The LTTE and suicide terrorism

Print edition : February 05, 2000

The suicide terrorism syndrome which has become acute in South Asia and West Asia in the past two decades has, however, not driven states most affected by the menace to study and uproot it. The LTTE in Sri Lanka is among the deadliest exponents of the syndrome.


THE three suicide attacks by the LTTE in Colombo within a span of three weeks have revived the "suicide bomb syndrome" in Sri Lanka. Amidst preventive and reactive measures against suicide attacks - curfews, large-scale arrests, mobile checkpoints, tight er security for vulnerable targets - the threat of another attack looms.

Despite large-scale cordon-and-search operations, security forces have failed to net the suicide cadres or their weapon caches in Colombo. Only searches and arrests made on the basis of accurate and timely intelligence tip-offs have succeeded in eroding the LTTE's compartmentalised infrastructure to conduct suicide attacks. Sri Lankan intelligence operatives estimate that in addition to the LTTE cells engaged in reconnaissance on human and infrastructure targets, there are about 30 active and sleeper LT TE cells in Colombo, drawn from the LTTE group called the Black Tigers.

The LTTE leads the global list of groups that are capable of suicide attacks. Other groups with such capability are the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and the Hamas in Palestine, the Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) of Turkey, the Groupe Islamique Armee (GIA or the Armed Islamic Group) of Algeria and the Islamic Group of Egypt. A brief review of the suicide threat to targets in Sri Lanka and India from the LTTE and an analysis of global trends and patterns in suicide terrorism are therefore in order.

IN South Asia, the LTTE is the only suicide capable group. It is the only group to have assassinated two world leaders, both assassinations carried out using the suicide body-suit. Unlike former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Premadasa, incumb ent Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga was fortunate to survive, though with a serious injury. Both intelligence and interrogation of LTTE cadres reveal that the LTTE intended to assassinate Chandrika Kumaratunga in order to ensure the victory of leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe. Wickremasinghe's United National Party (UNP) had initiated a dialogue with the LTTE with the intention of declaring a ceasefire, which would have enabled the LTTE, as it had done during three previous cease fires, to strengthen its organisation both politically and militarily. The political context of each suicide operation reveals how the LTTE manages to survive and advance its aims using this lethally accurate tactic.

The suicide bomb threat from the LTTE is not confined to Sri Lanka. In fact the LTTE's first suicide attack using a suicide body-suit took place in India. The LTTE had mounted surveillance on a number of Indian leaders, with the intention of assassinatin g them in order to control the threat to it from India. Recent arrests both in India and in Sri Lanka reveal that the LTTE was likely to have made a serious attempt to assassinate Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi during the campaign for the Lok Sabha e lections in September-October 1999, had LTTE assessments indicated that the Congress(I) would win. The LTTE assessed that had Sonia Gandhi assumed power, she would assist the Sri Lankan Government militarily to crush the LTTE in order to avenge the death of her husband. On the eve of the Lok Sabha elections in 1991, the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi to pre-empt a reintroduction of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) in the island. The LTTE had secured intelligence through a prominent Tamil Nadu polit ician that Rajiv Gandhi had vowed to "teach Prabakaran a lesson" for going back on the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987.

Similarly, on the eve of the 1994 Sri Lankan elections, the LTTE assassinated UNP presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake who enjoyed close ties with India. Interrogation of LTTE cadres revealed that V. Prabakaran, the LTTE's supreme leader, had decide d to target Dissanayake for fear that a government under Dissanayake would receive Indian assistance. The LTTE has not targeted an Indian VIP since Rajiv Gandhi's assassination because successive governments in India have not gone out of their way to har ass the LTTE. Furthermore, the LTTE had managed to neutralise the threat from New Delhi by befriending a handful of Indian political leaders such as George Fernandes. Except for extending the proscription of the LTTE, the assistance given by New Delhi to Colombo in the war against the LTTE has been minimal. As such, there is no immediate threat to India from the LTTE.

Among the contemporary terrorist groups engaged in suicide attacks, the LTTE has conducted the largest number of attacks. The Black Tigers are constituted exclusively of cadres who have volunteered to conduct suicide operations. On July 5, 1999, Black Ti ger day, the LTTE erected in Puthukuthirippu in the Wanni a monument for the Black Tigers who killed themselves in operations. A statement issued from its political headquarters in Mallavi in the Wanni said that the LTTE had conducted 147 suicide operati ons since 1987. However, this number did not include the suicide attacks carried out on non-military targets, such as politicians and economic infrastructure, in which civilians were killed or injured. The LTTE code prevents it from claiming responsibili ty for attacks on non-military persons such as Rajiv Gandhi, Premadasa, Dissanayake, and Ranjan Wijeratne, the Sri Lankan Minister of State for Defence. By adopting such a position, the LTTE seeks to project to the international community that it is a li beration movement that targets only military personnel, and not a terrorist group.

