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Intelligence failures exposed by Tamil Tiger airport attack

3 September 2001
Intelligence failures exposed by Tamil Tiger airport attack

The Tamil Tiger assault on Sri Lanka's Bandaranaike airport was aviation history's most destructive terrorist act. Rohan Gunaratna analyses the failure of the Sri Lankan security and intelligence community to prevent the attack.

A suicide squad of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) staged an audacious attack on Sri Lanka's Bandaranaike international airport and the adjoining air force base at Katunayake on 24 July 2001. In three waves, a highly trained and heavily armed 14-man squad penetrated the 800-acre high security complex and destroyed or damaged 26 commercial and military aircraft. The attack is the biggest terrorist operation so far launched by the LTTE and the most destructive terrorist attack in the history of aviation. The suicide dimension - 14 members targeting 26 aircraft - made the operation cost effective.

The approach
The suicide squad escorted by an LTTE intelligence team arrived in a Mitsubishi Rosa at a playground near the target location on the eve of the attack. Usually LTTE intelligence teams living in the south of the country provide suicide members with security, board, lodging, transport, communication and intelligence support to accomplish the mission. Although the suicide squad and the intelligence team were young Tamils, they clapped hands to Sinhala music to deceive the locals that they were Sinhalese. After joining the suicide squad for a final meal, the intelligence team returned to its safe house with the intention of continuing its intelligence gathering and other support operations. However, the recovery of a balaclava and night vision devices suggest that either the intelligence team escorted the suicide squad into the complex or was inside the complex providing updated intelligence until the suicide squad was launched.

After changing from civilian clothing to military uniform, the suicide squad entered the international airport and the adjoining air force base through a path situated at a rear entrance to the playground, which was used by air force personnel going on leave. The suicide squad then passed by a sewage farm, the base HQ, base commander's residence, officers' mess and the married officers' quarters. After entry, two civilians intending to report the suspicious gathering of the youths, met two airmen on a regular perimeter patrol who came and examined three bags left behind by the suicide squad. After examining the bags containing uniforms, food and clothing the airmen surmised that they must have been left behind by tourists.

After cutting a hole in the chain link fence controlling access to the Vulnerable Area (V-area), the squad entered the parking zone and hangers. To reach the fixed-wing aircraft and the helicopter squadron located in opposite directions, the suicide squad split into two groups and began to move along a storm water drain. The journey, especially the entry into the V-area, was facilitated by a routine nationwide power cut that began at 9.45 pm to reduce electricity consumption.

The attack
At 3.50 am, the two suicide groups emerged out of the storm water drain. Standing 700m apart on the air force side of the runway, the two groups fired at both the military aircraft parked on the apron as well as into the hangers housing additional aircraft. They used six light anti-tank weapons, three rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs) and one 40mm grenade launcher, as well as nine T-56 assault rifles and three general-purpose machine guns (GPMGs). Although the suicide squad failed to penetrate the hangers, the attack destroyed eight aircraft on the apron and damaged two in the hangers. Other than firing into the hangers with the GPMGs, the squad fired the stand-off weapons on to the top of the hangers. After an hour of fierce combat, three airmen and eight suicide squad members were dead.

As the resistance against the attack mounted from the airbase, the surviving six-member suicide squad crossed the runaway into the international airport. After challenging six airmen guarding the runway, they fired at an oil tank first with GPMG rounds and, once it started to leak, with a 40mm grenade launcher. The blaze destroyed a nearby A-330 Airbus. Of the six suicide members, two members seeking to destroy aircraft of Sri Lankan Airlines were killed by a team of airmen. After a lone suicide bomber placed an explosive charge on an A-330, the explosion ripped off its two wings from the fuselage and the aircraft caught fire. Thereafter, he joined the other three bombers approaching the terminal building. While one suicide bomber exploded inside the departure cargo, the remaining three climbed the air-conditioned duct entering the duty free complex. One climbed on to the roof of the terminal building and fired an RPG on to an A-340 and destroyed it: two others died in the chiller room. At all stages of the operation, they demonstrated intimate familiarity of the airport layout and structure.

After five hours of fierce fighting, 26 aircraft had been destroyed or damaged, including two Airbus-320s and one Airbus-340 that were damaged by friendly fire. Six airmen were killed and eight wounded, while one commando was killed by friendly fire and four soldiers were wounded. No tourists were injured. Three Sri Lankan civilians including one TV journalist and one Russian engineer were injured. The injury to a foreign national classified the Katunayake attack as an act of international terrorism by the LTTE, a group proscribed as 'terrorist' by the USA, the UK, India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.

Catastrophic failure of security
The LTTE attack exposed the shaky foundations on which the country's national security structure was founded. It questioned the government's capacity to develop intelligence, forecast threats, protect its critical infrastructure and prepare appropriate force structures to disrupt LTTE operations in the government-held south. It also symbolised the sharp decline in the capability of the Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DII), responsible for anti-terrorist (protective) intelligence as well as counterterrorist (offensive) intelligence.

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Three Chinese K-8 advanced trainers, half the fleet of the Sri Lankan Air Force's advanced training squadron, was destroyed in the attack on the Katunayake air base.
(Source: Rohan Gunaratna)

One MIG-27 'Flogger' was destroyed and another damaged. Five Kfirs were also damaged.
(Source: Rohan Gunaratna)

The suicide team split into two squads to attack the separate helicopter squadron and the fixed-wing squadron.
(Source: Rohan Gunaratna)

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