By Todd Bensman
The horrific Islamic jihadist bombings that killed more than 300 Sri Lankan Christians celebrating Easter in April 2019 had to have been on the forefront of U.S. investigators’ minds when they received word some months later that Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) authorities intercepted a Haitian sloop carrying 28 Sri Lankan migrants illegally headed for Miami.
The discovery led U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations —the group that hunts international human smuggling networks able to move Islamic terrorists — to open up a case and head for the British island territory northeast of Cuba to find out who was doing the smuggling from Sri Lanka and to shut it down.
By the time indictments were issued August 19, Miami ICE-HSI had Canadian-Sri Lankan smuggler Sri Kajamukam “Mohan” Chelliah in custody.
Sri Lankan migrants in southern Costa Rica en route to the U.S. border. Photo by Todd Bensman, December 2018.
It turned out Chelliah’s was a familiar face. In 2010, an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation found that Chelliah — the prior year, just after Sri Lanka’s central government military defeated the notorious U.S.-designated Tamil Tigers terrorist group — had started a trans-continental migrant-smuggling network based in India that, in fairly short order, illegally transported about 1,750 Sri Lankans into the United States through southern Florida, the 2011 FBI criminal complaint from the case states. He made international headlines in 2014 when five of his customers, who informed for the FBI, were embroiled in a long, controversial deportation battle afterward.
After serving 18 months in U.S. prison on alien-smuggling charges, Chelliah emerged unreformed. He allegedly went back to work on his old sea route where he brought Sri Lankan clientele after flying them to Dubai, Moscow, Cuba, Haiti, and The Bahamas on altered Canadian passports.
He is now in U.S. custody under indictment for multiple counts of human smuggling, his Sri Lanka-Haiti-Bahamas-Florida route back in mothballs, at least under his management. Meanwhile, other publicly unknown Sri Lankan smugglers continue to move their countrymen into the United States through Latin America and Mexico, as I learned firsthand when I met and photographed nine Sri Lankan migrants en route during a December 2018 reporting trip to Panama and Costa Rica.
Nothing in the public court records on either case suggests that Chelliah knowingly transported dangerous Tamil Tigers individuals or Islamic jihadist terrorists; neither is this explicitly ruled out. But even if court records don’t mention the Easter 2019 attacks explicitly, American homeland security officials overseeing the case indicated high awareness of a national security aspect of the investigation.
How could they not? Just a year earlier, nine ISIS-pledging suicide bombers belonging to the Islamic jihadist National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) group, or a new ISIS-connected hybrid of it called Willayath-As-Seylani, coordinated detonations in three churches and three luxury hotels around Sri Lanka while Chelliah was illegally transporting fellow citizens to the Florida coast for up to $65,000 each. Could not jihadist terrorists with cash on hand from Sri Lanka’s ferment also land a berth on a Haitian sloop?
“Transnational Criminal Organizations use human smuggling as a means for profit while at the same time threatening the security of the United States,” ICE-HSI Miami’s Special Agent in Charge Anthony Salisbury said in the indictment announcement.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt likewise noted that smugglers like Chelliah “jeopardize our national security”.
The question as to how much of a national security threat is posed by smugglers of U.S.-bound Sri Lankan migrants is a fair one since, obviously, smugglers could ferry in former Tamil Tiger and NTJ operatives just as easily as regular economic migrants.
Islamic jihadist suicide attacks have not afflicted Sri Lanka in a widespread way, certainly not to the extent that the non-Islamic Tamil Tigers carried them out in the two decades before their 2009 destruction. The Tigers are infamous for having perfected the art of suicide bombings all during the war.
Muslims make up about 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, while ethnic Tamils represent 11 percent; Sinhalese are the majority at 75 percent, the CIA World Fact Book says.
Especially after they lost the war, Tamils became more frequent arrivals at the U.S. southern border, often claiming to be fleeing government reprisals and that they were merely passing through the United States to join large Tamil expatriate communities in Canada, which had long financially supported the cause back home. Canada was so often the preferred destination for Tamil migrants and refugees that evacuation ships reputedly run by the Tigers, with names like the MV Sun Sea and the MV Ocean Lady, began showing up uninvited and filled with suspected Tiger terrorists at Canadian ports after the war.
Likewise, many of Chelliah’s clients did not intend to stay in the United States; they just saw the country as a waystation. The dual citizenship Canadian smuggler told his clients that once they’d made it ashore in Florida, a driver would pick them up and drive them to Buffalo, N.Y., for a Canadian crossing, the criminal complaint states.
But whether they planned to stay or pass through, plenty of Sri Lankans entered the country after smuggling excursions by way of Mexico and the U.S. southern border, too. In 2007, Border Patrol apprehended only four Sri Lankans at the southern border, according to Border Patrol apprehension statistics. That apprehension number leapt to 173 after the war in 2010, to 214 in 2011, and hit 465 in FY2019.
Indeed, Chelliah flew one of his clients to Ecuador for the long overland route to the Mexican border, indicating he kept a route there in his portfolio, too.
Not all were ordinary migrants. In March 2012, for instance, one of three Canada-bound Sri Lankan nationals detained at the U.S.-Mexico border admitted that he belonged to the Tigers. In February 2017, a Border Patrol agent arrested Tamil Tiger Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam after he crossed from Mexico, leading to an extended legal battle over his asylum claim.
While the Tigers were never known to aspire to attack the U.S. homeland or Canada, their members have used the United States and Canada to illegally collect money for arms and otherwise break anti-terrorism laws.
Not a lot is known about the National Throwheed Jamath group, its Salafi-jihadist membership strength, or its foreign aims. ISIS is believed to have had a hand in directing the six coordinated attacks in Sri Lanka last year, and claimed full credit. The group apparently was relatively new to the Islamic jihad, splintering off from a more established larger one that saw regional Buddhism as its main mortal enemy. After the bombings, Sri Lanka banned the three known Islamic jihadist groups operating in the country under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
The Jamestown Foundation, a policy foundation with a staff of counterterrorism experts, reported that ISIS had covertly infiltrated Sri Lanka and recruited citizens in recent years.
Last summer, Sri Lankan Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake testified to a parliamentary committee that the Islamist network had spread around the island and he could not assure an end to the problem “in six months or six years”.
Whoever from Sri Lanka is boarding Florida-bound migrant boats in the Caribbean or making their way through Mexico, U.S. homeland security successes like this one almost certainly reduce the chances that one or more of them might be bringing trouble the country doesn’t need.