamil populations all over the world, a considerable number of whom are of Sri Lankan origin. Extremist elements within the diaspora were mobilised by LTTE operatives and front organisations in more than thirty countries around the world to help fund terrorist activities in Sri Lanka. The scale of funds mobilised is estimated to have been between 50 to 75 million US dollars on an annual basis from 1993 to 2002, and 200 million US dollars per annum from 2002 to 2008. Fundamental to the fundraising effort was a carefully orchestrated propaganda campaign that gave wrong information to expatriates and the international community about what was happening in Sri Lanka. Fear was created within the diaspora through extortion and gang activity to help raise funds. A number of organised illegal activities including various types of fraud, the smuggling of narcotics, and the illegal trafficking of persons were also used for fundraising. Funds were also invested in various business ventures, and even in hedge funds.
The vast majority of the funds raised by the LTTE was used for its procurement of arms internationally. The scale of this arms procurement and trafficking operation provides a worrying illustration of the strength to which non-state actors can sometimes aspire. Over the years, the LTTE managed to procure a formidable arsenal of weapons from various sources around the world. In this arsenal were surface to air missiles, all calibres of artillery guns, heavy and medium mortars, anti-aircraft guns, armoured vehicles, light aircraft, rocket propelled grenades, machine guns, small arms, ammunition, and large stocks of high explosives and landmines.
These items were transported through the terrorists’ shipping network, which comprised more than 20 large vessels and a considerable number of trawlers registered under different flags. These ships used the harbours and ports of many different countries on pretence they were transporting civilian cargo, or by circumventing security measures through unlawful means. Their crewmembers of were terrorist cadres traveling under assumed identities using passports of different countries. Several large vessels lay anchored in international waters off the coast of Sri Lanka, functioning as floating warehouses from which weapons were smuggled to shore through smaller boats. During the Humanitarian Operation, the Sri Lanka Navy went a long distance into high seas on several occasions to destroy these floating warehouses, which ultimately helped curtail the terrorists’ offensive capabilities.
That a non-state actor can mobilise, maintain and successfully utilise a global network to strengthen and sustain terrorist activities in a sovereign nation is a matter of very serious concern. The establishment of such a network effectively involves the setting up of terrorist cells in a number of countries. That this could take place virtually unhindered is a serious threat to global security. Even today, although there is no more terrorism in Sri Lanka, the terrorists’ global network continues to function largely unhindered. It continues to sustain an international propaganda campaign against Sri Lanka through front organisations that have now put on a democratic face. Some nations seem to have chosen to turn a blind eye to these front organisations and their activities because they claim to support political activism or humanitarian relief. At the same time, the network’s operatives, most of whom are trained terrorists, remain involved in various illegal activities, and are constantly seeking ways to revive terrorist activities in Sri Lanka.
In addition to the direct threat to sovereign states posed by the existence of a non-state actor’s global network, there are less obvious security considerations also to be borne in mind. The likelihood that the resources of one non-state actor can be used by other groups for different purposes should not be taken lightly. Furthermore, non-state actors have shown a capacity to learn and emulate one another’s tactics. For example, the LTTE was the first terrorist group in the world to use suicide cadres wearing bomb jackets as an effective weapon against its targets. This tactic has been replicated by a number of terrorist organisations around the world. The LTTE’s use of high explosives laden vehicles in attacks against civilians has also been replicated by other terrorist groups in later years. The tactic of using bomb laden small boats for terrorist attacks was pioneered by the LTTE in the 1990s, but was also used by al-Qaeda against the USS Cole in the year 2000. This cross fertilisation of ideas amongst non-state actors engaged in terrorism is a considerable concern from the point of view of global security.
Apart from terrorism and arms trafficking, the most serious activities by non-state actors in today’s context include people smuggling, narcotics trafficking and sea piracy.
People smuggling is a serious issue affecting the Asian region as well many other parts of the globe. Primarily due to economic reasons, large numbers of people seek to leave their countries of origin and migrate illegally into developed nations. Between 2009 and 2013, 88 boats transporting 4273 illegal migrants out of Sri Lanka were intercepted and arrested by the Sri Lanka Navy. The Navy has also been involved in the mid-sea rescue of three people smuggling vessels originating from other countries, which were headed towards Thailand, Malaysia and Australia. In addition, 1,315 illegal immigrants from Sri Lanka have been repatriated to this country by other nations over the last three years.
