Search within the section
Help?

05 Jun 2007

LTTE: Technologically innovative rebels

Emblem of the Tamil Tigers

Tamil Tigers emblem

Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers top off their innovations by hijacking a satellite in orbit over the Indian Ocean, sparking fears of a more advanced phase of rebel warfare.

By John CK Daly

During their 32-year campaign for an independent Tamil homeland, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have achieved a number of innovations that could change the face of rebel warfare.

More than 64,000 Sri Lankans, out of a population of 21 million, have died in the conflict.

In 1984, the LTTE in 1984 established its maritime "Sea Tigers" wing, which has been responsible for sinking 29 Sri Lankan naval gunboats and a freighter. The Sea Tigers include a division of frogmen that have been deployed in attacks on the Sri Lankan naval base at Kankesanturai in the northern Jaffna peninsula.

Three years after forming the Sea Tigers, the rebel group established its notorious "Black Tigers" suicide bombers' wing, which has killed hundreds, including more than 270 rebels. In the latest such attack on 24 May, a Black Tiger suicide bomber on an explosive-laden motorized bicycle rammed a bus carrying army personnel in the capital Colombo, killing two soldiers and wounding five others.

In yet another new form of combat for the LTTE, on 25 March of this year, rebel aircraft of the Tamileelam Air Force (TAF), or "Vaanpuliga," conducted a nighttime raid on Katunayake, the Sri Lankan Air Force's main base, which shares a runway with Colombo's Bandaranayake International Airport. The following month, on 29 April, the rebels' Czech-made ZLIN Z 143 aircraft conducted another nighttime raid on two oil storage facilities some 10 kilometers north of Colombo.

The attacks mean that the LTTE is now unique among world guerrilla movements in having troops, a navy and an air force. The rebel group has taken its campaign into outer space, having hijacked the Intelsat Ltd Intelsat-12 satellite in geosynchronous orbit over the Indian Ocean to beam its propaganda across the Indian subcontinent.

The LTTE has long been interested in using the power of the media, and since the early 1980s has operated clandestine radio and television stations to broadcast to the northern areas of Sri Lanka under its control. The rebel group's Nitharsama terrestrial TV station began transmitting during this time but was subsequently destroyed by the Indian Peace Keeping Force later in the decade.

The LTTE's broadcasts were brought to Intelsat's notice for the first time by an Asian Tribune article on 10 March. Beginning in March 2005, they were hardly a secret.

"The LTTE also operate a satellite broadcast channel. National Television of Tamileelam (NTT) uses Eurostar at 11.5GHz and reaches India, parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and China for two hours between 13.30 - 15.30 GMT. Paris-based Tamil Television Network (TTN) relays the broadcast to their audiences in Europe and the Middle East at 18.00 GMT," reported the tamiltigers.net website.

The question is how were they able to accomplish the sophisticated sleight of hand that allowed them to hijack Intelsat-12.

Technological coup

Washington, DC-based Intelsat Ltd is the world's largest provider of geosynchronous satellite services with 52 satellites in orbit. In March, Sri Lanka raised the issue at the 31st Extraordinary Meeting of International Telecommunications Satellite Organization in Paris with Intelsat Ltd CEO David McGlade. On 10 April, Sri Lanka's ambassador to the US, Bernard Goonetileke, met with Intelsat officials, including Senior Vice President in charge of customer operations and engineering David Synkfield to demand that the company take immediate action to halt the broadcasts by the National Television of Tamil Eelam and Pulikalin Kural ("Voice of Tigers") radio transmissions.

"Intelsat does not tolerate terrorist or others operating illegally on its satellites. Since we first learned of the LTTE's signal piracy, we have been actively pursuing a number of technical alternatives to halt the transmissions. We are clear in our resolve to ending this terrorist organization's unauthorized use of our satellite," Intelsat General Counsel Phillip Spector told the media in a press statement.