LTTE suicide bomber Dhanu, flowers in her hair, closing in on Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991.-

THE mindset of the LTTE suicide bomber is distinct from his or her West Asian counterpart. The LTTE suicide bomber is motivated by his or her politico-social environment as well as by the indoctrination carried out by the organisation. Prabakaran states: "With perseverance and sacrifice, Tamil Eelam can be achieved in 100 years. But if we conduct Black Tiger operations, we can shorten the suffering of the people and achieve Tamil Eelam in a shorter period of time."

The first LTTE suicide operation was conducted on July 5, 1987, to stall the advance of the Sri Lankan military to Jaffna town. It was not an LTTE cadre wearing a suicide body-suit, but a vehicle laden with explosives that was used. Wasanthan alias Capta in Millar volunteered to drive the vehicle bomb into the makeshift army camp in Nelliaddy. Although the suicide operation was not the reason to abort the mission to capture Jaffna, LTTE propaganda claimed that Captain Millar's success in killing 40 soldi ers in Nelliaddy frustrated the intentions of the Government to recapture the Tamil heartland. For some unknown reason, which perhaps security specialists will be able to analyse in the future, the LTTE did not conduct suicide operations during the IPKF period. But immediately after that it initiated a series of suicide attacks with the assassination of Wijeratne and Rajiv Gandhi in March and May 1991 respectively. These off-the-battlefield strikes were developed in Eelam War II, when the LTTE integrate d suicide bombers into its land and sea fighting forces.

The vulnerability of any group driven by ethnic nationalism to the use of the tactic of suicide terrorism is demonstrated in the Sri Lankan case. At a global level, suicide terrorism is driven not only by religious but also ethnic nationalism. In the lon g term, a higher number of ethnic communities are at risk of experiencing conflicts driven by ethnic nationalism. Only four per cent of the countries in the world have just one ethnic community. By understanding both the contexts of and the vulnerability of separatist groups to the use of suicide terrorism, the threat can be addressed proactively and comprehensively.

In this context, the Sri Lankan experience provides invaluable lessons because no other country has lost so many leaders in such a short time as Sri Lanka. Other than the loss of leaders, the country's national political, economic and cultural infrastruc ture has been damaged by suicide attacks. The LTTE deployed with deadly accuracy suicide bombers to destroy the Joint Operations Command, the nerve-centre of the Sri Lankan security forces; the Central Bank; the World Trade Centre; the Temple of the Toot h Relic, the most hallowed Buddhist shrine; and the oil storage installations in Kolonnawa. The LTTE used suicide bombers to kill a number of service personnel, apart from political leaders and outstanding intellectuals such as Neelan Thiruchelvam. Sri L ankan Navy chief Admiral Clancy Fernando was killed by a suicide bomber on a motor cycle soon after he returned from India after discussing Indo-Sri Lankan naval cooperation. Two officers engaged in the "hearts and minds" campaign, Brigade commander of t he Jaffna peninsula Brigadier Larry Wijeratne and Jaffna town commandant Brigadier Ananda Hamangoda, were killed in two independent suicide attacks. In order to paralyse the security apparatus, the LTTE singled out and targeted individuals who were at th e forefront of counter-insurgency operations. For instance, Chief Inspector Nilabdeen, the head of the anti-terrorism unit in a suburban police station, escaped with injuries but Razeek, a former Tamil militant who had been integrated into the Sri Lankan Army, was killed in May 1999.

IN most cases, the suicide bombers have succeeded in reaching their target through infiltration or following thorough reconnaissance. Security designed to deceive the LTTE rather than increase the protection of the target has helped save the lives of sev eral VIPs. Further, sound and timely intelligence has disrupted several LTTE cells in the south of the island. President Chandrika Kumaratunga survived at least four attempts to assassinate her when some of the operation leaders or cell members were arre sted or killed in premature explosions. For instance, a suicide bomber was arrested in Colombo, a reconnaissance team member was arrested in Vavuniya, and a lorry laden with explosives blew up prematurely in Galle on December 8, 1997. Similarly, three at tempts to kill General Aniruddha Ratwatte failed - a suicide bomber with a cart of coconuts prematurely blew up in Torrington on August 7, 1995; a bus laden with explosives meant for his vehicle blew up in Maradana on March 5, 1998; a female bomber in fr ont of the Prime Minister's office, who was aiming to target his vehicle, was interdicted on January 5, 2000.

