On 24 July 2001, 14 members of the LTTE’s Black Tiger suicide commando unit assaulted Sri Lanka’s main military and civil airports. The heavily guarded military side was struck first. The attackers initially gained access to the airbase via a gap in the perimeter fencing which was used by air force personnel for visiting women in the neighbouring commercial manufacturing district. This movement was timed to coincide with a nationwide power-cut between 21:45 and 23:15, aimed at reducing electricity consumption. The assault team proceeded to cut holes in the fencing surrounding the aircraft parking area and hangars and placed explosives on three electricity transformers, which were detonated at around 03:15, plunging the base into darkness again.
At about 03:50 the attackers began firing light anti-tank weapons and small arms at parked military aircraft and hangars, destroying eight aircraft and damaging two. Eight of the attackers were then killed by the airbase’s security force, and the remaining six proceeded to the civil side of the airbase, where they began targeting Sri Lankan airlines aircraft. As a consequence two Airbus A330 and one Airbus A340 aircraft were destroyed, and a further three aircraft (two A340s, one A320) were damaged. A number of the surviving attackers took up positions in the airport terminal (which had been evacuated) and were subsequently killed in firefights with the security forces. The attacks inflicted approximately $350 million in damage and had a huge negative impact on Sri Lanka’s tourism industry.
Planning the attack
Tamil Tiger operations were characterized by the professionalism of their planning and intelligence gathering, and the attack on the Bandaranaike airport was no exception. It has been reported the surveillance and reconnaissance activity for this attack had been ongoing for up to two years prior to the event. Several trained reconnaissance operatives were placed in the area, establishing safe-houses from which to run their activities. A communications network was also created with the installation of an antenna which permitted contact with the LTTE’s leadership. This was used to transmit the outputs from the reconnaissance activity. It is unclear how often the reconnaissance teams surveyed the airport sites, but one report claims that during the final phases leading up to the attacks, a three-man team accessed the military airbase up to seven times, utilizing the gap in the perimeter fence noted previously. Drawing on the maps and diagrams developed by the reconnaissance teams, the LTTE constructed models of both the military airbase and civil airport, which were used to train the assault teams. That this was effective is noted in one report which stated that “at all stages of the operation [the attackers] demonstrated intimate familiarity of the airport layout and structure”.
As with previous LTTE operations, it appears that members of the airbase’s security forces had been compromised by the LTTE’s intelligence agents. Following the attacks, at least three air force personnel were detained on suspicion of colluding with the attacks, and had been bribed to do so. It was also alleged in the Sri Lankan media that the LTTE had managed to purchase maps and blueprints of the airbase from middle-ranking air force officers.
As was typical of the LTTE’s modus operandi, on the day of the attack, the intelligence and surveillance team escorted the assault team to within close proximity of the target. The two teams were driven to a children’s playground where they remained until darkness fell. In order to avoid suspicion they were dressed in civilian clothing and played Sinhalese music, telling anyone who questioned their presence they were picnicking having seen off relatives at the airport. At least one local civilian was suspicious of their presence and reported it to the base’s security force, but no action was taken. A subsequent search of the park uncovered packing material used to transport night vision devices, grenades and rocket propelled grenades. The intelligence team may have escorted the assault team into the airbase complex, and may even have remained within the complex until the attack began. Whichever the case, the intelligence team is known to have left the airbase and returned to its nearby safe house.
The attack on Colombo airport was a clear demonstration of the capability the LTTE was able to bring to bear on strategic targets. The military airbase was ostensibly well defended and secured, with some 90 sentries and around 500 military personnel on site. This demonstrates that visible defences, or a ‘hardened’ target are not necessarily a deterrent, particularly to an adversary willing to undertake in-depth reconnaissance and planning in order to effectively identify and exploit vulnerabilities Second, the extended duration of the reconnaissance period, which apparently went on for two years. This shows that, like the core elements of al-Qaida, the LTTE planned strategically and was prepared to invest large amounts of time and resources in order to plan and prepare for major operations. The information gleaned from this reconnaissance activity was apparently highly detailed, to the extent that the LTTE was able to construct detailed models of both the military and civil airports. These models were then used to brief the assault team prior to their deployment to the area. Subsequent reporting suggests that these briefings and rehearsals meant the attackers had a good working knowledge of both airports’ layouts. Third, it demonstrated the LTTE’s ability to covertly deploy an team of highly-motivated attackers within close proximity to a high-security area near Sri Lanka’s capital and to execute a well-planned and executed attack, which was highly discriminating in its choice of targets. Finally, the LTTE achieved a significant ‘bang for buck’ with this attack. In exchange for the deaths of 14 suicide attackers, the organisation inflicted $350 million worth of material damage, degraded the Sri Lankan air force’s capability to mount operations against the LTTE, caused a significant downturn in the the island’s tourist economy and achieved a huge propaganda coup for their cause.
1 ‘Katunayake: CID digs out full shocking story’, The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 18 November 2001, http://sundaytimes.lk/011118/sitrep.html accessed 24 February 2009.
2 Gunaratna, R. ‘Intelligence failures exposed by Tamil Tiger airport attack’, Jane’s Intelligence Review, 1 September 2001
3 ‘Katunayake: CID digs out full shocking story’,
The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 18 November 2001, http://sundaytimes.lk/011118/sitrep.html accessed 24 February 2009.
4 ‘Katunayake: CID digs out full shocking story’, The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 18 November 2001, http://sundaytimes.lk/011118/sitrep.html accessed 24 February 2009.
5 Gunaratna, R. ‘Intelligence failures exposed by Tamil Tiger airport attack’, Jane’s Intelligence Review, 1 September 2001
6 ‘Colombo struggles to contain fallout of LTTE assault on Katunayake’, Tamil Guardian, 1 August 2001.
7 ‘LTTE’s three times lucky terror at Katunayake’, The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 29 July 2001, http://sundaytimes.lk/010729/sitrep.html accessed 26 February 2009
8 ‘LTTE’s three times lucky terror at Katunayake’, The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 29 July 2001, http://sundaytimes.lk/010729/sitrep.html accessed 26 February 2009
9 Gunaratna, R. ‘Intelligence failures exposed by Tamil Tiger airport attack’, Jane’s Intelligence Review, 1 September 2001