People smuggling has become a lucrative business for organised criminals, who paint a false picture about the lives illegal immigrants will lead after they have reached their destinations. But in reality the victims of people smugglers most often find themselves in very serious trouble. Having sold or mortgaged their properties and given over their entire wealth to the smugglers, they end up in terrible conditions, trapped aboard unsafe vessels along with hundreds of other illegal migrants. Sometimes these boats fall into serious difficulties, threatening the lives of all on board. If and when their passengers are rescued or intercepted by the Navies or Coast Guards of other nations, these nations face the problem of accommodating them. Quite often, the legal mechanisms for dealing with illegal immigrants are cumbersome and time consuming. Ultimately, most illegal immigrants end up in temporary accommodation for a very long time until eventually repatriated or settled in a third country.
The links between people smuggling and other transnational crimes carried out by non-state actors remains a matter of great concern for global security. Much of the people smuggling activities that has taken place out of Sri Lanka has involved the LTTE’s international network, which turned to this lucrative business after the defeat of its terrorist outfit in May 2009. Charging thousands of dollars per person, its ships transported large numbers of illegal immigrants through international waters to other nations and regions such as South East Asia, Europe, Australia, and Canada since the end of the war. In addition to continuing to fund the terrorists’ agenda, this is especially disturbing because it has allowed trained terrorists and other criminal elements to escape justice in Sri Lanka and pose a threat to the domestic security of nations they have entered.
The illicit trafficking of narcotics is another serious concern in today’s context. Although narcotics smuggling through land routes used to be at a much higher scale than it is on sea, the increase in conflicts in certain nations and the greater countermeasures taken by various states to obstruct land routes for drug traffickers has resulted in sea routes being used more and more often. Some African ports are emerging as transhipment hubs for Drug cartels. These use fishing boats, specially modified vessels and even exploit containerised cargo to transport drugs including opiates from the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle, and cannabis and amphetamine-type substances from these and other regions. The increasing presence of narcotics detection forces on the high seas, and the resulting increase in interceptions has provided some deterrent to drug trafficking in recent years. However, this remains a serious problem that needs to be addressed by many nations. It should also be noted that, as with the issue of people trafficking, money generated from the drugs trade has also been linked to terrorism and other transnational crimes.
The solution to money laundering, the illicit trafficking of weapons, people smuggling, and drug trafficking, is to increase cooperation amongst nations. More effective sharing of intelligence between countries, increased coordination between law enforcement agencies and the relevant Government departments, and the establishment of bilateral and multilateral mechanisms to combat these issues cooperatively is critical if they are to be prevented. Countries cannot effectively address transnational crimes on their own accord. For its part, Sri Lanka has worked together very closely with Australia on the issue of human smuggling in the recent past. Measures taken to discourage illegal travel through advertising campaigns and public awareness programmes, as well as enhanced surveillance and ground patrolling by Security Forces has led to a decline in people smuggling out of Sri Lanka in recent years. The Sri Lankan Government has also recently worked with the Governments of India and the Maldives on establishing a trilateral agreement for cooperation in the maritime domain. Under this agreement, which is now being considered for expansion to the Seychelles and Mauritius, there will be sharing of information to enhance maritime domain awareness, technical cooperation on the tracking of vessels, coordination of maritime search and rescue, and greater cooperation on curbing illegal activities such as drug trafficking, people smuggling and sea piracy.
The rise of Somali piracy around the turn of this decade seriously threatened one of the world’s busiest trading routes. Incidence of Somali based pirates attacking passing ships and taking crews hostage became more and more common in the Arabian Sea off the Gulf of Aden. The range of the pirates began to increase significantly with the use of mother ships that transported small skiffs to attack and capture commercial and fishing vessels. Ransoms paid for the release of such ships and their crew increased over time, as did the physical dangers posed by the pirates, which led to considerable pressure on the international shipping industry. However, as a result of international naval pressure and other mechanisms, Somali piracy has seen a significant downturn in recent years.
Apart from the counter piracy operations conducted by various multinational task forces, one of the primary causes of this downturn was the increasing presence of armed private security teams on-board merchant vessels. I am pleased to note that Sri Lanka is one of the countries that has taken the lead in providing such security services. The Government created a Maritime Division in a fully state-owned security company to provide weapons and ammunition to private maritime security companies engaged in on board security duties. Later, through a Public Private Partnership with a local private security company, Sri Lanka started to provide vessels with on board security teams. These teams include former Navy personnel with considerable experience in combating attacks on sea. Further, the Sri Lankan Government provides considerable logistics support for on board security teams from other nations, subject to stringent regulations and strict supervision.
In summary, upholding national, regional and global security is a tremendous responsibility, and adequate safeguards are required to curb the threats posed by various non-state actors. One of the most critical strategies that nations can employ in this regard is to increase cooperation with each other on this issue through bilateral and multilateral mechanisms. In concluding, I hope that these brief remarks will provide several points of departure for the discussions that will take place during the rest of this session.
*Full text of the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech “Influence of Non-State Actors: Impact on Global Security” at the 14th Defence Services Asia Exhibition and Conference currently underway in Malaysia.