Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Washington Times: Sri Lankan rebels set up U.S. branch

by Jen Haberkorn, Washington Times

The Tamil Tigers, a terrorist organization whose suicide bombings and political assassinations have killed 4,000 people in the past two years, have quietly established a U.S. presence to help bankroll and equip its brutal secessionist campaign in Sri Lanka, authorities said.

Formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and designated as terrorists by the State Department in 1997, the group has sought for more than three decades to violently overthrow the Sri Lankan government and create an independent state for the Tamil minority.

To that end, its political wing has established "branches" in at least 12 countries, including the United States, as part of a global expansion in which the LTTE seeks to purchase millions of dollars worth of anti-aircraft weapons, automatic rifles, grenade launchers, ammunition, explosives and other military equipment, according to federal law-enforcement authorities.

That expansion has included operations in Maryland, New York and New Jersey in an effort to help raise cash and procure weapons.

A criminal complaint filed in federal court in New York in April 2007 in the arrest of a senior LTTE member in the United States said he raised money and arranged meetings between U.S. financial backers and the organization's senior leadership in Sri Lanka.

The 32-page document said the LTTE relied on "sympathetic Tamil expatriates" in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, France and other countries to raise and launder money; smuggle arms, explosives, equipment and technology to Sri Lanka; obtain intelligence about the Sri Lankan government; and spread propaganda.

Yesterday, a suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomber hit a marathon event in Sri Lanka, killing the apparent intended target, senior highways minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, 13 others and wounding 100 as the blast struck amid athletes, officials and spectators.

Described by the FBI as one of the "most dangerous and deadly" extremist organizations in the world, the LTTE grabbed the attention of U.S. authorities in August 2006 when eight people were charged in the New York case with conspiracy to provide resources and material support — including Russian-made SA-18 surface-to-air missiles, missile launchers and AK-47 assault rifles — to terrorist associates in Sri Lanka.

The complaint said the weapons were to be used in a "rapidly escalating conflict against the Sri Lankan military," and the U.S. operatives were acting at the direction of the organization's senior leadership. A separate complaint said they also sought to obtain classified information and conspired to bribe U.S. public officials to remove the LTTE from the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

With an estimated 7,000 combatants, the Tigers control much of the northeastern coastal areas of Sri Lanka, an island nation 20 miles off the southern coast of India.

"Its ruthless tactics have inspired terrorist networks worldwide, including al Qaeda in Iraq," the FBI said in a recent profile, adding that the group had "placed operatives right here in our own back yard, discreetly raising money to fund its bloody terrorist campaign overseas."

The U.S. operatives have raised funds under a variety of cover organizations, often posing as charities, the FBI said, adding that "a great deal of money" was raised after the 2004 tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka and many other countries.

Last year, FBI agents in New York arrested Karunakaran Kandasamy, described as the "director" of U.S. operations, accusing him of raising money and arranging meetings between LTTE leaders in Sri Lanka and prominent U.S. fundraisers.

FBI Assistant Director Mark J. Mershon, who heads the bureau's New York field division, said at the time Mr. Kandasamy "hasn't merely supported the Tamil Tigers' cause, he orchestrated U.S. support.

"We can no sooner allow terrorists to raise funds here than we would allow them to carry out acts of terrorism here," he said.

U.S. Attorney Roslynn R. Mauskopf, in announcing Mr. Kandasamy's arrest, said he operated out of an office in Queens, where he raised cash by staging fundraisers for tsunami victims through an organization known as the World Tamil Coordinating Committee.

Mrs. Mauskopf said the LTTE has "covertly operated within the United States" for years, drawing on the country's financial resources and technological advances to further its war of terror. She said the organization had undertaken a major worldwide campaign to raise money for its offensive against the Sri Lankan government.

In Maryland, Thirunavukarasu Varatharasa, a Sri Lankan national, was sentenced in January to 57 months in prison on charges of conspiracy to provide support to the LTTE and the attempted exportation of arms and munitions. In a sting operation, he and three others negotiated to buy a laundry list of weapons from an undercover business in Baltimore.

A criminal complaint said Varatharasa conspired to export $900,000 worth of machine guns, ammunition, surface-to-air missiles, night-vision goggles and other military weapons to Sri Lanka. A co-conspirator, Haniffa Osman, who lives in Singapore, even traveled to Baltimore to test fire some of the weapons at a range in Havre de Grace with undercover U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

A plea agreement in the case said if delivery of the first purchase was successful, undercover ICE agents were assured that a second order could be worth as much as $15 million.

"They had a well-organized establishment, but working with the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, we took a good bite out of them with the last several cases," said FBI spokesman Richard Kolko in Washington.

However, he said the Tigers have "more fundraising and organizational desires" in the United States.

"Fortunately, we haven't seen a strong will to attack in the U.S., but that's not [impossible]," he said. "That's why we have to stay on top of it."

In the Maryland case, the plea agreement said Varatharasa and the others negotiated the purchase with undercover agents at a Baltimore business of 53 military weapons for the LTTE in Sri Lanka. It said they later met in Saipan with the undercover agents to inspect several machine guns and sniper rifles they had ordered in Baltimore.

After the inspection, a deal was made to transfer the money into an undercover bank account in Maryland. None of the weapons were ever delivered.

The FBI credits the LTTE with perfecting the use of suicide bombers and being the first to use women in suicide attacks. It also is the first terrorist group to assassinate two world leaders — former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 1993 assassination of the Ranasinghe Premadasa, president of Sri Lanka.

Peter Chalk, senior terrorism and insurgency analyst at Rand Corp., said the LTTE may have learned a lesson from the U.S. arrests and pulled its operatives out. He said the U.S. venture was "probably an experiment," adding that the group is "smart enough to learn from its mistakes."

Mr. Chalk also noted that the LTTE has "always had a large, prolific international network" and has been "quite prolific in Canada for fundraising."

Canada is home to many former Sri Lankans, and Canadian authorities said the organization has blackmailed many of the expatriates for money, threatening to harm relatives at home.