As the Sri Lankan ambassador made his protests in Washington, however, LTTE spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiriyan was making his own protests from Kilinochchi with Reuters reporting him saying, "We are accessing it legally and there is no signal piracy." p>

On 26 April, Sri Lanka's Embassy in Washington issued a press release stating that Intelsat had terminated the "unauthorized" use of Intelsat-12 by the LTTE for its TV and radio transmissions to Europe and Asia.

According to the press release, the LTTE had been transmitting its programs since March 2005 through the Europe Star 1 satellite. Europe Star 1 was launched in October 2000 by French satellite provider Alcatel. PanAmSat, a satellite operator headquartered in the US acquired Europe Star 1 in July 2005.

In July 2006, Intelsat Ltd acquired PanAmSat, following which, Europe Star 1 satellite was renamed Intelsat-12. The programs that the LTTE had been transmitting through Europe Star 1 thus continued uninterrupted even after Intelsat acquired the satellite.

The Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington DC subsequently lodged complaints with the FBI, the State Department and the Justice Department, accusing Intelsat Ltd of "reneging" on a previous promise to halt the transmissions, adding that Intelsat had asked the embassy to keep their discussions confidential.

According to the Sri Lankan Defense Department: "Despite the widely reported statement by Intelsat that it has switched off National Television of Tamil Eelam from its satellite, we received a report stating that the channel was, in fact, still being seen on the Intelsat-12 satellite (45°E) as of 26 April."

Intelsat was only able to halt the broadcasts on 29 April.

The LTTE's four-hour daily broadcasts used Intelsat-12's transponder 2 and were accessible to any of the 30,000 Sri Lankan citizens with a Direct to Home (DTH) satellite dish. Sri Lankan intelligence officials believe that the LTTE uplink transmissions were probably done from a secret location in Vavuniya in LTTE-controlled northern Sri Lanka.

Intelsat has five high-performance beams covering Europe, Southern Africa, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. The LTTE's NTT network was a free channel in Asia while the TTN was an encrypted paid subscription channel in Europe, where the LTTE used the service provider Globecast, a subsidiary of France Telecom.

The likely reason for Intelsat's request to the Sri Lankan government to keep the discussions confidential was that Intelsat-12 is a bent-pipe satellite, whose "dumb" transponders rebroadcast anything that they receive within their frequency band. Bent-pipe satellites remain the most common technology today, with no real defenses against such attacks. Part of the reason for the continued reliance on bent pipe satellites is economic, as they cost half the price of satellites equipped with onboard processing technology.

Intelsat technicians are still trying to figure out how the LTTE pulled off its technological coup. Intelsat-12 has 30 main transponders, of which eight were dedicated to the Indian subcontinent, and 11 backup transponders. Compounding Intelsat's woes is the fact that if transponders on a bent-pipe satellite are not being fully utilized and contain some "empty" space, the void could be identified by using a spectrum analyzer in conjunction with a satellite-receiving dish at a cost of only a few hundred dollars for hardware and software.

Locating the hijacker is difficult, as the uplink signal is transmitted in a highly directed beam, undetectable at ground level unless you are extremely close to the covert transmitter.

Following the revelations of the LTTE broadcasts the French authorities moved quickly; French police raided the TTN's studio in Paris and Globecast confirmed to the Sri Lankan Embassy in France that on 2 May it had halted TTN broadcasts on its Eutelsat satellite, which had 22,000 subscribers generating €330,000 monthly.

The darker reality

Beyond the bland assurance of the Intelsat and embassy press releases is a darker reality.

Spector maintained that the LTTE was simply pirating an empty Intelsat-12 transponder frequency for the broadcasts, but when asked whether al-Qaida could use the same satellite to attack the US, after equivocating that it was only a hypothetical situation, nonetheless acknowledged that it was technically possible.

Even more worrying, similar attacks could be launched on many other types of satcom services, as the necessary equipment is commercially available and attacks can be mounted from anywhere within the satellite's footprint.

The LTTE satellite hack is not the first interference with satellite transmissions, but it is notable in that it is the first by a rebel group and for the length of its hijacking, over two years.

