By Sara Dissanayake –
While the nation commemorated the 9th anniversary of the eradication of terrorism from our soil, news reports revealed that an entity calling itself as the ‘Tamil Eelam Cyber Force’ commemorated the occasion by hacking numerous Government and corporate web portals on 18 May. Notable targets included the Embassy of Sri Lanka in China, Ministry of Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs, and Batticaloa Municipal Council. In a nutshell, the message referred to the Sri Lankan government’s alleged war crimes, along with posting several graphic images from the final phases of the war. The message was signed off with #OPSrilanka.
The US Military doctrine delineates cyberspace as the fifth dimension of warfare, which complements the four classical dimensions: land, sea, air, and space. Undeniably, the Tiger’s land, sea and air wings have been annihilated in our soil, but its invisible cyber wing has never been isolated and defeated. In the wake of the said cyber attack and with the ever-growing focus on the national cyber security strategy, it is imperative that we understand its context and the larger implications to our national security. This piece attempts to shed light on the Tigers’ incessant battle in the fifth domain, what it holds for the trajectory of the Eelamist movement today, and how best to confront it.
Tigers’ cyber strategy & ‘Virtual Eelam’
Cyber warfare is certainly not alien to the Tigers. The Internet Black Tigers, an offshoot of the notorious suicide squad LTTE Black Tigers, made history with its first known case of cyber terrorism against the state. At the height of Operation Jayasikurui in August 1997, they executed what they referred to as ‘suicide email bombings’, which essentially constituted of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. The squad successfully bombarded the Sri Lankan embassy networks around the world with 800 spam emails per day over a 2-week period. In the same year, the Internet Black Tigers pulled another spectacular stunt by compromising a computer system in Sheffield University in the United Kingdom, hacking into faculty members’ email accounts and disseminating messages requesting to donate to pro-LTTE charities in Sri Lanka. Just days before their defeat in May 2009, the cyber squad hacked the Sri Lankan Army’s website and replaced it with graphic images of civilians said to have been killed in military action in the final stage of the war.
For the LTTE, the cyber domain was a critical component in complementing their operational strategy on the battleground, as they tactfully exploited the online network both as a ‘disruptive’ function (executing direct attacks against the state), as well as an ‘enabling’ function (support operational aspects such as fundraising, communication and propaganda).
Initially, the cyber attacks constituted as a part of their power projection tool by showcasing its ability to disrupt both virtual and physical environments. Towards the end of their lifecycle as they were losing the battleground, cyber attacks signified as a weapon of last resort and desperation while serving as a medium to propagate the alleged war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan state.
The virtual domain had much more significance to the Tigers than as a mere fifth domain of warfare. During the war, websites such as tamilnet.com and eelamweb.com, among many others, successfully served as platforms to disseminate ‘on-the-ground’ news and updates of ongoing military campaigns. Online newsgroups and e-forums offered a space to discuss and foster the Eelamist movement. To a great extent, the Internet was a critical lifeline for the Tigers to allow global networking among the pro-LTTE Diaspora communities. This ‘Virtual Tamil Eelam’ served as a glue to reinforce separatist sentiments- a sense of community and belonging among the Tamil Diaspora communities- by linking across different political and geographic boundaries.
Retaining its legacy
Following the end of militancy in Sri Lanka, the virtual domain has remained a vital lifeline for the Eelamists, not for its disruptive function but rather for its enabling function. The cyber platform reinforces the separatist ideology among the pro-LTTE Diaspora communities in many ways, in order to justify and fuel their pursuit of Eelam. Especially with the emerging role of the social media, the post-2009 Eelamist movement saw an unprecedented level of digital Eelam marketing and branding in the virtual space.
One way in which secessionist movements seek to gain legitimacy in the contemporary setting is to have its country domain or Top Level Domain (TLD- e.g .lk for Sri Lanka, .in for India) registered under their claimed territory. Established in 2009, New Nations is an online community project that creates TLDs for ‘unacknowledged nation-states’. They have provided the .te domain for Tamil Eelam, and many existing pro-LTTE sites have been registered under the domain (although the .te links are inactive at the time of writing).
Further, the pro-Tigers activists capitalise on the Diasporas’ strong attachment to symbols and imagery of the nationalist struggle. With decades of war, the face of Prabhakaran and the Tigers’ logo became synonymous to the separatist movement. To date, its symbolic significance has not been diluted, which is clearly reflected in repeated use of the LTTE flag and/or the supremo’s images in almost every commemorative and political events held around the world. One example demonstrating the Eelam branding effect is an online shop based in Denmark that was established in 2015. The eelamshop.com website showcases a variety of ‘patriotic’ goods featuring Prabhakaran’s picture, the Tiger’s logo, or the Eelam map, and ships worldwide in registered post.
Similarly, a standard Google search will show that the hashtag #LTTE and #tamileelam leads to various Instagram and Twitter accounts belonging to numerous individuals who advocate Eelam. As of May 2018, there are 2,130 YouTube channels related to the Tamil Eelam, where 3 to 5 promotional videos are uploaded on a daily basis. Numerous LTTE front organisations utilise Facebook to propagate their political aspirations, as well as publicise various commemorative and cultural events.
The Eelamists have undoubtedly been successful in winning the hearts and minds of concerned parties in its war of narratives in the cyber domain thus far.
Beyond defensive technical capabilities
Few state-run cyber command centres are currently in operation, and the government last year declared a newly formulated national cyber security strategy along with the intent to create more cyber agencies. As Sri Lanka prepares for a wide range of cyber attacks perpetrated by criminal or politically motivated adversaries, the nation will benefit from an all-encompassing national cyber security initiative. Forthcoming agencies however need to operate beyond incident response and attack prevention, in order to thwart them from becoming another white elephant in the room.
While the primary tier of defense is to disrupt and prevent cyber attacks of any kind, mitigating politically or ideologically motivated cyber attacks as the likes of the Tamil Eelam Cyber Force requires much more than defensive technical capabilities of the state. In other words, fighting against the Eelamists in the fifth domain consists of an amalgamation of both online and offline efforts, which entails understanding the historical and socio-political context in which the adversary operates in cyberspace as a whole.
Raising awareness and establishing a general public discourse against Eelamist activities in the cyber platform is a starting point. In addition to merely preventing cyber attacks and monitoring Eelamist trends and activities online, the battle of narratives in cyberspace should consist of proactive and consistent counter-messaging and dissemination of ideological counterpoints and counter-narratives, a tactic which was prevalent in government websites during the final phase of the war.
The government in conjunction with private entities, should reinvigorate the use of- or rather ‘weaponise’- social media to actively discredit the Eelamist narrative. To this end, the larger national cyber security team needs to also include policymakers, civil society groups, academia, key Internet industry players and the general public both in and out of Sri Lankan soil, in order to protect the national interest of the country. Such effort should be simultaneously complemented with robust state-level and and public diplomacy, so as to ensure foreign governments to uphold and apply their Internet policing mechanism to include any materials endorsing the Tamil Tigers and its entities.
The virtual domain has become an integral aspect of our day-to-day lives and therefore has become an extremely vulnerable target for those with the intention to terrorise and destroy. As the state confronts the invisible adversaries in cyberspace, it needs to gets ahead in its battle of the fifth domain by looking beyond defensive technical capabilities in fighting the good fight.
*The author is a Research Fellow at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University, Ireland and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies, Sri Lanka.