The body of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, among other bodies at the blast site in Colombo where the LTTE set off a murderous blast on May 3, 1993.-

THE number of groups engaged in suicide operations has increased between the 1980s and the 1990s. The 1990s witnessed suicide strikes by the Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad in Israel; the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel, Panama and Argentina; the GIA in A lgeria; PKK in Turkey and Iraq; al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya, or Islamic Group of Egypt, in Pakistan and Croatia; and the LTTE in Sri Lanka and India. The 1980s witnessed suicide strikes by the Hezbollah, al-Da'aw (Islamic Action), al-Amal, the Syrian Sociali st Nationalist Party, the Ba'ath Party, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in Lebanon and Kuwait, and by the LTTE in Sri Lanka.

The concept of suicide terrorism was acquired by emulation or by the transfer of technology through group-to-group contact. The groups currently engaged in suicide terrorism have political, military and financial links with several other groups. As more guerilla and terrorist groups have become capable of carrying out suicide attacks in the 1990s than they were in the 1980s, it is likely that the threat of suicide terrorism will continue into the new century. Most suicide attacks in the 1980s were in pr e-existing theatres of conflict but their range of operation increased into neighbouring countries in the 1990s. For instance, a female suicide bomber of the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in Tamil Nadu in 1991.

The Hamas commenced its suicide bomb campaign in Israel in October 1993, after an abortive attack in June 1988. A Hezbollah suicide bomb destroyed the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish Community Centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in March 1992 and July 1994 respectively. A mid-air explosion on board an aircraft killed a suicide bomber and 20 others in Panama in July 1994. An affiliate of the IG of Egypt conducted suicide strikes at the police headquarters in Rijeka, Croatia, and the Egyptian Embassy in I slamabad in October and November 1995 respectively.

The LTTE, the Hezbollah, the Hamas and the PKK institutionalised indoctrination and physical training of volunteers in order to enhance the efficiency of the bomber. The threat of suicide bombings, previously confined to West Asia and South Asia, is like ly to spread to other areas with domestic governments increasingly denying these groups the use of their territories.

North American and Western European security and intelligence agencies assess suicide terrorism as a threat to Western security. Post-Cold War regional conflicts are witnessing both enhanced migration of displaced persons and their sustenance by fledglin g diaspora and ethnic communities. Under cover of such communities, the potential of a guerilla/terrorist group to employ a bomber to engage in long-range surveillance and strike a target in an "enemy" country is increasing. The increase in the potential of groups to penetrate and operate far away from the theatres of conflict can have implications for states hosting migrant refugee communities as well as those intervening in conflicts.

Suicide strikes have serious implications. Suicide attacks led to the withdrawal of the Multi-National Peacekeeping Force after the Hezbollah destroyed the headquarters of the United States Marines and the French paratroopers in Lebanon in October 1983; pre-empted the re-introduction of the IPKF into Sri Lanka after the LTTE assassinated the architect of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord, Rajiv Gandhi, in India; and temporarily stalled the peace process in West Asia after the Hamas targeted civilians in I srael throughout the 1990s. One suicide bomber can have a profound effect on the political, military and economic contexts, especially in peace-building situations. After the conflict-ravaged Jaffna peninsula held by the LTTE was recovered by the militar y in 1995, the ambitious rehabilitation and reconstruction programme was disrupted by a lone suicide bomber who killed the Town Commandant Brigadier Ananda Hamangoda (posthumously promoted as Major-General). Even for states with sophisticated militar y and intelligence apparatuses, suicide terrorism is hard to combat.

A 'death squad' of Palestinian terrorist group Hamas strikes a pose in this 1996 picture.-ESAIAS BAITEL/GAMMA

DEFENCE research by Israel, Sri Lanka, India and Turkey, states affected by suicide terrorism, has led to the development of human intelligence capability and other technical counter-measures. But there is no security or technical cooperation between the most affected states - Israel and Sri Lanka. Although there is security and intelligence cooperation between India and Sri Lanka, Israel and India, and Israel and Turkey, there is a lack of technical cooperation. The technologies for non-commercial, ind igenously developed electronic warfare counter-measures against terrorism are rarely shared even among friendly states. Current research by governments is largely confined to technically protecting land or sea targets from suicide attacks or preventing s uch attacks.