China's Falun Gong spiritual movement in June 2002 overrode the broadcast signals of nine China Central Television stations and 10 provincial stations and replaced the programming with their content. In September 2002, 15 members of Falun Gong received prison sentences of between four and 20 years for the incident.

Yet another Falun Gong satellite hacking attack occurred on 20 November 2004: This time, it disrupted AsiaSat signals for four hours.

The 2002 incident attracted attention. On 30 August of that year, the US General Accounting Office issued a sobering report on satellite vulnerability, noting that "Commercial satellite providers do not use the more stringent techniques used in national security satellites for protection against deliberate disruption and exploitation. If false commands could be inserted into a satellite's command receiver, they could cause the spacecraft to destroy itself."

The report had important implications for the Pentagon as well, since it noted that during the 1991 Operation Desert Storm 45 percent of all communications between the US and the Persian Gulf were transmitted on commercial satellites.

Belatedly recognizing the vulnerabilities, in 1999 the US Air Force instituted its Space Countermeasures Hands On Program, or Space CHOP, at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, where three to four times a year technicians gather together under the auspices the Air Force Research Laboratory to study satellite vulnerabilities.

Awareness of the problem has steadily grown in Washington.

On 13 December 2006, Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph warned an audience at the George C Marshall Institute about attacks on US space assets.

"[…] the ability to restrict or deny our freedom of access to, and operations in space is no longer limited simply to nation states. With knowledge of space systems, their orbits and the means to counter them being readily available, both state and non-state actors can acquire or develop knowledge about our systems, their capabilities and how to disrupt or destroy US space systems," he said.

Joseph noted that non-government satellite observers tracked satellites and posted their orbits on the internet, and that "terrorist groups" or insurgents might employ GPS jammers "or our ground stations and communications nodes could be disabled or destroyed by terrorists using, for example, rocket-propelled grenades."

The following month, on 11 January, Washington's concerns about Chinese anti-satellite capabilities jumped dramatically when China launched an ASAT missile that successfully destroyed an old weather satellite.

On 1 May, celebrated worldwide as Labor Day, hackers in southern China replaced television programming with anti-government messages for 90 minutes. The Chinese government has said very little about the incident, with a cable TV operator in Guangdong commenting during a telephone conversation with a reporter off the record that, “The satellite’s reception wasn’t very stable,” according to Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper.

And of late, it seems that just about anyone, rebel or not, can dabble in satellite piracy. In Garden City, Michigan, Extreme Media is advertising its new "Satellite Piracy" video on its website, available for US$15, along with two other "Hacking Digital Satellite Systems" films, proudly proclaiming that its new video "includes a complete discussion of all the latest piracy methods being used for DIRECTV and DISH Network, as well as Canadian and Caribbean systems. Everything you ever wanted to know about satellite television piracy is included in this video."

The LTTE apparently regards the loss of its access to Intelsat-12 as a temporary setback and nothing more.

According to a 19 May report in the Sri Lankan Daily News, the LTTE has launched its second pay TV channel, Tharishanam, on the Makkal Television Tamil satellite channel of Chennai, India, which was founded in September 2006. Makkal TV is owned by Pattali Makkal Katchi, a pro-LTTE Indian Tamil political party, and was founded by S Ramadoss, a partner of the United Progressive Front, India's ruling alliance. The station broadcasts LTTE propaganda even though the group is banned by the Indian government.

The LTTE is also reportedly preparing to beam a second TV channel to Europe. Tharishanam ("Revelation"), broadcast as a client of France's Globecast, is to be up-linked through the Israeli Satlink platform in the Hotbird 8 Satellite.

Currently proscribed as a terrorist organization by 32 nations, the LTTE has once again made a quantum leap forward in insurgent capabilities, managing to get away with its activities for over two years. The question that nervous analysts worldwide are now asking is who is watching and who is learning.


Dr John CK Daly is a non-resident scholar at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. He is also the chief analyst for Oilprice.com.

License Logo

Creative Commons - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported