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Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)

Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)

At the end of the ’90s, the Albanian minority in Kosovo intensified its political pressure to gain independence from Serbia. Kosovo was a province with a particular meaning in the Serbian history: it was the place where the Serbian kings resisted the Ottoman invasion. The Serbian cultural identity sprung from Kosovo. In the last 20 years immigration from the nearby Albania increased the size of that ethnicity and in the mid ’90s Albanian could correctly affirm of being the majority in Kosovo. Serbia is culturally and politically on the side of Russia (for religious, linguistic, historical and political reason), therefore it is arguable that its international status was very low in those years.

 The Albanian independentist forces joined to create the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The US decided to punish the Russian presence in Europe, hitting their closest ally, Serbia. Therefore they supported the Albanian request for a separated Kosovo.

Commandos from the Kosovo Liberation Army

Commandos from the Kosovo Liberation Army

It is interesting to note that history of the Kosovo Liberation Army as a terrorist group. In 1998 Robert Gelbard, envoy of the American government, speaking of the KLA said “without any questions, a terrorist group”12. The UN resolution 1160 used similar words34. But later on the US government approached the KLA leadership to represent Kosovo in the negotiations with the Serbs. The Wall Street Journal in February 1998 mentioned the removal of the KLA from the list of terrorist organization5, when discussing its linkages with Al Qaeda. France didn’t delist the KLA until late 1998, after UK and US pressure6. KLA is still present in the list of MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base7 and is considered an inactive group by the National Consortium for the study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism from the Homeland Security8.

The KLA was considered a terrorist organization because of its linkages with organized crime and with Al Qaeda and they started a campaign of attacks against the Serbian civilians9. The common argument was that Kosovo people had the right for self-determination10, even when terrorist means were used to achieve that goal.

Black Tigers (commandos for suicide mission of the LTTE, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)

Black Tigers (commandos for suicide mission of the LTTE, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)

Now, I suppose that very few will disagree with the fact that the LTTE was a liberation army, which used terrorist means to achieve self-determination for its people.

It is wrong to state that the LTTE lost international support because it was a terrorist outfit. Quite on the contrary: it was a terrorist organization because it lost international support. This could sound pedantic, but very often it’s the core of the debate. All the atrocities committed by the LTTE do not explain its status. The LTTE failed to secure the support of main international sponsors (like US and India) and therefore it was fighting alone. And when you have guns and bank account, but no consensus, per definition you’ll be labelled “terrorist”.

It’s not about conduct, but about relationship. The LTTE killed innocent civilians, but this is not the point. LTTE was isolated and that is the reason for its terrorist status.

6 Derek SReveron and Jeffrey Stevenson Murer, eds., Flashpoints in the War on Terrorism. (New York: Palgrave, 2006)

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The LTTE was a small, yet very determined army. It was a clandestine outfit, with no international recognition, therefore its capacity of supply, its movement and its organization were quite restricted. On the other side, the Sri Lankan army could count on almost unlimited access to military equipment (everything in their range cost), no problems in delivery and much larger and secure sources of funding. Moreover, the base for enrolment was significantly different: the Sinhalese are 20 millions, while the Tamil in the Northern provinces 800 000. The LTTE was disadvantaged, but its cadres were single-minded, extremely motivated and probably with no other choice.

The courage and bravery of the Tigers became legendary and in fact they were surrounded by an aura of invincibility. Amongst these warriors, on top within the LTTE itself, were the Black Tigers. They were voted to fight till death and it was considered a huge honour to be enlisted in their ranks. The Black Tigers were a terrific weapon also in the psychological war: image a Sri Lankan patrol, facing an ambush. They knew that their enemy didn’t want to survive the battle, the most fundamental principle of self-conservation was lost. Your opponent wants your elimination so strongly, that he’s ready to give up his own life. There is clearly no braver soldier. You would consider ‘brave’ a man who desire so much to live on his terms, that is ready to die for them. He’s definitely a man of principle and courage. Further on his ideals are not selfish or despicable: he simply desires to live peacefully in what he defines as his homeland. No surprise that amongst their people, the Black Tigers were highly estimated.

So an offensive of Black Tigers, a suicide operation against a military target, could lead us to define them as ‘heroes’ for their people.

But here lies an immense difference. Indeed the operations for the Black Tigers could be against a military patrol, but also against a coach, transporting troops right in the middle of a big city. And further on: an institutional figure speaking in public places or working in office open to the public. In other words a military target could include civilians, more or less directly at the centre of the attack. The training is the same, the determination, the purity of principles, the courage, almost exactly the same person. But one is destined to hit other soldiers, other people who commit to a risky job for equally valid principles or money. Adult who made a choice to confront violently their opponents, with the accept possibility of dying. The other storms lives of innocents, whose only blame is to be right on the worst spot at the worst time. One is a warrior, a hero, the other is a terrorist and a criminal. For the Tamils, for the supporter of Tamil Eelam, the two are fighting the same battle. This is a mistake. One is fighting a war, the other civilization. And the lack of distinction brings the two on the same, wrong side.

Aranthalawa Massacre
June 2, 1987 The LTTE terrorists massacred and brutally mutilated 33 young monks at Aranthalawa in Amapara.
Courtesy Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sri Lanka