After nearly two decades of suicide terrorism, systematic research examining this phenomenon evades both the scholar and the analyst owing to a lack of intensive research into group dynamics as well as the political, military and socio-economic contexts that spawn and sustain suicide terrorism. For instance, widespread poverty and underdevelopment exist in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, southeastern Turkey, and northeastern Sri Lanka, which form the recruiting ground for a bulk of the suicide bombers. Da n Setton (director), Suicide Bombers: Secrets of the Shaheed, Cinemax Reel Life film, April 1998, states: "...Hamas extremists continue to preach their version of patriotism among the desperate and the poor."

Instead of regulating the environmental factors and group dynamics, states respond to the threat in different ways. For instance, Israel responds reactively to the effects of suicide terrorism by destroying the homes of the suicide bombers and prosec uting potential suicide bombers. As a result, suicide attacks have become more ruthless (targeting civilian targets), deceptive (using deep penetration) and daring (attacking multiple targets). As suicide attacks are planned and executed by compartmental ised cells, even a pragmatic military response, such as infiltration or "hardening" likely targets by stepping up protection, fails to guarantee security and offers no long-term solution. The extant criminal justice and prisons systems offer neither dete rrence nor rehabilitation to a politically motivated potential bomber. In Sri Lanka and in other states, the effectiveness of the state response to suicide terrorism has not been assessed. Similarly, no analysis has been conducted on the differing trends in the use of suicide terrorism. By comparing the evolution in technology, training and operational doctrine against state response over nearly two decades, likely trends can be identified.

There is a paucity of research on suicide terrorism in open as well as classified literature. Research on suicide terrorism has been confined to West Asia. An exception has been the work of the Indian forensic specialist, P. Chandrasekharan, who scientif ically proved that it was the suicide bomber Thenmuli Rajaratnam alias Dhanu who assassinated Rajiv Gandhi. Except for the Chandrasekharan study, and another study tracing the roots of the phenomenon to the Indian Ocean region, suicide terrorism as a pol itical and social phenomenon has not been researched in Asia.

In suicide terrorism, the aim of the psychologically and physically war-trained terrorist is to die while destroying the "enemy" target. Suicide as used in the appellation "suicide terrorism" does not imply suicide as a psychological or pathological situ ation or condition. Suicide terrorism is different from high-risk military operations where death is not certain and the perpetrator may survive the operation. In the spectrum of political violence, from the perspective of the perpetrator, suicide terror ism is the most violent form of expression.

Today law enforcement reports analyse the threat from potential bombers and their suicide devices, logistics and support network and modus operandi, and also identify them and their ideologues and device designers. By acquiring and comparatively a nalysing a wide range of data, a deeper understanding of the distinction between suicide and non-suicide terrorism must be gained. This is essential to evolve solutions to suicide terrorism. The underlying factors and conditions that drive suicide terror ism can help formulate long-range policies to break the cycle of violence. As a political and social phenomenon as well as a security threat, suicide terrorism is a least studied problem.

Dr. Rohan Gunaratna is the author of Sri Lanka's Ethnic Crisis and National Security.


THE security threat posed to India by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is on a par with the threat to the country from the numerous other terrorist groups, according to a recent Indian intelligence warning. The intelligence agencies have alert ed the Government of India about the impending threat from the LTTE. It has now been revealed that the LTTE, an organisation with long-term strategic goals, has developed contingency plans to target nuclear facilities in South India. The LTTE has planned to deploy a number of suicide squads armed with custom-designed improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to sabotage these facilities in the event of India stepping up military assistance to the Government of Sri Lanka, especially by reintroducting its troop s on Sri Lankan soil.

The recent debriefing of a senior LTTE leader by a foreign intelligence agency revealed that the LTTE had mounted surveillance on, built scale models of and developed operational plans to sabotage strategic targets in India. The LTTE's civil intelligence under Pottu Amman and its military and strategic adviser Wedi Dinesh were both instrumental in running a number of agents into India to gather details of these facilities. The intelligence gathered includes photographs of some of the facilities and deta ils of senior, middle-level, and junior staff of the Fuel Reprocessing Plant at Kalpakkam. The scale models of the targets were built by the map- and the model-making units of the LTTE's military and civil intelligence wings. The intelligence gathering w as coordinated by Janan Master, a senior intelligence wing leader, who was assigned to cover India. Janan Master, who was responsible for planning the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, is widely respected in LTTE circles. His presence in I ndia was clandestine even when other LTTE leaders and cadres engaged in "political and military" activities in the country.

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